Language and education in South Africa

by Dani Kreusch

The complex language situation in our country has been proven over the years to be one of the biggest factors in South Africa’s failing education system. Specifically, linguists have found that learning in one’s home language signifantly increases how quickly, easily and permanently knowledge is acquired.

Not being able to take the first three years of school in their home language leaves children failing general international benchmark tests by grade four. A lack of access to and engagement with children’s literature in home languages has similar effects much earlier than fourth grade. And these effects extend beyond benchmark tests and school marks. “Consequently,” wrote linguist Herbert Ngouo, “the rural masses which should be the main beneficiaries of innovations have been marginalised because they do not master the language used to transfer knowledge.”

Local languages being put aside effects identity that is so strongly associate with them, Ngouo said, and not giving languages their proper place in development endeavors delays the process of decentralisation — the process of allowing all parts of the population participate actively in “shaping their destiny in terms of cultural and economic development”.

It’s by no means an easy or straightforward issue, but there are some steps that need to be taken in order for language debates to be treated seriously enough that change can happen.

Levels of development:

The first thing that needs to be stressed, however, is that languages are at diffrent stages of development in South Africa. Our eleven official languages each have the requirements to be a full language and each have many speakers to keep the language alive, changing and developing. But not every language has the same amount or sophistication of literature. Not every language has been studied and analysed, let alone done so in its own tongue.

Not every language has the same level of flexibility that comes as language matures: English adopts and adapts terms on a global scale almost every day without damaging its internal structure. And while there are some term variations around the world — garbage can vs trash can, life vs elevator, traffic light vs robot — they are inconsequential to the working of the language. Many African languages don’t have this stability; are not yet at the same level of English.

That can and will and must change, but it also means that until it does there are dilemmas attached to teaching people in the language they need to be taught in. To give one example out of many: isiXhosa is at a rather high level in comparison to some African languages, largely owing to the fact that it was studied, analysed and largely standardised by missionaries in the past. The missionaries wanted to reach the isiXhosa people, and so the dedicated a lot of time toward teaching themselves the language in a way that could be passed on to their successors and the isiXhosa people themselves when it came to teaching them to write and read the language they spoke naturally. Translating literature into isiXhosa and recording isiXhosa tales in written form started as part of this effort and began a process that has carried over to modern times, meaning that there is a fair amount of work written in isiXhosa today and an effort to make more. This hasn’t happened on the same scale with a lot of other African languages.

But, even so, there are gaps in the language that hinder education. For one thing, there are variations of the langage, and isiXhosa speakers from one part of the country sometimes can’t understand the dialect of another. For anothrt, some terms for mathematics, science, technology and so on don’t exist in isiXhosa, which means that they cannot be talked about in the language. While code-switching is possible in most cases, it’s not something that is viable for a countrywide, long-term solution, linguists in the field agree.

This means that as rich a history as isiXhosa has and as much as it has developed over the years, it will not be used in its rightful place in thr education system until it is on the same level as English in terms of academic focus and linguistic flexibility. Most importantly, however, isiXhosa — and all the other African languages in our country — will not be able to mkre this country into decentralisation until they are on the same level as English in terms of the law.

Languages and the law:

Linguist Fogwe Evelyn Chibaka’s research on African languages and their relationship to failing education systems has found that a big problem lies in the fact that there is often not a language policy in the country’s Law. And when there is, it is often empty policy that is not acted on.

South Africa, she says, has a bit of both problems and a few, localised success stories that make the situation as complicated as it is. South Africa falls under the African Union and UNESCO’s language policies, which demand that African languages be used in education and the economic sector, as well as be the focus of development and analysis — more needs to be written about the languages themselves — and seen as a significant factor when the socio-cultural challenges and triumphs of the country are looked at.

While these policies were passed a few years after we constitutionally declared eleven official languages, neither them nor our Constitution have made our governance or education actually put the idea of using and developing and supporting more languages than English into effect. South Africa has a Language Bill, developed around the same time as the language change to the Constitution, but although it’s been refined over the years it’s never been passed into Law by Parliament.

Similarly, while the mid-90s saw the development of many projects geared toward what was called Mother Tongue Education, none gained any legal traction, making their effect on the country limited at best. Current times have seen more desperation to move toward Mother Tongue Education, but Chibaka says that the move toward MTE is not stressed enough and has too many challenges to succeed without a much stronger force behind it. South African law on the subject is shaky, and one national body cannot possibly run such complex policy for the whole country. Without it being stressed as a municaple issue, the campaign has largely fizzled out as schools turn to English as the institutional language simply because it’s so much easier to do so, and guarantees numerous resources instantaneously.

Chibaka acknowledges that there have been success stories in certain MTE schools, particularly those in the Western Cape. But these are isolated incidents that will not be repeated on a country-wide scale until a change is made politically, even if it starts off with government just making the most of the little they have. The need for the law to be correctly implemented and then firmly stressed is becoming more and more dire as the language shift continues in South Africa.

Language shift in South Africa:

A language shift happens when a person goes from the habitual use of one language to another. In 1996 only 3.3% of South Africans reported English as a second language, but by 2011 27% of our population claim to use English at home along with their mother tongue, reported linguists Posel and Zeller. But English isn’t the big nemesis to beat in this tale: 2011 data also showed that 48% of South Africans called themselves bilingual, meaning 21% speak a second language at home that isn’t English. In fact, according to the data, almost as many people speak isiZulu as a second language as speak English.

Bilingualism is on the rise in South Africa, but it’s something Posel and Zeller see as positive. There is too much identity associated with African languages, Zeller said, for the languages to be in any danger. People are just expanding their linguistic repertoires, which would have many advantages even in an age not ruled by globalisation.

Unfortunately, in a country where language is so politicized without being treated seriously by political law, language shift is going to wreak havoc. What does using the language at home mean — simple code switching or entire conversations used regularly? And how does identity help and hinder growing multilingualism, now that words such as “coconut” are being thrown around as regular grenades in the language war? Does multilingualism mean that education can be given only in English? English and isiZulu? A mix of both?

Researchers have found that there is an increasing amount of people who want their children to grow up speaking English, as they see English as a part of their identity and a way for their children to have a real chance in life. Just as political mindsets need to be addressed, it’s not wise to impose a decision without asking people if they want it for themselves and their legacies.

(Where was the poll about Mandarin being almost compulsory in schools from next at forward? Why are some of our official languages not being treated with this same dogged determination?)

The way forward:

There are no easy answers to this debate, especially since the people of our country are themselves divided on how languages other than English should be treated when it comes to education and economy. One thing that almost all researchers agree on, however, is that something has got to give so that our children are being educated in their mother tongue at least until fourth grade. Whether this means pushing education in other languages or multilingualism in more homes is not something one person can decide on, as the choice is highly personal and subjective.

Whatever choice is to be made will only be effective if it is made Law and then implimened with purpose by the country on different levels of government; from school governing bodies to municipalities to Parliament itself. It’s only once a shift in attitude is made that the tangle can start to be unteased and turned into a working knot.


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