African languages key

We recently read about the Eastern Cape’s forgotten schools where teaching and learning is simply not happening.

But if it is happening it is often through a language that children simply do not understand. It is therefore encouraging to hear Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s plans to introduce an African language from Grade R as from next year in all schools at Grade R-1 levels.

At tertiary level we have been informed that at the University of KwaZulu-Natal all students will need to pass a compulsory isiZulu course before graduating, also from next year.

There are other initiatives such as those undertaken at Rhodes, where isiXhosa is being infused into various curricula including pharmacy, law and education, but this is largely on a voluntary basis, except for journalism, where the course is compulsory for mother-tongue and second language students.

There is also the new and innovative Rhodes bilingual isiXhosa/English foundation phase B-ED degree which is to be taught and assessed bilingually, as well as the Limpopo multilingual BA degree, with some subjects taught in Sesotho sa Leboa and others in English. It is therefore largely for us as educationists to interpret what is best for our individual contexts when implementing language-in-education policies. At all times the learner’s needs must be borne in mind in order to empower themselves in our society.

The language issue has been raised on a number of occasions in the media. Most articles portray language as a “problem” rather than a rich classroom “resource” (“SA’s many languages hinder studies – report” The Herald, May 9, by Katharine Child).

Child is however, correct in pointing out the main contributing problems: where we teach a child in English and the child does not understand the English language; where we teach the child in a standard African language which differs from the child’s dialect (for example, isiMpondo as opposed to the standard isiXhosa); and where the child is taught by a teacher who is not competent in the language of instruction.

All of these are solvable challenges and should not stand in the way of logic: we must teach our children in a language they understand best – thereby creating better conceptual understanding, while at the same time properly teaching English as an additional language as part of additive bilingualism or even multilingualism.

This is what the late professor Neville Alexander referred to as mother-tongue-basedbilingual-education (MTBBE), which has for many years been used to teach Afrikaans and English in the past. Imagine if Afrikaners had simply capitulated to English, where would their language be today one may well ask?

In a similar way, Naledi Mbude-Shale’s Eastern Cape department of basic education’s Cofimvaba Project has shown that over the past two years where children are taught and examined using isiXhosa in the subject of mathematics, alongside English in a MTBBE approach, and while English is taught as a subject, the pass rate for the mathematics national benchmark tests has gone up from around 30% to 70%.

For this to happen we need to qualify more good language teachers, as well as pursue content subject concept development in African languages to aid cognition and to use the mother-tongue to transfer conceptual knowledge to English where required. The African Language Catalytic Project in concept development announced by the Department of Higher Education and Training and hosted by Rhodes under the leadership of Dr Pamela Maseko will contribute in this regard.

While our situation is complex, one of the key reasons for the drop-out rate from school, where only one in three learners reaches matric, is the language issue.

Children become disillusioned as they have no idea what is going on in the classroom and they drop out. The result is that it costs the government R408 525 to graduate each matric student whereas it should cost only R84 000 per student if there were better throughput and no repeat years.

The essential question remains: is it cheaper to invest in failure or success? The answer is self-explanatory and the key to this question is partly held in the medium of instruction.

This brings us to how we should go about achieving intellectualisation by making use of all our languages in a mutually inclusive way.

It can be argued that at this point in our history, the intellectualisation of African languages is an imperative if we are to develop the education system appropriately and respond to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s call to encourage the use of our languages as languages of learning and teaching, at both the tertiary and basic education levels.

Alexander, in his final and posthumously published intellectual offering, Thoughts on the new South Africa, states in this regard: “The case for the use and development of African languages as languages of tuition in tertiary education can be made in terms of a five-dimensional argument that relates the matter to [bio-cultural] diversity, [economic] development, [political] democracy, [human] dignity and effective didactics.”

In relation to didactics it is also necessary to intellectualise our languages at tertiary level so that teachers can be fed into the Basic Education Department, teachers who understand the notion of mother-tongue and mother-tongue-based-bilingual-education.

The intellectualisation and promotion of multilingualism therefore needs to feed in from both sides of the education spectrum.

The training of teachers by universities will assist Basic Education in also implementing Motshekga’s vision of a compulsory African language module by next year.

This brings one to the other prickly question of tribalism and language hegemony. Some have suggested that the UKZN decision is underpinned by such a philosophy. The history of this country is intertwined with language wars; between the English and the Dutch, the English and the Afrikaners, the Afrikaners and African language speakers.

Today, the language war seems to be between the neo-colonial classes and those who wish to be intellectually liberated from our past bondage.

In this regard I would like to caution against us seeing multilingualism as a “problem” – we should rather see it as a rich educational and pedagogic resource to tap into in order to facilitate cognition and learning, whether you as an educator or learner are a mono or a multilingual.

Alexander states further that: “The language of tuition does not determine whether or not a course or a university is ‘racist’ or ‘tribalist’. It is what is taught that is decisive.” And perhaps what we are exploring today at our universities is also how and why it is taught. These are, I think, important points for us as a society to ponder.

In the back of our minds we are still trapped by the linkages between apartheid ideology and our languages. When we want to promote the use of, and thinking in our African languages we need to also ask how is this going to be different from the dark days of apartheid. The last thing one wants is to allow our languages to drag us back to tribalism and apartheid.

Apartheid used our languages for the purposes of divide and rule. Today we wish to use them to increase social cohesion and economic participation between different language and cultural groups, to improve cognition and understanding of content subjects in our education system by using the mothertongue, while at the same time allowing for successful transfer to additional language English. It is as simple as that.

It is about putting the learner first. We need to bring our languages back to the centre of our education system in order to aid better cognition and conceptualisation. The use of our indigenous languages in the education system is not at all about linguistic hegemony.

  • Russell H Kaschula is professor of African Language Studies & NRF Sarchi chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education (School of Languages, Rhodes University). This article was published on Daily Dispatch.