South Africa’s mother tongue education challenge

In addressing the challenges of finding a balance between mother tongue and standard English education, Carol Bloch from Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa argues that “unless conditions are appropriate, it is very difficult to learn a foreign language well enough to learn through it.”

mother tongue education
A high school class in Sinenjongo High School, Joe Slovo Park, Cape Town. “Children bring all they know to school in their home language, and they need to be able to use this strength to learn another language as well as other new knowledge and skills,” says Carol Bloch from the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa. (Image: Wikipedia)

Melissa Jane Cook

Mother tongue education is a sore point with South Africans, teachers and officials, with two main perspectives prevailing.

One camp believes that the key to resolving South Africa’s education crisis is to radically improve education and training for teachers, specifically language teachers, whether they teach Afrikaans, an indigenous South African language or English.

The second camp shares this view but also believes that African-language speaking children have to drop their mother tongue or home language too soon, and learn in a language they do not understand. They therefore struggle to learn concepts, how to read and write and to learn English.

The head of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (Needu) at the Department of Education, Dr Nick Taylor, has called for reading to become a national priority in schools.

He says, “The country’s failing education system is embedded in teachers who can’t teach and largely do not have a grasp of the curriculum, which is the fundamental problem.”

Taylor says that the Needu National Report 2012, containing research conducted in urban and rural areas, shows that it is “quite clear that most of our teachers can’t teach reading and pupils are not taught to read independently because most teachers do not know how to teach these skills”.

At the Curriculum and Transformation Conference, held at the University of South Africa on 13 October 2013, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga said that training and providing teachers to all districts and schools was a priority.

“The national department has released a national reading programme for Grades R to 12 … to strengthen reading and literacy outcomes at classroom and school level.”

Promoting literacy

Literacy rates are also a problem; the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study scores from 2011 revealed that South African Grade 5 students scored on average 80 points below the 500 point international average for Grade 4 learners. This is an international test in which 49 countries participate.

“A shift is needed in the attitudes of parents and teachers in order to develop and promote teaching in mother tongue languages at schools in South Africa”, says Professor Thabisile Buthelezi, head of the School of Education Studies at the University of KwaZulu- Natal.

She adds that implementing the Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT) policy has been slow at the foundation phase due to setbacks and challenges. “These include parent perceptions that their children are given higher status if admitted to study at schools where the LOLT is English; limited resources and skilled teachers to teach mother tongue languages; poor attitudes among teachers who believe teaching in mother tongue languages would lead to institutional racism; school governing bodies (SGBs) taking unilateral decisions on English being the LOLT at schools and school principals encouraging parents to promote English as the language of learning and teaching to increase learner enrolment.”

Buthelezi believes it is important for SGBs to be supportive of teaching in mother tongue languages. “School governing bodies need to change their attitudes towards teaching in mother tongue languages. Transformation in the demographics of both teachers and SGBs must take place. The Department of Education (DoE) has an important role to enforce the language policy.”

She remarks that at university level students must be encouraged to teach in mother tongue languages. There are few teachers trained to teach in these languages because they don’t have the enthusiasm to do so.

“The teachers in schools are not incompetent, but they don’t have the necessary resources and the support structure at Early Childhood Development (ECD) level which needs to be addressed by the DoE”.

Dr Carole Bloch, director at The Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) at the University of Cape Town, says that the common situation for decades has been for all children to learn in their mother tongue for the first three years of school. In Grade 4, African language-speaking children have to switch to English despite the country’s constitution supporting and promoting multilingualism. The 1997 new Language in Education Policy (LIEP) promoted “additive bilingualism” as the most effective way to use languages for learning.

According to Bloch, research from around the world has shown that it takes longer than three years to fully learn a language and the best option is for children to learn through a language they know well for the first six years at school. At the same time, English can be introduced as a subject, and it can gradually be used as a co-teaching medium. This gives children the best of both worlds. Additional languages can then be taught from sound foundations.

“Children bring all they know to school in their home language, and they need to be able to use this strength to learn another language as well as other new knowledge and skills. Unless conditions are appropriate, it is very difficult to learn a foreign language well enough to learn through it,” states Bloch.

Bloch says that there is very little will to implement the policy, therefore, just three years of mother tongue is the norm.

“Many teachers don’t know how to teach English as a subject nor can they speak well enough to be effective role models of the language. It is imperative that the children interact with people who know the language.

“For kids to learn to read and write they need adult role models and literary role models – this creates motivation and a desire to learn.”

Bloch initiated the Nal’ibali National Reading for Enjoyment campaign, to develop a love of reading among children, by connecting adults and children through telling and reading stories in English and African languages. Nal’ibali is supported by PRAESA and Times Media, amongst others.

Through sustained mentoring and collaboration with communities, reading clubs, literacy organisations and volunteers, and a vibrant media campaign, Nal’ibali is “helping to root a culture of literacy into the fabric of everyday life in South Africa”.

Motshekga says that to strengthen the curriculum and sustain the achievements made in education, the Department of Education is preparing to incrementally introduce African languages in schools.

“We’ve planned for this and we will start with a pilot in 2014 in grades R and 1 with 10 schools in each of the 86 education districts.”

In addition, she says that they are also strengthening the teaching of English as a first additional language. The emphasis will be on the importance of prioritising teaching and developing mother tongue languages.

“Last year government passed a very important piece of legislation; the Use of Official Languages Act, 2012. The objects of the Act are to: regulate and monitor the use of official languages for government purposes by national government; promote parity of esteem and equitable treatment of official languages of the Republic; facilitate equitable access to services and information of national government; promote good language management by national government for efficient public service administration and to meet the needs of the public,” says Sibusiso Nkosi, manager for communications and promotions at the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB).

He says provincial governments are developing their own Acts and that, “through debates, whether television, radio or conference, you will always get an opposing view that English is the way (monolingual) and the development of African languages (multilingualism) is a waste of resources, so this is something we experience and know”.

The Department of Basic Education is preparing to implement African language teaching in 2014; it has already been phased in at selected schools in each province.

“Those opposing this plan are saying that there aren’t enough teachers or material to support this initiative. Of course, these are just pretexts to derail this plan from being implemented. Key steps, as outlined by ministers Chabane and Manuel indicated that the Presidency and National Treasury are working with departments to ensure sufficient resources are vested towards the success of this initiative. Monitoring and evaluation will be used to identify obstacles to implementation, to facilitate reflection on what works, and to continuously improve implementation,” says Nkosi.

The Pan South African Language Board is producing dictionaries in all indigenous African languages to support teaching and learning indigenous languages.

Independent African language media

Nkosi says that Isolezwe, a Zulu newspaper owned by the Independent Group, is one of the most successful newspapers within the group. As a result Sekunjalo, Independent Newspapers’s new owners, is investigating the paper’s success, aiming to introduce newspapers in other African languages.

The Sunday Times is published in Zulu in areas across South Africa. The PanSALB lauds the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) delivering national news in African languages and acknowledges that broadcaster e.tv, through its new satellite channels, will offer news in African languages.

IsiZulu will be a compulsory course for all first year students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal from next year. All the above socio-economic factors are indicating that change is coming. In the next few years, our African languages will enjoy parity of esteem and equitable treatment. This democratically elected government has shown willingness to protect and preserve our languages,” says Nkosi.

Dr Malcolm Venter, a language and education consultant, says that all 11 languages are used, but mainly at home. “Some of the major African languages have some literature – mainly folktales – but no huge amount of literature. In fact, teachers sometimes have to write their own passages for comprehension tests.”

Jonathan Jansen, rector at the University of the Free State, in an article for the Mail and Guardian newspaper strongly stated that, “If our children are to stand tall, they must master the language used to exclude them.”

Professor Jansen believes that “while English is necessary to bring about effective transformation, English itself — and the entitled culture of its curators — must also be transformed.”

“Black parents prefer to have their children study in English. No matter what politicians might say about indigenous education, or the Pan South African Language Board about language rights, black parents make the correct calculation that virtually the entire economy is now organised on English terms and therefore the chances of success are much greater in the colonial language.”

He adds that English is the language of choice in schools because indigenous languages are poorly taught. “This is where a major miscalculation occurs on the part of language activists: simply learning in your mother tongue is absolutely no guarantee of improved learning gains in school.”

“The problem is not the language of instruction — it is the quality of teaching, the knowledge of curriculum and the stability of the school that determines educational chances in a black school,” remarks the professor.

His long-term resolution is to instruct every teacher and every child in English from the first day of school, rather than worsening the burden of poor mother tongue instruction in the foundation years and the traumatic transition to English later on.

Trilingual South Africans

Laurence Wright, editor of South Africa’s Education Crisis: Views from the Eastern Cape, wrote that, “The country’s existing language dispensation brings with it a number of challenges for language education and especially for the rural language teacher. South Africa’s excellent Language in Education Policy is one of additive multilingualism, and it is designed to produce citizens who are trilingual. When they finish school, learners should be proficient in their home language and in a second language, as well as having a sound knowledge of an additional language. For most South Africans, the second language will be English, while the additional language might be Afrikaans, or another African language of South Africa, or a foreign language. The policy is achievable and socially enlightened.”

Wright elaborates, saying that there is little doubt that the formative skills and habits of reading and writing are best tackled without the additional cognitive burden of having to do so in a “foreign” language. He believes that children need to build confidence and expertise in home language literacy before beginning the transfer to another language. Secondly, he adds, it is also widely accepted that as many as six or seven years of learning may be required before an additional language is sufficiently familiar and internalised to be viable as a language of learning .

“In a properly functioning school system, language education requires only three essential inputs for success: well-educated, well-trained teachers; state-of-the-art textbooks; and adequate school facilities, such as stationery, classrooms and well-stocked libraries. Other resources may be desirable, but these three inputs are all that is absolutely necessary. Of the three, language teachers’ systemic education and professional development is by far the most important,” says Wright

“Given proper language education, we can indeed produce a nation of fluent trilinguals; people who not only speak three languages, but who can read and write in these languages and translate freely between them. These fortunate individuals will have access to our rich cultural heritage, in three languages, and the power to act effectively in the modern world, in three languages.”

Wrights states that multilingualism is a fortunate reality in South Africa, and through re-educating language teachers and upgrading their pedagogical knowledge and skills, the country will gradually see the social benefits of our language policies.

Motshekga concludes that teachers have the potential to drive the collective vision of a transformed and transforming education system and that this will build a richer linguistic future for the country.

For more background information on this article, please contact the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa.

Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.