Blind alleys

2010-02-26 00:00

I FEEL that recent articles and letters in The Witness around mother-tongue versus English as the medium of instruction (MOI) in South African schools, have missed the essential issue, which is, what does research tell us is the effective pathway for access to high levels of literacy in a second language? By this I mean the ability to learn from reading textbooks across the curriculum, the basis for effective writing and academic success. The opinions expressed were often not based on second-language acquisition research on optimum conditions for language learning, or on the actual outcomes of different MOI policies. If we are to develop policies that provide access to high-level literacy, it is imperative that we use research to guide policy.

We can usefully distinguish between two levels of language proficiency: the basic oral and written proficiency for use in everyday, informal encounters; and the academic literacy skills (ALS) that enable people to learn from reading in the specialised learning areas of education. These concepts can be applied to different types of bilingualism: additive bilingualism, where ALS in a second language are added to ALS in a mother tongue; subtractive bilingualism, where one adds a second language at the expense of one’s mother tongue; and lastly, semi-lingualism, where individuals have low levels of literacy in both languages. Research in Africa and South Africa shows that the majority of pupils are semi-literates, are unable to learn from reading, and cannot write effectively or succeed academically.

Furthermore, there is overwhelming evidence from recent international and African research that the mother tongue is required as the MOI for a minimum of six years under optimal conditions, and up to eight years under less well-resourced conditions (that’s us). This will enable pupils to develop ALS in their mother tongue which will enable an effective transfer to ALS in a second language. At the same time, it is clear from comprehensive studies in second-language acquisition and bilingual education, especially in Africa (Bamgbose 2000, Heugh 2002, Alidou et al 2006), that it takes six to eight years to learn enough second language to be able to learn through it, and to achieve an adequate level of academic literacy as well as academic achievement across the rest of the curriculum in the second language. As Heugh says: “This is not an ideological issue. This is a practical matter to do with the relationship between thinking (cognition), language (development) and learning.”

The history of MOI policies in South Africa is interesting in the light of this research. From 1955 to 1975 the policy in African DET schools was mother-tongue instruction to the end of primary school (eight years), with English as a subject, and then a change to English in high school. Post 1976 it changed to four years of mother-tongue instruction, with English as a subject, followed by a complete swop to English in the fifth year. At present, mother-tongue instruction is just three years. While apartheid mother-tongue policy aimed to promote separate development, ironically their policy coincided with findings of international research on additive bilingual education mentioned above. The result was that, despite the extremely poor resourcing of schools at the height of the apartheid era, between 1953 and 1976 the matriculation results showed steady improvement, from 43,5% in 1955 to 83,7% in 1976. Since the change of policy post 1976, the pass rate of African pupils has shown a rapid decline to 49% in 1994. Things have not improved since 1994: about 1,1 million children started Grade 1, yet only 589 912 pupils wrote the matriculation examination in 2008, with 38% failing and only 20% attaining university-entrance levels. Recent evaluations show that over half of the students entering university will not be able to cope with tertiary-level studies without extensive support.

Macdonald’s 1990 Threshold Report clearly outlined the devastating impact of just four years of mother-tongue instruction with a complete change to English as MOI in the fifth year. Children were not taught to read effectively in their mother tongues and, under the best circumstances, attained an English vocabulary of around 800 words. Their English textbooks in year five demanded a vocabulary of around 6 000 words. Children were thus trying to learn new concepts and a new language at the same time. The academic results that followed speak for themselves, and the present reduction of mother-tongue instruction to three years has compounded the problem.

The Unesco Institute for Education and Association for the Development of Education in Africa commissioned a stocktaking study of mother-tongue and bilingual education in Sub-Saharan Africa (Alidou et al.2006).

They found no reliable evidence of early-exit models from the mother tongue (3-4 years) to the second language which was able to demonstrate lasting educational achievement for the majority of pupils in any African country. Similarly, international research has yet to discover an example of a widely implemented early-exit transitional model which is accompanied by reliable evidence of successful learning outcomes (Heugh).

There will be those who argue that bilingual education as envisaged in this article is too complex and it is too costly to produce learning materials in all the languages across all learning areas. The answer to this is two-fold: it has been done before, from 1955 to 1975 in South Africa; and the costs of present policies are there for all to see, and are mounting. We cannot afford to have nearly a half-million semi-literates emerging from every 12-year cycle of schooling. While there are other factors impacting on educational outcomes, MOI is a crucial issue. There are contexts in South Africa which might support English as MOI from class one, but these do not apply to most of our pupils. In addition, we need a powerful and viable methodology of teaching reading in all learning areas at any stage of the school system. This will be the subject of a follow-up article.

• Mike Hart is a retired former senior lecturer in Education (UKZN) now working on Reading to Learn projects in schools.

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