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Multilingual Education
A special session at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Conference

Abstract for "Steps Forward and New Challenges: Mother Tongue Education in Southern Africa"

Jennifer Hays
State University of New York-Albany

Two international conferences held in southern Africa in 2005 emphasized the pressing need for greater attention to mother tongue education in Africa. The Regional Mother Tongue Conference, held in Gaborone, Botswana, and the Regional Conference on Bilingual Education and the Use of Local Languages in the African Education Systems, held in Windhoek, Namibia, both gathered education and language experts to discuss practical, theoretical and political aspects of the development of African languages for education. Despite the diversity of the participants, there was unanimous agreement that the economic and social benefits of providing mother-tongue education far outweigh the costs. Furthermore, the predominant view was that mother-tongue education in minority languages should be seen as valuable in its own right and not merely as a bridge to the dominant language, and that it should continue beyond the first few years of schooling.

These meetings represent a major step forwards, ushering the movement towards mother-tongue education into a new phase of priority and collaboration. With this new phase come new challenges, however. As the movement towards mother-tongue education gains steam, and as national governments, local and global NGOs, and international donors get on board, we must remain attuned to the need for projects that are flexible, process-oriented, and firmly embedded in the communities they aim to serve. Using an innovative mother-tongue education project in Namibia as a case study, this paper highlights some important considerations and potential pitfalls.