An emotional issue

2010-02-03 00:00

I REFER to the article in The Witness of January 13 by Mandla Mthethwa titled “Tool of exploitation: the use of mother tongue in education is overdue”. I read Mthethwa’s arguments for the mother tongue as a medium of instruction with great interest and at times, regrettably, with alarm.

It is not the first such article that I have read, and each time articles of this nature send shivers down the spine. They contain both pedagogical and moral implications: pedagogical because the educational imperatives are severe, and moral because first they impact tremendously on the life chances of individuals and second, on the future of the nation. Worse, the debate occurs within South Africa’s highly charged atmosphere where emotion usually supersedes rational thinking. Does one put patriotism before reason, or pragmatism before idealism?

Before one addresses these issues let us revisit Mthethwa’s article. Four of the developed countries that Mthethwa cites — England, France, Germany and Russia — evolved almost simultaneously from a common Latino-Germanic culture and follow almost identical historical paths of development from agrarian-pastoral to mass industrial societies. What is also significant in their educational and cultural evolution is that they were contemporaries from the dark ages through the Renaissance to the modern era. Therefore, language and concept development occurred simultaneously across the European nations.

One has to remember that words follow objects and concepts, and not vice versa. The word microscope or mirror follows the objective items and so do the concepts democracy and cognition. This is where amateurish translations become problematic, for in the absence of conceptual equivalents, translated texts can do more harm than good. This is particularly so in the context of education and research where nuances, subtleties and exactness hold the keys to analytical profundity. In a sense, therefore, Mthethwa’s article overlooks these factors. While it is universally acknowledged that mother-tongue instruction is the best pedagogical tool, in the case of indigenous languages in South Africa other things will have to happen first. One imperative is research and language development, and the other is the production of texts. Currently neither exists.

Mthethwa presents a few cases but unfortunately for this complex subject, does not provide evidence, and where he cites some instances as evidence, the reasons are inappropriate.

Firstly, the reason for choosing private over public schools is not language. It is simply that private schools deliver the goods, while public schools perform poorly. Poor performance cannot be attributed mainly to language. There are other factors as well. In the performance configuration, language like any other subject is a dependent and not an independent variable. It does not cause anything but is rather affected by factors such as the management and resources in schools, including the teaching and learning cultures. The cream of South African thinkers and scientists were products of an education that used English as a medium of instruction. Anton Lembede, A. P. Mda, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko in political philosophy, Richard Mncadi, Edward Mdlalose, Nxasana and T. W. Khambule in the mathematical and natural sciences are just some of South Africa’s luminaries from this lot. Problems of language as a medium of instruction came with Bantu education.

Secondly, to attribute the absence of African representatives in the top 50 matriculants mainly or only to language is rather an oversimplification of a much more complex problem. The problem lies in the culture of teaching and learning in schools, and in a society which has become lackadaisical on discipline and has accepted mediocrity as a norm. Incidentally, in the mathematics and science Olympiads conducted in 1998 and in 2003, South Africa came last and was out performed even by poor countries such as Malawi, let alone Botswana and Zimbabwe. All teach in the medium of English. I have often wondered if our national soccer team is not a reflection of our general mediocrity. After all, are these not the same youth who graduate from our schools?

Thirdly and finally, there are development imperatives. As it is, despite 12 years of exposure to English, first as a language and secondly as a medium of instruction, the level of proficiency in the use of English in learning and research among entrants into the university system is woefully inadequate. If such students were taught in indigenous languages throughout high school and English were only assigned the status of language and not teaching language the capacity of such products to conduct research internationally would be mind-boggling. Given the global context in which we operate, where would South Africa be? Remember the imperative of conceptual equivalents. Read any government gazette in an indigenous language and experience the ambiguities and sometimes the contradictions arising from an absence of conceptual equivalents. One ends with a diluted version of the text.

I sincerely sympathise with the language issue but I think we are tackling it from an emotional rather than from a rational perspective. What we need is, first, the creation of a serious language research and development institution before we speak of instruction in indigenous languages. Second, the language policy would have to be such that it creates options for individuals to choose their languages of instruction. After all, there is no inherent or preordained permanence in a language per se. If that were the case, Latin and its historical relatives would still be in active use.

• Professor Paulus Zulu is based in the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.

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