Mother-tongue education in a twist

Some significant legal and political victories for mother-tongue education were gained in the recent past. In relation to Afrikaans in particular, there was Mikro Primary School’s successful defence against court action by the Western Cape department of education to enforce its language policy on the school governing body (SGB).

Subsequently, promising remarks were made by President Thabo Mbeki at the African National Congress’s national general council regarding the value and status of Afrikaans, also fuelling hopes that the government has finally seen the light as far as mother-tongue education is concerned.

Despite these victories, a consistent and nationally acceptable understanding of mother-tongue education is still lacking. This also applies to the future of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from primary to tertiary level. Afrikaans speakers’ experience is still that Afrikaans as a medium of instruction is under consistent pressure from the government.

Seemingly, the challenge remains to strike a balance between the right of access to education on the one side and the right to receive education according to religious and linguistic needs on the other. For some, the right to access heavily outweighs every other right. Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs was recently quoted as saying that the rights to access to education, the redress of historic imbalances and equality outweigh even the right to life! Surely the matter can’t be as simple as that.

A popular model applied by education authorities to balance access to education and language rights is that of parallel-medium education. The authorities take the view that the Afrikaans language loses nothing when a stream of English classes is presented alongside it. Yet, this view does not consider the medium- and long-term effects of such a policy.

It is estimated that 30 formerly Afrikaans schools have became English-only over the past 10 years, after having initially converted to parallel-medium institutions. Although this figure seems to be relatively low, it is expected to escalate rapidly in the near future. This expectation is based partly on the anticipated impact of the planned changes to the South African Schools Act, which will curb the powers of SGBs, and partly on the rapidly changing demographics of most parallel-medium schools.

The international tendency is that minority languages come under serious threat when having to compete with an international language in parallel- or dual-medium environments. In a recent presentation by author Herman Gilliomee, he referred to a study by JA Laponce of minority languages in education in Belgium, Canada and the former Soviet Union.

Laponce wrote: ‘A bilingual school and university system generally has only the appearance of equality. Even when it is balanced at the level of courses it is in fact unbalanced in favour of the dominant language, which dominates the environment outside the school. Bilingualism in education is thus generally a bilingualism of transition, which in the long run facilitates linguistic assimilation.”

Justice W Thring also articulated this viewpoint in his judgement in the Mikro court case when he said: ‘It is contended — that the applicants will suffer no prejudice because pupils at the school who have chosen to be taught in Afrikaans may continue to receive their tuition in that language. I disagree. Where the governing body of a school has elected to have a single language as its medium of instruction, the introduction of a second language of tuition must inevitably have a profound influence on the modus vivendi, the customs, traditions and almost every aspect of the atmosphere which pervades the school.”

We believe that there is a direct relation between mother-tongue education, standards of education and academic success. The superior matric performance of the Western Cape and Northern Cape (where the majority of pupils receive education in their home language) is probably the clearest indication of this well-researched and globally accepted principle.

Afrikaans schools make up less than 8% of the total number of public schools in South Africa. Yet provincial education departments target these schools to harass and litigate against their governing bodies at the expense of the taxpayer. A responsible government should take note of global best-practices and encourage, rather than frustrate, developments towards them.

Willie Spies is an MP and the Freedom Front Plus spokesperson on youth affairs

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