The UNESCO meeting of specialists on the use of vernacular languages in education in 1951 (UNESCO ), whose report was published in 1953, is easily and understandably cited as an incipient point in the discourse on MTE. Since then, a lot of research has been done on MTE and literature on the subject abounds. Reviews of this literature can be found in a sizeable percentage of works that tackle the subject of MTE. It is not the purpose of the current overview to replicate these reviews. Rather, this overview seeks to outline the dominant themes in the discourse on MTE. In doing so, the following discussion attempts to propose a taxonomy that captures the width and breadth of the discourse on MTE as embedded in the literature. The discussion adopts the critical, post-structuralist view of discourse as ‘ways of understanding and constructing the social world’ (Martin-Jones and De Mejia ), p. xiii. For the purposes of this discussion, the dominant discourses in MTE can be identified as the historiographical/comparative discourse; the pedagogics/didactics discourse; the policy discourse; the human rights/social justice discourse; and the development discourse. These discourses are briefly elaborated in the following discussion.
One of the dominant discourses in MTE is what can be characterised as the historiographical/comparative discourse. From the perspective of historiographical discourse, MTE carries the burden of history and is cognisant of this. The historiographical discourse seeks to locate MTE within historical space. In doing so, it depicts MTE as always being alive to the historical circumstances in which it has evolved; and as being a contributor to the historical circumstances in different polities. This discourse underlines the linking of MTE with state formation, where the entrenchment of MTE in a country’s education system is conceptualised as one of the key mechanisms of consolidating the nation state. This view has been especially dominant in the Western conceptualisation of the inextricable relationships between language and the nation state and the role of education in socialisation, usually within a ‘unilingual’ state. The emergence of multiculturalism has tended to challenge this perspective, but not to replace it. In the West, multiculturalism is strongly associated with a growing realisation of the unintended social and cultural consequences of large-scale immigration. It is a term associated in principle with the values of equality, tolerance, and inclusiveness toward migrants of ethnically different backgrounds. From this perspective, multiculturalism is a social doctrine that distinguishes itself as a positive alternative for policies of assimilation, connoting recognition of the citizenship rights and cultural identities of ethnic minority groups and, more generally, an affirmation of the value of cultural diversity (Kymlycka ). It is noteworthy that multiculturalism is a defining feature in the former colonised world. In this part of the world, multiculturalism is a way of life and not an unintended social and cultural consequence of large-scale immigration. The historiographical discourse on MTE in the former colonised world takes cognisance of the disruptive nature of colonialism and colonial languages to the education systems of former colonial polities – with polities defined as autonomous nation-states with specific and entrenched forms of government. It uses the disruptive logic of colonialism and colonial languages as a basis to argue for the recognition and promotion of indigenous languages in education in these polities. In advancing the case for MTE in these former colonial polities, the historiographical discourse traces the historical circumstances attendant to the creation of different nation states and the impact of these historical circumstances on MTE; while acknowledging the pervasive multiculturalism and accompanying multilingualism in these polities and the primacy of diversity in creating viable nation states.
Closely related to the historiographical discourse in MTE is the comparative discourse. This discourse seeks to compare MTE regimes in different polities; and in the process identifies the challenges attendant to actualising MTE as well as identifying success stories. In this comparative endeavour, this discourse is alive to the dialectics of history and MTE in different polities. This discourse is anchored on a need to identify and consolidate an inventory of what works and what does not work in MTE, while remaining cognisant of the peculiar circumstances in different polities. This discourse seeks to use both what works and what does not work for MTE as signposts for the actualisation of MTE across polities.
The pedagogic-didactic discourse underlines much of MTE philosophising. In more general terms, the study of education is called pedagogics. However, specifically, pedagogics entails “a study of the phenomena of pedagogy, where pedagogy means the education of a child by a responsible adult person” (Harmse ), p. 13. As a part-discipline of pedagogics, “didactics is scientific reflection centring on educative teaching-learning acts in the school and the related aspects such as didactic principles (teaching principles), teaching and learning materials (knowledge) development and teaching methods” (Duminy and Sohnge ), p. 22. Among general didactic principles, which include totality, individualisation, interest and motivation, perception, environmental teaching, and selection, mother-tongue teaching features prominently. For children, language provides the power to start, in a much more efficient and differentiated way, a dialogue with their world, and also with the people in their world. Through mother tongue, a child gains a whole cultural heritage, which will, to a large extent, determine his further thinking, feelings, desires and attitudes.
The pedagogic-didactic discourse argues for the primacy of mother tongue in teaching and learning. However, the link between the role of mother tongue in teaching and learning is not a simple and straightforward one. At the beginning of a school career, a child still has a relatively limited knowledge of mother tongue. A child may know enough of the language for his/her own needs at that stage, but ahead lies a great deal of hard work – not only in his/her mother tongue, but also on his mother tongue as a subject. It is only through purposeful and systematic teaching that the linguistic efficiency and skill brought from home can be heightened and extended. The logic of the primacy of mother tongue in teaching and learning is premised on the understanding that mother tongue is the most effective vehicle or carrier of all other things that the child is expected to learn from school. Further, mother tongue is also the basis upon which all other learning is anchored. As Duminy and Sohnge (), p. 57 observe:
When language formation is not up to standard, one cannot expect much from the teaching-learning setting. First, the necessary foundation of language formation must be present, and this foundation can never be better laid than within the sphere of the mother tongue. Training in the mother tongue enables the socio-emotional life of the child to unfold smoothly, and at the same time helps the child towards independent and logical thinking.
Policy, especially public policy, underlies much of the research and writing around MTE. Public policy is defined as “a long series of more or less related choices, including decisions not to act, made by governmental bodies and officials” (Dunn , p. 46). According to Van Der Waldt (), pp. 87 – 88:
Policy is larger than a decision. A policy usually involves a series of more specific decisions, sometimes in a rational sequence. Even when the sequence is more erratic, a policy is typically generated by interactions among many, more or less consciously related, decisions. The study of a policy usually involves tracing multiple interactions among many individuals, many groups, and many institutions. Policy also involves action as well as inaction. In other words, policy makers may fail to act and/or take deliberate decisions not to act. Policy as inaction is, however, more difficult to pin down and analyse than policy as action, since it involves perceived behaviour and intent. Policy can be seen as the overarching concept, whilst legislation or acts, regulations, and instructions can be seen as purpose- and process-specific derivatives of public policy.
Underpinned by policy discourse, much of MTE research and literature has preoccupied itself with the following:
A description of policies, often language-in-education policies, which inform MTE in many a polity.
A description of the factors that underlie MTE policies in different polities.
A prescriptive rendition of what should be the best MTE policy for different polities.
A bemoaning of the lack of appropriate MTE policies in different polities.
A singular failure of MTE research and literature which is premised on the policy discourse has been the lack of recognition of the political nature of public policy. In many polities, the political infrastructure is controlled by the elites. Unless it further serves the entrenchment of their power, elites do not implement policies that seek to undercut their power. Inasmuch as the foregoing is the rule of the thump everywhere, it is more apparent in the developing world. In these polities, elites [who are often a creation of an educational, economic and political system premised on Western values] often use mother tongue for political mobilisation, but revert back to other languages, especially Western languages, for the business of governance. In exceptional cases where elites agitate for MTE, as is the case with the Afrikaner elite in South Africa, it is because the educational, political and economic fortunes of these elite are inextricably tied to their mother tongue. Regrettably, to many developing world elite, mother tongue does not feature in the project of modernising their countries. The masses in the developing world also view mother tongue with suspicion – as a way of confining them to the lower echelons of educational, political and economic achievement. This is a sad state of affairs, but it is the case. To reverse this trend in the developing world, there is need for MTE research that understands the intricacies of public policy processes that underpin MTE with the view of illustrating that MTE does not necessarily undermine the power of the elites, but rather serves the greater good of preparing the active citizens in a modernising democratic state.
Human rights/social justice discourse
The idea of human rights is one of the most powerful in contemporary social and political discourse. It seeks to overcome divisiveness and sectarianism and to unite people of different cultural and religious traditions in a single movement asserting human values and the universality of humanity, at a time when such values are seen to be under threat from the forces of economic globalisation and religious fanaticism. The idea of human rights, by its very appeal to universally applicable ideas of the values of humanity, seems to resonate across cultures and traditions and represents an important rallying cry for those seeking to bring about a more just, peaceful and sustainable world (Ife ).
An important aspect in classifying any claim as a human right is that anything classified as a human right has priority over other claims of right. To make a claim on the basis of human rights, the following criteria must be met:
Realisation of the claimed right is necessary for a person or group to be able to achieve their full humanity, in common with others.
The claimed right is seen either as applying to all of humanity, and is something that the person or group claiming the right wishes to apply to all people anywhere, or as applying to people from specific disadvantaged or marginalised groups for whom realisation of that right is essential to their achieving their full human potential.
There is substantial universal consensus on the legitimacy of the claimed right; it cannot be called a ‘human right’ unless there is widespread support for it across cultural and other divides.
It is possible for the claimed right to be effectively realised for all legitimate claimants. This excludes rights to things that are in limited supply.
The claimed right does not contradict other rights (Ife ), pp. 10 – 11.
The above criteria have largely framed the human rights discourse in MTE. MTE is claimed as being necessary for a person or a group (especially the minorities and the marginalised) to be able to achieve their full humanity, in common with others. MTE is also seen as applying to all humanity and it is desired for all people anywhere and everywhere. Further, the human rights discourse in MTE holds the view that MTE is essential for people from the minorities and the marginalised to achieve full human potential. Proponents of the human rights discourse in MTE have been able to mobilise support to the extent that there is substantial universal consensus on the legitimacy of MTE as a human right. They further argue that with proper institutional support, especially from governments, it is possible for MTE as a human right to be realised for all legitimate claimants, especially at the foundational years of education; and that the right to MTE does not contradict other rights.
Closely related to the human rights discourse in MTE is the social justice discourse. Essentially social justice relates to the principle that every effort should be made to ensure that individuals and groups all enjoy fair access to rewards. It is about creating a more equitable, respectful and just society for everyone. However, social justice is not necessarily about equality. It can be about providing equal opportunities to access an unequal reward structure. In a society committed to the ideals of social justice, it is recognised that fair treatment and equal opportunities for everyone can only be brought about by imposing restrictions on the behaviour of some individuals or groups (Furlong and Cartmel ), pp. 3 – 4. From a social justice discourse perspective, MTE is a way of ensuring individuals and groups enjoy fair access to education in a manner that is equitable, respectful and just for everyone.
Another compelling discourse in MTE is the development discourse, both in its traditional nuance that conceptualised development as ‘modernisation’ and the contemporary nuance of development as ‘human development’. Modernisation posited that all societies’ progress in a linear fashion from a traditional state to modernity, with models of development based on historical processes that had taken place in the industrialised world. Historically, modernisation is the process of change towards those types of social, economic and political systems that have developed in Western and North America from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth and have spread to other European countries and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the South American, Asian and African continents. To the newly independent nations of the Third World, it held out the promise of a guided transition to the state of developed industrial society. This perspective embodies a simplistic dichotomy between the traditional and the modern, with modernisation depicted as the process of moving from the former to the latter (Haines ). According to UNDP (), pp. 15–16:
Human development can simply be seen as a process of enlarging choices. Every day, human beings make a series of choices – some economic, some social, some political, some cultural. If people are the proper focus of development efforts, then these efforts should be geared to enhancing the range of choices in all areas of human endeavour for every human being. Human development is both a process and an outcome. It is concerned with the process through which choices are enlarged, but it also focuses on the outcomes of enhanced choices. Human development thus defined represents a simple notion, but one with far-reaching implications. Development of the people involves building human capacities through the development of human resources. Development for the people implies that the benefits of growth must be translated into the lives of people, and development by the people emphasises that people must be able to participate actively in the processes that shape their lives.
The traditional nuance of development as ‘modernisation’ explains why in many polities in the developing world MTE is only for the first few years of schooling before transition to education in other languages, usually western languages. Within this framework, MTE is conceptualised as being a simplistic but necessary precursor of education in western languages. This orientation to development which informs many an education system in the developing world accounts for the crises of MTE in developing world polities. Human development on its part accounts for the renewed interest in MTE in many polities in the developing world. MTE is conceptualised as an integral part of enlarging people’s choices within and outside the education system.