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International Mother Language Day: Being a part of the story

February 21, 2022

Literacy South Africa

New Copy with Callout

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Cassava Republic Publishers in Nigeria once said, “many African children grow up without ever having seen, let alone owned, beautiful, well-illustrated books which inspire them to a life of reading, beauty, learning and curiosity for the world."

Reflecting on the importance of reading in indigenous languages, Muthise Bulani, former Communications Officer at Room to Read South Africa, points out that, “Growing up, having books, let alone owning them, was a distant dream. The few that did manage to trickle down to us were about little girls called Tatiana with long silky hair who spoke in English, in faraway places covered in snow wanting to be ballet dancers. In my little corner of the world, it was hot and humid, covered with mango trees and the sweet smell of salt from the ocean. My world had chickens, ducks and cows who gave us fresh milk every day. There was nothing wrong with Tatiana or her dreams, but I wished to also read about Lerato, what animals she had and if they lived close to the sea as well. I wanted to read about the different-sized mangoes they had and if they were bigger than ours.”


Many people born on the African continent can identify with Muthise’s story. Countless people across many African countries have seen the lack of representation of their indigenous languages and cultures. Room to Read understands the importance of representation and that is why we are committed to helping children experience the joy of reading stories that feature characters just like themselves.

One example of Room to Read’s commitment to indigenous languages is the Results in Education for All Children (REACH) Project funded by the World Bank. Although some languages in South Africa enjoy protection from the Constitution, many indigenous languages are under-represented. South Africa has 11 official languages and at least 35 indigenous languages, with English speakers comprising only eight percent of the population. Between 2017 and 2019, through partnerships with the government, NGOs, academic institutions and local publishers, the REACH project focused on five under-served languages (IsiZulu, Sepedi, Xitsonga, Siswati and Tshivenda) across the country. The REACH project worked with five publishers to create four original storybooks in each of the languages for a total of 20 unique stories. These stories were translated across the five languages to produce a total of 100 storybooks. The 20 stories were also translated into English. These books were then printed and distributed to children across three South African provinces, and others were sold at a low cost.


Room to Read Research Officer Nhluvuko Nkonwana says, “Teaching children to read and write in their mother languages has many benefits. For me, the most important benefit is that it preserves their language and culture. Children may choose career paths that drive them away from their indigenous homes, which limits the time they spend speaking and writing in their mother language. Despite this, one never forgets their mother language if taught well.”

“Room to Read’s work contributes to helping children learn reading more quickly in the languages they are most familiar with. Our work also preserves languages by developing quality reading materials for children in their mother tongues so they can enjoy books at an early age and develop a habit of reading.” Nhluvuko Nkonwana, Room to Read Research Officer

The REACH project increased the supply of local language books in three provinces. In addition to distributing more than 46,000 copies to public schools and more than 16,000 to the public, the project also trained local publishers on best practices and guidelines for creating quality books and ensuring the continuation of local language storybooks.

“The biggest advantage to students learning in their mother language is that it makes it easier for them to pick up and learn other languages. For example, when they learn English as a second language, they refer to their mother language to understand English words. Learning in your indigenous language also helps to develop a cultural identity, critical thinking and literacy skills as well as build self-esteem. Children learning in their mother language become strong independent readers because they read with meaning and understanding. Room to Read plays a vital role in ensuring this through their reading activities that are conducted both in the classroom and library using books written in indigenous languages,” said Velenkosi Mlondo, a Room to Read Literacy Coach.