Department of Sport, Arts and Culture Celebrates International Mother Language Day

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21 Feb 2021

The Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC), in partnership with the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) and the National Library of South Africa (NLSA), joins the world in celebration of International Mother Language Day on the 21st of February 2021 under the theme, “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society”.

The celebration aims to highlight the importance of indigenous languages and to inspire all South Africans, including those with special needs, to promote, preserve and protect all South African languages.

The United Nations, through UNESCO, declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day (IMLD) to commemorate the day in 1952 when four students of the Bengali Language Movement in Bangladesh were killed during demonstrations for the recognition of their mother tongue as an official language. International Mother Language Day is used to create awareness and appreciation for cultural and linguistic diversity around the world.  

On the 19 February 2021 the Deputy Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Ms Nocawe Mafu, was joined by a panel of language experts comprising PanSALB Acting Executive Head: Languages, Ms Nikiwe Matebula, social cohesion advocate Dr Rajendran Govender, and language experts Prof. Russel Kaschula from the University of the Western Cape, Dr Johannes Rammala from the University of Limpopo, and Dr Joyce Sukumane (an independent consultant) in hosting an event at the Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History to celebrate the day. The celebration was activated with a robust virtual discussion under the theme of IMLD 2021.

Addressing those in attendance, Deputy Minister Mafu said, “uTata Rolihlahla Mandela, our former statesman, once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” This resonates with the primary objective of this day, which is to promote and encourage the use of their mother language by all citizens, and to reach and influence them for their betterment and our society’s progress - especially in the domains of education, science and technology.”

A language is indispensable to its speakers, especially to those people who are affected by the possible extinction of their mother tongues. Therefore, it is crucial that any attempt at empowering them in whatever form, must be through the language they speak and understand.

It is for this reason that we as South Africans participate in the annual celebration of the International Mother Language Day, or IMLD as it has become known. IMLD has been observed annually across the world since 2000 to promote awareness of mother languages, multilingualism, and cultural diversity.

In keeping with this year's theme, “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society", UNESCO’s intention is to promote multilingual education to improve learning outcomes and give life to cultural diversity.

Mother-tongue education in South Africa remains a major issue that the nation should discuss. It is very important that our children should be able to receive education in their mother tongue, if parents and their children wish to do so. Government is hard at work in ensuring that the standard written forms of our indigenous languages are developed to the point where they can carry academic discourse effectively and can function as fully-fledged languages of learning and teaching.

As part of government's undertaking to develop the African languages, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture annually offers the opportunity for school-going learners to further their education in the preservation of our indigenous languages through bursaries to students studying courses in translation and terminography. Furthermore, PanSALB is involved in promoting projects aimed at the development of spelling and orthography rules to standardize our official languages.

The government regards publishing in the mother tongue as one of the ways of preserving the language for the future. It is for this reason that the Department is working towards the establishment of the South African Language Practitioners’ Council to ensure that credible editors and proof-readers are trained to assist in producing work of good quality. All South Africans will then receive quality work done in their mother languages.

Efforts are currently underway to preserve one of the endangered languages, N/uu, through the production of an audio-visual dictionary called The Talking Dictionary in collaboration with one of its last speakers, Queen Ouma Katrina Esau. PanSALB has finalised the first draft of the newly developed Nama Spelling & Orthography Rules, a process that will have a positive impact on the development of the Nama language.

Furthermore, PanSALB recently launched the South African Sign Language Charter, which not only deals with issues of access to information and services for the Deaf Community but is also aimed at regulating the standard and quality of learning provided for the development of South African Sign Language. The Charter also makes provision for the promotion of high-quality teaching of South African Sign Language.

All our programmatic interventions in upholding the promotion, preservation and protection of our indigenous languages are embedded in this principle: respect for linguistic and cultural diversity is important because this will ensure that everyone is able to participate fully and access learning opportunities available through a language that will allow any South African to thrive in their chosen field.

The education system should never exclude anyone based on the language a person speaks and nobody should be an outcast in society because they do not speak a language considered “correct”.

For media enquiries:

Ms. Zimasa Velaphi, Chief Director: Marketing and Communication (DSAC)

072 172 8925/email:

Issued by the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture