South Africa

Language and Literacy

Sarah Howie
Celeste Combrinck
Karen Roux
Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, University of Pretoria

Language and Literacy

South Africa is a diverse, multilingual, and multicultural society. The countryʼs Constitution recognizes 11 official spoken languages (prior to 1993, English and Afrikaans were the only two official languages in the country). Based on the 2011 census, there are 51.7 million South African citizens, of which the largest group (22 percent) speak isiZulu, followed by isiXhosa (16 percent) and Afrikaans (13 percent). The remaining eight languages (English, isiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga) are spoken by less than 10 percent of the population.1 In addition to the 11 official spoken languages, sign language, Tsotsitaal, Fanagalo, and the languages associated with the Khoisan population, such as !Xun and Kwedam, are recognized. International languages such as Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, French, German, Hebrew, Portuguese, Serbian, and Urdu are found across the country and also are examined nationally in secondary school exit examinations.

The Constitution of 1996 specifies that all children in South Africa have the right to be educated in their own language. The Department of Education’s Language-in-Education Policy, guided by the Constitution and the South African Schools Act, recommends that, wherever possible, the student’s first language be used for teaching and learning, especially in the Foundation Phase (Grades R to 3).a,2 A policy of multilingual education underpins the country’s education philosophy and, from Grade 3 onward, all students are expected to have one additional approved language as a subject. An additive bilingual model has been adopted with the underlying principle of maintaining home language(s) while providing access to and the effective acquisition of additional language(s). However, particularly in schools where the dominant first language is an African language, it is not standard practice that every student is educated in his or her first language. This is particularly difficult in high density urban areas where many languages coexist. By contrast, students may have a greater likelihood of being educated in their first language in rural areas, where a more monolingual environment exists.

Language of instruction issues are further complicated at the end of the Foundation Phase because the current Language-in-Education Policy requires that English be the language of curriculum and instruction from Grade 4 onward. Planned alterations to the policy include a proposed amendment to extend home language education for another two years, to the end of Grade 5.3

  • a For more information about Grade R, or the “reception year,” see the section Overview of the Education System.