English is necessary but not sufficient for developing a shared social identity in post-conflict South African society via schools

2013-10-12 15:33

I wish it were so simple: let us use English as medium of instruction in all schools because English would then magically imbue South African learners with a shared social identity. This idea correctly gauges the importance of schools as change agents in a society. If South African schools were more integrated, it could potentially have a positive influence as a contributing factor towards a better integrated South African society.

The main problem with this idea is that it assumes an incorrect relationship between South African social identity and language.

Research into the multilingual repertoires of South Africans indicates that English is a very important language for practical purposes. In my on-going research, I found that some multilingual participants from non-English homes (for example using Southern Sotho or Zulu or Afrikaans as home language) perceive English as their strongest language. However, even in such cases, English does not contribute to their social identity. The home language does.

Similarly, in cases where South Africans shifted to English and lost their home languages, the mere fact that people started to use English as a home language did not result in a shared social identity. One could consider the cases of Indian South Africans and Jewish South Africans as historical examples. Speakers from both these groups shifted from different home languages for different reasons and started to use English as home language over a period of time. Despite this shift to a shared home language, I think it would be difficult to argue that there is a special shared social identity between these speakers because they use English as home language.

In South Africa, an integrated citizen is a multilingual citizen - an idea maintained in the 1990s by the Nigerian scholar Ayo Bamgbose. “Being multilingual” is the “language marker” of a good South African. I share in the intent of scholars like Professor Jansen to think about the potential of schools to contribute to a shared South African social identity. But oversimplified proposals will fail, because it makes false assumptions about the actual perception that South Africans have of the role of English in their multilingual repertoires. To propose that the use of English as medium of instruction in all South African schools would promote a shared South African social identity is simply wrong.

We will need to think much harder about language and a shared social identity in this complex context. If we want better integrated schools, we would need to address the language issue differently. We would need to design language policies and plans that develop tri-lingual citizens for identified regions, because a good South African knows three or more languages.

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