Language can be a powerful cohesive tool

Students at former Afrikaans-only universities protested in 2015 and in March 2016 against, among other issues, the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

Students at former Afrikaans-only universities protested in 2015 and in March 2016 against, among other issues, the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

Social cohesion should unquestionably be among the matters at the top of our agenda if we are to hold together on critical national issues. And language is a critical element. We are now seeing it as a dangerous spark for intergroup conflict, but it has been festering for a long time.

Professor Vuyisile Msila wrote of using this crisis. Language can also be a driver of social cohesion. English can make it possible for all learners to learn together in multilingual classrooms from the earliest grades.

English is the one South African language that belongs to all who can use it, not to Britain or those who happen to have been born into it. Like soccer, it is a priceless piece of our horrible colonial history that we need to claim for what we can do with it.

If we can think out of the single-medium box (with its roots in colonialism and apartheid) that is stifling our education system, we can think how it would be if all learners could use both English and their particular home language in the classroom.

We have multibilingual teaching techniques to make this possible; with more research and development we could take a lead in teaching multilingual groups. Keeping schools set up for one language group, with learners coming together only at tertiary level, is doing us all a disservice. Parallel-language sessions for the “special” group, with all “the rest” using English only, cannot break down this toxic othering.

English used as a single classroom medium places all other language groups at a disadvantage and perpetuates the marginalisation of African languages. But a system that can use English as a common language in multilingual schools and institutions, while making full use of all our languages through multibilingualism, can be a powerful catalyst for social cohesion and better education.

Margie Owen-Smith manages the Home Language Project.

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