Mother language-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in education are widely recognised as an important factor for inclusion and quality in education. According to the UNESCO Guidelines on Language and Education published in 2003, “Mother tongue instruction is essential for initial instruction and literacy and should be extended to as late a stage in education as possible”. Educating children in the same language as they speak at home greatly facilitates the learning process and provides a sound base for the more effective acquisition of global langugages – like English – in high school. It also improves prospects for social and professional integration.

This being said, countries differ substantially in their language policies from, for example, the Russian government’s refusal to legislate in favour of recognising other languages spoken in Russia other than Russian, to Guatemala, which officially recognises 24 languages and has implemented intercultural bilingual education reforms.

Both South Africa and Spain are multilingual countries, recognised as such by their respective Constitutions. A comparative perspective on how South Africa and Spain manage their challenges concerning minority languages and education illustrates that measures to promote language diversity can significantly vary from one country to another.

The main challenges for South Africa concerning education and minority languages lie in the partial compliance with legislation in force and the need for appropriate measures to guarantee language diversity in education. English is increasingly becoming the main language of instruction, to the detriment of African languages and Afrikaans.

In Spain, instruction in minority languages is only provided in those regions where such languages have an official status. This means, for example, that a Basque-speaking child cannnot receive instruction in Basque in a region other than the Basque Country and Navarre, where Basque and Spanish are both official languages. The debate on education and languages is ongoing in Spain, with some political tensions between central and regional governments.

By Ana Rio: intern, FW de Klerk Foundation

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