Language is more than a collection of words. For many people, particularly those who live in a country as diverse as ours, language is an expression of culture. Apart from helping to foster feelings of group identity and belonging, it’s also the means by which age-old traditions and shared values are conveyed and preserved.
According to the United Nations, a language disappears every two weeks. You read that correctly. Every 14 days, a language vanishes off the face of the planet, and takes with it centuries of tradition and folklore. While the situation in South Africa is nowhere near as dire, there’s still plenty cause for concern. In 2018, research found that 78% of South African pupils could not read with understanding in their mother tongue. If this trend continues, our indigenous languages will eventually suffer the same ill fate as many other forgotten dialects.
One of the simplest ways to preserve language is to cultivate a love of reading in children. As the heirs of indigenous languages, children need exposure to a range of books to stimulate a love of reading, especially in their home language. But according to Stats SA’s General Household Survey, almost 50% of parents have never read a book to their child. Considering the fact that South Africa’s Language in Education Policy emphasises the importance of literacy in the mother tongue, the need to provide parents with books written in indigenous languages becomes even more apparent.
Wimpy is known as the go-to restaurant to enjoy every moment, but they’re equally as passionate about talking local as they are about serving the finest burgers. That’s why they’ve partnered with Ethnikids: an initiative founded by five moms who create children’s books in various local languages. Their goal is to provide diverse literature featuring characters of colour that South African children can relate to.
Refiloe Moahloli, author of How the Elephants Saved Summer, emphasised the importance of local children’s stories.
“It is important that children see themselves in the stories they consume, so they can identify and celebrate themselves. It is a way to reinforce that they matter,” Moahloli said.
Dr Sindiwe Magona, author of Monkey & Crocodile, echoed Moahloli’s sentiments, saying it was of the utmost importance for children to read stories they can relate to.
“They come to the world with no knowledge and these stories help to build their aspirations, hopes, and dreams. Words are building materials to help little people grow. Knowledge comes to them through words,” said Magona.
As part of their partnership with Wimpy, Ethnikids reimagined African folktales and worked with local authors and illustrators to make their stories come alive. Six books were written, each with a piece of the South African flag on the back of the book. Once all six are collected, they can be assembled into a full South African flag, one of the most recognisable symbols of our country’s cultural diversity. To get kids started on the road to mother-tongue literacy, parents can play live recordings of the stories, which are read by the authors and hosted here. The books can be read in all 11 official languages on Wimpy’s website.
Stories do so much more than teach literacy: They widen a child’s imagination by introducing new ideas into their world and making the everyday seem incredible. The experience is even more magical when it’s done in a language that a child has known all their lives. At first glance, fostering a love for indigenous storytelling and local languages seems impossible, especially in a society that’s moving closer and closer to Westernisation. But with the right resources, it’s something you might find to be a whole lot more fun and fulfilling than you ever imagined.