Using mother tongues will end SA’s high failure rate

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Using mother tongues as mediums of instruction will end SA’s high dropout and failure rates, says Sipho Masondo

Several studies have revealed that by the time pupils reach Grade 6, they have acquired massive and almost irreversible learning deficiencies and show poor cognitive development.

It is also common knowledge that almost half of the pupils who start Grade 1 never make it to matric. Many are culled by the failure to grasp the curriculum, which is in a language they don’t understand.

Both the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality and the controversial Annual National Assessments show that after Grade 4, many pupils cannot comprehend simple English literature, much less handle mathematical problems appropriate for their grades.

The meaning of all of this is clear – South Africans plough billions into basic education, yet there are little returns. What exactly is responsible for these industrial-scale atrocities?

A number of explanations have been offered, including that teachers’ unions are said to be inappropriately influencing education. But the chief culprits are poorly trained teachers and our collective logic-defying obsession with English.

Black parents in particular insist that their children study in English. This is born out of the erroneous belief that African languages are of little value when it comes to education. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Numerous studies have suggested that mother tongue instruction at primary school provides a sound basis for a good education and academic success.

Learning through English presents its own challenges for black children. These are compounded by poorly trained teachers who struggle with the language.

Many countries worldwide, including China, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden and Italy, study English as a subject, but use their indigenous languages for instruction in schools. Many of their teachers struggle to speak English.

The argument that indigenous languages are not developed and therefore will not stand up to academic rigour is valid, for now. But we have to start somewhere. No language is static. All languages develop and evolve with time.

The argument that maths, physics, biology or engineering cannot be done in isiZulu or Sesotho is fatally flawed.

The dialogue about mother-tongue instruction from primary to tertiary education is long overdue.

I know what you’re thinking. What indigenous language do we choose? This should be the least of our worries. China, for example, whose population exceeds 1 billion people, has 292 living languages.

Yet Mandarin is the main language of instruction in most schools. As such, we could pick two indigenous languages representing the Nguni and southern and northern Sotho groups, develop, adapt and standardise them to suit all provinces and then roll them out across the board.

These two languages, alongside English, could become the official government and business languages.

This will take a considerable amount of time, money and dedication. But it is doable. Academics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal have shown us how. They have already published a few PhD papers in isiZulu.

Further, students in the honours and master’s programmes in the department of education can decide if they want to study in isiZulu or English.

There is no reason the languages of our colonisers should continue to enjoy prominence above our own.

Moreover, research has indicated that a significant number of black students drop out of varsity in their first year. The remainder struggle to finish their courses in time. One of the reasons is a failure to cope with academic demands.

It is also safe to predict such a move could go a long way towards addressing the high dropout and failure rates in our high schools and tertiary institutions.

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