At the start of another school day, Mariliza Pieters displays the patience and persistence that only grade one teachers have been blessed with.
The 25 chattering children in front of her are slow to settle down. In anticipation of what the teacher is going to say, some tiny hands are scratching around in messy bags for pencils and papers.
Pieters, unfazed by their restlessness, charges into the first lesson of the day: “One, two, three, eyes on me.”
“In your exercise books look for ‘d’ for dog. Not ‘b’ for ball; ‘d’ for dog.”
When she repeats the instruction, Primrose Qokela follows suit. Sitting motionless in the back of the class, Qokela’s voice is inaudible – except to the seven-year-olds in the class. She speaks into a tiny radio microphone that transmits her voice to the black wireless earphones some of the learners are wearing like crowns, others like necklaces.
Qokela is the Setswana interpreter in Pieters’s English-medium class at the Laerskool President Pretorius in Potchefstroom in North West. As one of five interpreters at the 114-year-old school, she is part of a ground-breaking project that is, among others, exploring an alternative method delivering mother-tongue education in a multilingual South African society.
The project, run by the language directorate of North-West University’s (NWU) institutional office, entails the interpretation of lessons from English to Setswana in grade one, and Afrikaans lessons are interpreted to English from grades two to seven. In this way, three languages are involved in the project.
The only other schools in South Africa that have been using interpretation are the English-medium Central Primary School, also in Potchefstroom, where grade one learners can have their English lessons interpreted into Setswana, and Hoërskool Frikkie Meyer, in Thabazimbi, Limpopo, where an Afrikaans-English interpreter assists in the biology class.
Six months into the project at PP – as the school is commonly known in Potchefstroom – education officials, teachers and interpreters are enthusiastic about the results.
At a recent workshop between the North West education department and the NWU, Sandra Yssel, the area manager of the department’s Potchefstroom office, said the department was “very excited about the project at PP – in particular the fact that, from grade one, learners are exposed to three languages”.
Those at the coalface of the project have witnessed its possibilities even if some of them were doubting Thomases in the beginning.
“At the beginning of the year, 15 of the 25 children in my classes used the earphones. I wondered how they would learn, but the system is working,” said Pieters.
At present, only a few learners in her class are still reliant on hearing each sentence repeated in English and Setswana. Like her, the parents of the rest of the children were satisfied with their progress and requested that they be weaned off their earphones.
Michelle Steenkamp, a trained foundation-phase teacher who turned to interpreting, said that she, too, was initially sceptical about the project.
“At the outset, I thought the equipment — the earphones which the children are using — would hinder personal contact, something which is important when you work with small children. But, within a day, I changed my mind. They were participating! I think this is a success recipe,” Steenkamp, who is the grade six interpreter, said.
Principal Jas Fourie explains that the project followed on a decision by the NWU to close a private English medium school known as the Christian School.
It was part of the NWU’s teacher training facilities on its Potchefstroom campus. PP, which had 520 learners, was the only school in Potchefstroom that had space for the 150 children. The only catch was that PP is an Afrikaans-medium school. The interpretation project provided a solution.
The NWU has been footing the roughly R1-million bill for the year, which includes top-of-the-range German-made interpretation equipment and the salaries of interpreters. The project is also part of research conducted by the university on language and education.
But the school decided at a recent meeting of its school governing body that, unless a sponsor comes forward, it will not be able to continue with the project. The school will become a parallel-medium institution from next year to accommodate the English learners.
Said Fourie: “Even if we cannot continue with the project in all the grades, we would have liked to at least have interpreted lessons in grade one.”
Although the future of the project is uncertain, the enthusiasm for it remains intact among the team of interpreters: Marita Liebenberg, who manages the group, Qokela, Steenkamp, Sonette Janse van Vuuren and Phillip Scholtz.
For now, they know that, although they are merely the teachers’ shadows who speak when they speak, point when they point, joke when they joke, they are playing an important part in overcoming language and learning barriers.
Janse van Vuuren said the best part of the job is knowing that the children rely on her; for Scholtz, who taught English for 41 years before he started his second career, it is the joy of still being involved in a field in which he knows so much. Qokela, a language and literature graduate, believes that she has finally grasped what the teaching profession is about.
Being part of the learning and teaching process, she said, is a “joyous job”.
“When I interpret and the children respond, it fills me with joy.”