Language a cause for failure at education institutions

By Yolanda Mzimela

South Africa is a melting pot of culture and diversity. With 11 official languages it’s no wonder we are known as the rainbow nation.

English, which is the fourth most widely spoken home language, is the most prominent in schools and business, however. English is used as the method of instruction in many schools and universities across the country, including those where English is not considered the Home language of the majority of the students. This is, however, proving to be a problem in certain areas and might be a possible contributor to low pass rates in education institution.

On Sunday, 17 May 2015, The Sunday Tribune reported a story on 81 schools in rural Eastern Cape where students were being taught subjects such as maths, technology and science in English. Due to this the students were producing dismal results. However, after implementation of a program where pupils were taught in their mother tongues, teachers reported an astounding difference in results. In 2014 the grade 6 class produced a 100% pass rate in Mathematics as compared to 40% the previous year, before the new program.

Paula Ngeyakhe who is a PGCE student says she can relate. Ngeyakhe matriculated at Vuli Valley Senior Secondary School in Butterworth, Eastern Cape where isiXhosa was used as the method of instruction. Ngeyakhe says that on her arrival at Rhodes University she recognised a culture of “whiteness”.

Paula Ngeyakhe talking about difficulties with language at Rhodes University. Photo by Yolanda Mzimela.

Paula Ngeyakhe talking about difficulties with language at Rhodes University. Photo by Yolanda Mzimela.

She feels that first language English speakers are at an advantage as English only comes as second nature to second language English speakers. Ngeyakhe says that even though English should be used as the primary method of instruction, it would make things a lot easier if someone could explain complicated concepts in her home language. “It’s like somebody telling you a story in English and you are Xhosa, obviously you would remember it, but not as much as you would remember it if it was told in your own language,” she explained.

Ntombizethu Diko, who also went to a high school in rural Eastern Cape and is currently studying towards a BCom Degree at Rhodes University, shares the same sentiment. Even though English was the method of instruction at Diko’s high school, she believes that explaining concepts in one’s home language is beneficial and can help students understand the concepts more clearly. However, Diko stresses that using English as the primary language of instruction is important as using one’s home language could be problematic after students matriculate and go to other institutions. “When you leave school you get to understand what is being taught somewhere else. If you are taught in isiXhosa you would not understand what is being taught at a place like Rhodes”

The South African Department of Education has not completely turned a blind eye to University students such as Ngeyakhe and Diko. The main planning agency of African languages in South Africa (PanSALB) has been tasked with developing dictionaries in all official languages. These dictionaries will be monolingual and consist of scientific and technical terminology. This initiative is targeted at historically disadvantaged schools and students as an attempt to bridge the gap that has still proven difficult to fill 21 years into democracy.

Moreover, Rhodes University recognises such students. Head of the mathematics department at Rhodes University, Professor Nigel Bishop said, “I think language can be a problem, however we are careful when setting the tests and exams.”

Mr Nigel Bishop, Mathematics HOD at Rhodes University. Photo by Yolanda Mzimela.

Mr Nigel Bishop, Mathematics HOD at Rhodes University. Photo by Yolanda Mzimela.

Furthermore, Professor Bishop says that even though he realises there is a lack of non-first language English speaking lecturers and course work (as most material consists of international sources), there is a foundation program offered as a means to assist the students. Furthermore, the mathematics foundation program is taught by a first language isiXhosa speaker, as the department realised that the students might find him easier to relate to, says Professor Bishop.

Ngeyakhe, who was a part of the mathematics foundation programme has only positive things to say. Ngeyakhe not only commends the program for teaching the students how to compile academic and scientific essays and reports but also says that the best thing about the programme is that it helps you adjust to the environment. “Foundation [maths] helps you adapt to the culture at Rhodes University because the culture does not allow you to be coming from the rural areas or township,” she said.

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Yolanda Mzimela is currently studying at Rhodes University. Follow her on Twitter to keep up-to-date with her future stories.

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