Multilingual teaching and non-profit schools are vital in SA, say M&G readers.
Multilingual teaching is the answer
Professor Jonathan Jansen again jolts us into introspection with his latest article in the Mail & Guardian (“Wrest power from English tyranny”, October 4). Particularly important for the language debate is his point that using English as the common language of the classroom is an essential component of addressing our crisis in education.
It is vital to have a common language base so that all our pupils can learn together, and this base should be English. English belongs to everyone in the world who uses it and by far the majority of these are not English.
But the results of our current monolingual English system for second-language pupils are roughly the same, whether the home language is used as the medium up to grade three before switching or whether pupils go straight into English. But performance is dismal across the curriculum, and levels of reading and writing do not meet the needs of either tertiary education or the job market.
The disadvantages of dependence on a second-language medium to understand new content are obvious. To get their second-language pupils to succeed, teachers slow the pace, repeat and explain excessively; they oversimplify content and avoid problem-solving. They don’t make their pupils read for information, avoid resources requiring higher-order reading skills and, in the face of the pressure of national assessment, feel forced to “teach to the test”.
The lack of quality teaching is indeed the major observable problem, but one of its prime causes is the use of English without effective support that draws on pupils’ home languages. The two issues are inextricably linked. We can blame the teachers but have not given them the kind of multilingual tools they need for quality teaching.
Your home language will always be your best tool for deep thinking. But, when you can use more, you have a wonderful advantage for complex thinking. Accumulated research from around the world shows that proficient bilinguals consistently outperform monolinguals.
It is easy to become fluent in a second language for social purposes but is extremely difficult to learn it to the level needed for use as a medium for learning. Decades of research tells us this takes five to six years in well-resourced situations. But by the time a pupil’s language has caught up, he or she has usually missed out on foundation concepts in subjects such as mathematics. You need your home language to support the second language, at least for those five to six years of primary school.
Also, you need to use your home language in learning a second language. New second-language methodologies have abandoned the days of “silo teaching” languages and now relate the language you are learning to your home language, giving you a stepping stone into English and teaching you the empowering skill of moving easily between languages.
There is a growing body of multilingual methodologies and techniques that can turn all second-language pupils into bilingual pupils. Now we just need clear policy that commits us to an equal opportunity goal, to English as a common language and to methods that develop powerful bilingual combinations of English and home languages.
With this in place, plus equipping teachers with the necessary techniques, the way forward is illustrated in two other articles in the same edition of the M&G. In “Physics needn’t be Greek to isiZulu”, Sarah Wild refers to the need for a multilingual tutorial system and text translations at tertiary level, and Carole Bloch appeals for translation to become a valued and growing industry so that our children are not cut off from a world canon of children’s literature. The Nal’ibali campaign of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa is actively taking steps in this direction by producing and distributing free bilingual stories for children in collaboration with Times Media and Wimpy.
We need to treat the majority of our young people as bilingual pupils, with all the potential this implies, and all it implies for our policies, our partnerships with the business sector and, especially, the way we teach. – Margie Owen-Smith, manager, Home Language Project
Beware the corporatisation of schools
Peter Lee of the Anglican Board of Education in Southern Africa (“Give education privacy its needs”, Letters, October 4) is quite right in pointing to the valuable work done by non-profit schools in South Africa. These “community” schools, often supported by state “grants” or faith-based and other charities, have done sterling work in developing public education for the communities of South Africa over decades, even before the onslaught of the apartheid state.
They were motivated by the single purpose of helping to provide basic education where the state was unable or unwilling to do so in poor communities. Their abiding characteristic was and remains their non-profit approach, value systems and the voluntarism that often drives them. As Lee points out, the Constitution protects the right of communities to continue to build and support such schools.
What our article was pointing to is quite another phenomenon, not to be mistaken for or equated with this category of community, “grant”, or faith-based school. It refers to an extremely troubling global phenomenon: the extension of the reach of profit-making into public schooling without care for the social consequences of such privatisation. It is about the conversion of public schools into captive markets and “factories” for the production of educational “commodities” – our children.
The effect of such privatisation of public schooling is what we set out to explain in our article. We warn against the advice of “experts” who are the purveyors of the ideas of privatisation.
We make plain that nothing we say must be construed as rationalising the weaknesses and failures of the present system; in fact, we seek to strengthen the argument for the right to public schooling through public and democratic accountability. The privatisation of education we speak of will, in reality, take democratic accountability almost completely out of the reach of the citizenry and vest control of the public system in corporate hands. – Salim Vally and Enver Motala