Talking ourselves into a language corner

2010-01-26 00:00

BASIC Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s announcement that the teaching of English in schools will be strengthened indicates a policy direction for language in education. Where the previous two ministers of Education encouraged schools to promote indigenous languages as the language of instruction, Motshekga­ is clearly promoting English as the only language of instruction. Surveys show that she would be supported by the vast majority of South African parents, except Afrikaans-speaking families. Motshekga’s position, however, must be evaluated in light of the reality in the majority of South African schools.

Following the minister’s announcement, we have seen a number of letters and articles debating the language of instruction. Arguments are made for English being the sole language of instruction, since it is a universal language, with a vocabulary­ that encompasses all subjects that are taught in school. Counterarguments are made for the indigenous languages to be used as the medium of instruction, as allowed by the Constitution, and for tertiary education to be made available in indigenous languages in the same way as it is available in Afrikaans. Each side has its supporters and each side makes cogent arguments.

Let me put my cards on the table. I support mother-tongue instruction in South Africa, and I wish children could learn and be assessed in their home languages all the way from Grade 1 to Grade 12. I argue from the reality in South African schools: the language of instruction after Grade 4 is nominally English, but in fact in most schools up to 80% of instruction is carried out in the vernacular all the way through to Grade 12. And why should it be any different? In many schools, children and their teachers speak an indigenous language, not English, and it is natural for them to converse in their home language. English is used for technical terms, but the intervening language is the vernacular. There is no need for new vocabulary for specialist terms in each indigenous language, because teachers use the English terms and add the vernacular prefix or suffix. It works just fine. If textbooks can be produced for our small population of Afrikaans-speaking children, I see no reason why textbooks could not be written in the major indigenous languages.

The informal code-switching medium of instruction fails when assessment is conducted in English. The children are not able to demonstrate their competence in the subject because of their language disadvantage. In my research, we have found that even at tertiary level, students translate exam questions into their home language before attempting to answer. When constructing an answer, many still mentally construct part or all of the answers in their home language, then translate it into English to write it down.

My research, and that of many others, has shown that lack of competence in English is a major factor in the poor performance of many pupils in our education system.

Despite my preference for mother tongue as the medium of instruction, I welcome a clear pronouncement from the minister. My concern is that her announcement must be followed up with action. After 20 years in teacher education, most of them spent in teacher upgrading programmes, I am still shocked at the difficulties so many teachers experience when they write in English.

The minister’s attempts to promote English as the medium of instruction must be backed up with intensive support for teachers’ own competence in English. Without that, I revert to my argument that it would be fairer to teach and assess in the language that both teachers and pupils understand best, and that is generally their home language.



• Dr Edith Dempster is based in the School of Education and Development, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus.

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