All its languages give SA incredible advantages

2015-06-26 15:51

HEADLINES: Languages in school, Eskom and B.B King

2015-05-26 09:53

Today's headlines look at a dual language bid in Gauteng's schools, low risks of load shedding and B.B. King's death being investigated as a homicide.WATCH

Alison Visser 

A Pretoria private school learnt the hard way how divisive language can be, especially in South Africa where language traditionally divides people into different cultures and sectors.

The school, which has seen the Gauteng education MEC step in twice over its policy of dividing pupils according to “language” today announced that it is in the market for a new principal and teachers, ones who would be able to help the school with its integration issues.

But it shouldn’t be that way. Being able to speak more than one language is good for the brain, say researchers.

And it’s also good for the heart, if South Africa’s most-revered politician, Nelson Mandela, is to believed: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Besides nation building and making new friends, there are other reasons to learn other languages.

Research has shown that people who speak more than one language fluently have better memories and are more cognitively creative and mentally flexible. Knowing a second language is also good for the aging brain.

Studies show that diseases that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s and the onset of dementia are diagnosed later in people who are bilingual.

A recent survey found that 36% of expats are raising their children to speak three or more languages.

The survey, which was conducted last year by Munich-based group InterNations, found that 50% of expat children were being raised bilingually. Only 14% of these children can speak just one language.

It makes sense. A move to another country will see children being schooled in the official languages of that country. 

Why is it so easy for people to learn another language when they leave their home country? It’s because they have to.

Expats who end up in rural areas learn the local language very quickly.

Just ask anyone who needs to catch a taxi to their home in a small town in China, or the person who is allergic to peanuts in Thailand, or that guy – you know who you are – who needs to find a beer in Saudi Arabia.

When the need is there, suddenly learning another language doesn’t become such a schlep.

That need is certainly there in South Africa. And the government is making it easier – and hopefully compulsory.

Earlier this month, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced the roll-out of the Incremental Introduction of African Languages to more than 3 500 schools across the country.

“Through the promotion of African languages, we can address some aspects of social cohesion.

As a country, we will better communicate and understand each other, if we understand those cultural and language idiosyncrasies that at times isolate us in our own land,” she said during her department’s budget vote speech in Parliament.

It’s surprising that this project has taken so long to implement. The fact that it’s only going to be implemented in 3 500 of the country’s 25 000 schools is disappointing.

But we have to start somewhere, and it’s never too early. Research suggests that children who learn a second language “store that capacity, together with their native language, in one sector of the brain, whereas adult language learners store each new language learned in a separate area”.

This supports the argument that various languages should be included in the primary school curriculum.

Children, according to Dr Susan Curtiss, professor of linguistics at UCLA, “can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. Children just have this capacity. There doesn’t seem to be any detriment to developing several languages at the same time.”

This certainly supports the view that separating young children according to language isn’t necessarily the best way to do things.

It may be the easy way out for many adults, but children need to know how good other languages are for them.

And South Africans have their pick of 11 official ones – an incredible home-ground advantage.

It’s time to pick them up and run with them, instead of relegating them to the sidelines of school curriculums.
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