Good lessons in any language

The idea of mother-tongue education for South Africa should be scrapped.

As an Afrikaans speaker I say this at my peril. On an emotional level I am connected to this historically and politically burdened language that so distinctly outlines at least one of my multiple South African identities.

On a more practical level, as a mother of young children whose language acquisition I daily witness, and from years of reading about the way in which language and knowledge acquisition interface, I know that mother-tongue education is like breastfeeding—it’s the best for our babies.

But like breastfeeding, mother-tongue education is not always preferred, possible or sustainable.

The lack of mother-tongue education in our classrooms is a convenient scapegoat for the poor scholastic performance of our children.

Yet the problem with South African education is less about language and more about the quality of teaching.

To spell it out: a child taught well in any language is better off than a child taught badly in his or her mother-tongue.

Unless the ways in which teachers promote children’s knowledge acquisition improve on a system-wide scale, mother tongue education on its own will not make a difference.

Based on the buoyant post-1994 hopefulness, the Constitution offers South Africans the ideal of public education in their mother-tongue.

Everyone has the right to receive public education in their official language of choice, it states, with the qualification that it should be ‘reasonably practicable”.

It entrenches single-medium institutions. But the inclusion of this right was driven primarily politically, rather than by the established educational fact that a child learns better if taught well in his or her mother tongue at least in the critical foundation phase (grades R to three). This has been underscored by the legal battles about this right.

Recently, the Hoërskool Ermelo in Mpumalanga became the latest in a long line of Afrikaans schools to test the political concession made to FW de Klerk and the Nationalists on behalf of Afrikaners at the negotiation tables of Kempton Park in the early 1990s.

In this case the Constitutional Court confirmed the right of learners to be taught in a language of their choice, but reminded schools and the education authorities about equity. They are obliged to draft language policies that take into consideration the needs of broader communities.

So, apart from Afrikaans speakers, no African-language group has appealed to clause 29 (2) of the Constitution in a similar fashion.

Afrikaans speakers have been the most vociferous in protecting the right to mother-tongue public education.

Ironically, they are also better able than most to afford private mother-tongue education from preschool to university education.

And, let’s face it, in many respects school education in Afrikaans is already, in practice, semi-private.

But where has this constitutional clause left learning in languages other than Afrikaans?

For a start, it elicited from the department of education a policy on language in education that says all the right things: advance multilingualism, develop the official languages and pursue the ‘language policy most supportive of general conceptual growth among learners”.

It also gives parents the right to choose a language of learning for their children. A growing number of African language parents are opting for learning in English for a range of well- and ill-informed reasons.

Coupled with the department’s lip service to mother-tongue education and its lack of guidance on the policy’s implementation, this has meant the ‘legislators’ intentions regarding mother-tongue instruction are not materialising, especially as far as the speakers of African languages are concerned”, as one commentator has observed.

Even if the department pursued its own policy vigorously it would have to face a reality that renders the policy irrelevant: the fact that virtually no African-language foundation phase teachers are being trained.

Perhaps Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga has opened the door to new possibilities in this regard.

Last week she announced that English would be introduced in schools earlier than grade three for learners who want to use English as their language of learning.

We need a common language to focus our efforts on the real problems in education and at this point that language is English. What is best for children is good teaching—in any language.

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