A necessary conversation

Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande’s recent comments on the need for all graduates to be proficient in an African language (as ­distinct, in this context, from English and Afrikaans) have created quite a stir. But, as is often the case in South Africa, the issues have quickly become polarised and the underlying arguments obscured.

What everyone seems to agree on is that if we all could speak and understand, even at a fairly basic level, an African language in addition to English or Afrikaans, the national projects of reconciliation and nation-building would be immensely strengthened. What, then, are the problems?

Dominance of English
First, it is important to remember that the issue, in the main, affects only coloured, Indian and white ­students because the great majority of black South African pupils study at school an African home language and either English or Afrikaans as a first additional language (FAL).

This is borne out by the subject registrations for last year’s national senior certificate (matric). English FAL was by far the largest single subject registration, with 449 080 registrations (83.1% of all FALs). The highly dominant position of English undoubtedly reflects the fact that English is overwhelmingly, and increasingly, the medium of instruction in higher education and an international language.

Languages of power?

One of the most striking figures was the extremely low number of ­registrations — 13 948 — for African FALs. This represents just 2.6% of all FAL registrations and strongly suggests that English home-language speakers are taking Afrikaans FAL (and vice versa) and not an African language.

The most obvious reason for the seeming lack of interest in African language FALs is historical in ­origin. Although this is perhaps changing, African languages have not been regarded or treated as languages of power in South Africa and there has been little motivation for English or Afrikaans learners to opt to study an African language at school or ­university — quite simply, they have not needed to.

Few qualified teachers
Addressing this is complicated, as the following limited selection of factors demonstrates. First, the low ­numbers of university students
studying an African language mean that few teachers are being produced by our universities. Waving a ministerial wand at the problem will not be effective to counter this in the short to medium term, at least.

Crowded university curricula

But a more intractable problem is that of the crowded curricula in South African universities. In ­addition to the rapid growth of knowledge and skills required to function competently in the workplace and society, the widely acknowledged failure of our ­schooling system to produce well-prepared university entrants has forced universities to spend ­considerable time and energy ­ensuring that hard-won access gains do not result in the revolving-door syndrome, whereby large numbers of failing students are excluded, ­usually at the end of their first year.

Attempts to introduce substantial new demands in the current ­curriculum structures, no matter how worthy and desirable, are doomed to failure. The much talked-about but seemingly stymied four-year curriculum structure would seem to be a necessary enabling ­condition for any moves to enhance the relevance and effectiveness of our degrees.

Nevertheless, the minister’s statement puts the onus firmly on higher education to rectify the situation.

How could this be achieved, if at all? A number of different strategies would need to be employed:

  • Ensure that all graduates of professional disciplines should be at least communicatively competent in an African language in addition to English or Afrikaans, or both. One could argue that the most urgent needs are in the fields of education, health sciences, law and social development.

  • It is unconscionable that in 2011 we are producing teachers who are ­unable even to enter into basic ­communication with the great majority of students in South Africa.Experience in health ­sciences, for instance, has shown that, to be ­effective, such courses need to be embedded in the ­professional courses themselves and sustained alongside the curriculum for ­meaningful language proficiency to develop.

  • Move as swiftly as possible to ensure that all other graduates have taken at least a conversational course in an African language. Until there are sufficient numbers of qualified teaching staff, such ­initiatives could take the form of short courses, which place lower professional demands on staff and can be taken on a part-time basis at night or ­during ­vacations, with appropriate use of educational technology and language ­laboratories to enhance learning. In other words, over the course of a degree students could enrol in a conversational course without having to make difficult ­curriculum choices.

  • Introduce courses in African ­languages in the school system, with perhaps a requirement that by the end of grade nine pupils should be expected to have demonstrated at least a degree of conversational ­competence in a language in addition to English or Afrikaans.

    The new revised national curriculum statement for grades R to 12, which are to be implemented from next year, takes this further by ­stating that pupils need to reach high levels of proficiency in at least two national languages and also be able to communicate in others.

    Apart from that, introducing African-language courses in schools should be achievable because doing so would, in the main, affect a small minority of schools — and the better resourced ones at that — because it is in the historically coloured, Indian and white schools that most effort will need to be concentrated.

    Professor Nan Yeld is dean of the Centre for Higher Education ­Development and acting deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town

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