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A response to Jonathan Jansen’s Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture to The English Academy of South Africa

Date Released: Wed, 9 October 2013 08:42 +0200

Professor Jonathan Jansen is rector of the University of the Free State. On 18 September 2013 he delivered the English Academy of South Africa’s Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture.

Its original title, Not even colonial born: England, the English and the problem of education in South Africa, alluded to the first cricket match at Newlands, in 1888, between teams call ed Mother Country and Colonial Born.

Russell H Kaschula is professor of African Language Studies and the NRF SARChI Chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education, School of Languages, Rhodes University and he responds to Jansen's speech.

Jonathan Jansen raises two important challenges in his lecture: Firstly, how do we create a renegotiated and inclusive identity of belonging for all students, particularly at previously Afrikaans universities such as the University of the Free State? Secondly, how do we improve the basic education system through the appropriate use of language?

He asserts that the solution lies in the teaching and learning of the English language. In other words, he suggests that the solution lies in the system that most previous Model C and private schools have been following since democracy, namely an English-mainly approach. This was until the recent intervention of the ministry, whereby African languages are to be introduced incrementally from grade R in selected schools from 2014.

While English can to some degree play a unifying role at previously Afrikaans-medium universities through its perceived neutrality, it can presently fulfil a universal role of teaching excellence in basic or primary education.

The problem with the “problem of education” as indicated in the title of Jansen’s talk is that it problematises the issues and possible solutions to our educational challenges in a simplistic way, rather than coming to terms with the multifaceted linguistic challenges that face our system. The result is a knee-jerk or irrational reaction to the rich resource that is multilingualism and the consequent English-only approach.

South Africa’s basic and tertiary education system needs to be seen against the historical backdrop of the missionary influence, colonialism, apartheid and the neo-colonialism of today – all systems which have largely encouraged an often ill-informed exclusionary English-only, and to some extent Afrikaans, approach to medium of instruction, and the choice of language of learning and teaching for content subjects.

One cannot deny the global importance of English, as Jansen correctly suggests. Further to this, one cannot deny the importance of access to information and communications technology in the globalised world.

However, the real challenge is how to provide equal access to English and technology to all students in South Africa. This cannot happen at present, as our schooling system is not uniform. We should also question whether such a subtractive linguistic approach is even desirable. It is definitely not supported by present language planning policies.

Furthermore, an English-only approach would serve to further entrench present class distinctions between those who are able to operate in English in the mainstream economy (the elites) and those who cannot, an argument strongly supported by the late Neville Alexander. He referred to the linguistic “fault-line” dividing the haves and the have-nots as a politically very dangerous econo-language fault-line, one which leads to socio-political and economic unrest.

What is required is appropriate multilingual opportunity language planning, where the first and second economies (and possibly the third, where there is no English competence) are bridged.

One cannot, therefore, have a sustained democracy operating in a language in which most people are functionally illiterate. President Zuma is probably the only post-democratic president to have realised that (and to some extent former President Mandela), often speaking in isiNguni (collectively understood by approximately 45% of the population).

Jansen points to Zimbabwe’s as an excellent example of an education system which has worked well through introducing English from an early age and that Zimbabwean students do better at our universities. President Robert Mugabe has tried to keep the course when it comes to language education (English and the majority mother-tongue languages ChiShona and IsiNdebele) and education more generally. He has dutifully followed the British A (Advanced) and O (Ordinary) level system, providing access without chopping and changing systems as we have done in South Africa.

While I would support Jansen’s assertion that just because you teach in the mother tongue that does not ensure excellence, and that it is indeed the quality of teaching in any language that ensures excellence, even in Zimbabwe English remains a barrier to success. In 2012 the pass rate in English was 20, 19% at O (ordinary) level. This is the level that provides access to A level and job security, a pass in English being compulsory in order to proceed. The pass rate for mathematics, taught in English, was 13%. That means that it is the most privileged Zimbabwean students that have access to South African universities, hence they cope very well, as suggested by Jansen.

There is no doubt that one comprehends concepts best in a language that one understands and speaks best, i.e. in one’s mother tongue. In a country such as South Africa the challenge is to create social cohesion, to create equality of access to decent and uniform education, and to create a throughput of students in a system where only one in three presently reaches grade 12, and where a vast sector of our population cannot function in English, for whatever reason. There is such a vast discrepancy between inherited schooling systems and the quality of educators that even if you do choose English-only, this will not solve the challenge of social cohesion, cognition and understanding.

Naledi Mbude-Shale’s Eastern Cape Department of Education’s project where mathematics is taught and examined in isiXhosa in the rural area of Cofimvaba is evidence of this. This subject was previously taught in English and the pass rate was dismal. Over the past years, since teaching and examining in isiXhosa, supported by appropriate terminology creation, the Annual National Assessment results have improved dramatically.

This does not preclude learners from learning good English as a subject and as part of the bilingual learning process. You can never understand anything in a language that you have not been properly taught. The solution, therefore, is to teach English properly as a subject as suggested by Jansen, while using excellent mother-tongue teaching in a bilingual scaffolding process to improve cognition of content subjects, at the same time assisting with the improved acquisition of and transfer to the “elusive” global language, English.

If we want to downplay Afrikaans, even at previously Afrikaans universities, then we will serve to delegitimise all indigenous languages with the resultant English-only approach. We dare not target our languages, our fundamental pedagogic God-given natural resource, in our attempts to recreate our society, whether on our campuses or elsewhere, but we can target those people who use languages in undesirable ways: the Indian shopkeeper who spoke to Jansen in his youth using derogatory terms; those who used Afrikaans and English to entrench the past racist apartheid system; those who used German and Kinyarwanda or English to encourage the Jewish and Rwandan genocide; those who use Mandarin Chinese to attack innocent Buddhist monks in Tibet; and so on.

Jansen is correct in stating that what black parents want is for their children to learn good English. Equally so, they are not advocating the removal of the mother tongue, as witnessed in recent court cases and interventions within specific schools. As educators we do need to create a climate where English is taught properly – we owe our scholars that. But in achieving this goal we must not deny the important role of indigenous languages, both from a cultural and a pedagogic perspective, and also as a way of creating social cohesion through second or additional African language learning programmes.

Social cohesion is a two-sided affair: it involves both English and the learning of indigenous languages by mother-tongue speakers of English and Afrikaans. What gives English more rights than Sesotho or Afrikaans? Surely we do not want to choose to be homogenised? This is what parents and school governing bodies also need to understand. This suggests an inclusive model which includes English and the mother tongue rather than an exclusionary English-only approach, which is not attainable and not desirable pedagogically.

Our system is broken. We need to rebuild it from our educational strength, ie from the bottom up, and that would mean concentrating on teaching in the mother tongues that we understand best, alongside learning good English as a subject, and furthermore, imparting the learning of indigenous languages to second-language speakers as part of creating social cohesion, rather than accepting the culturally deficient and linguistically bankrupt English-only approach. Other successful developing countries are using their mother tongues alongside English: consider Malaysia, Brazil and China. Indeed, many developed countries, such as Japan, Germany, Norway and Switzerland, successfully follow this route.

Simply put: there is no magic English wand that we can wave over the South African education system or South African household. The majority of households do not operate in English, hence the child often hears English only in the classroom. We need to use multilingualism as a rich classroom resource to improve cognition and the desired transfer to English.

Teaching excellence is required in order to teach both English and the mother tongue as first and additional languages, while ensuring cognition of content subjects in the mother tongue, and at the same time transferring to English in what Alexander referred to as a mother-tongue-based bilingual educational model and thereby creating “epistemological access” to higher education as suggested by Chrissie Boughey.

We may be able to use “neutral” English to defuse the past entrenched racist divides, while creating limited spaces for other languages, but we cannot use it to teach effectively across the board in South Africa unless we all have equal access to it.

Read Jacques du Preez's take on Jonathan Jansen's speech: Wanneer rassevooroordeel met taalregte verwar word.

Also read Tessa Dowling's Some thoughts on Jonathan Jansen's call for English.  

By Russell Kaschula

Article Source: http://www.Litnet.co.za