Looking in all the wrong places for real learning

In last month’s Getting Ahead, Esther Ramani and Michael Joseph lamented the failure of South Africa’s higher education sector in teaching, learning and researching indigenous African languages so that they benefit their speakers (“Speaking of intellectualism”, July 29).

As they rightly put it, the teaching of indigenous African languages continues to benefit English- and Afrikaans-speakers. They refer to the vocation-specific second-language learning programmes that Rhodes University and others have pioneered in the field of pharmacy, law, education and journalism.

I agree with Ramani and Joseph when they say that research in African languages at universities needs also to benefit mother-tongue speakers of these languages. While second-language learning programmes are fundamental in preparing graduates who will be able to cope in a multilingual South Africa, thereby responding to the needs of our society, universities need to engage with scholarship that dissects the promotion and development of African languages where students learn these as first language, and therefore learn in, with and from them, as Pai Obanya has argued.

The foundation of learning
The first language is generally the source and foundation of learning in all humanity. It is the language that is used as a medium of learning or education at home, before a child goes to school. It is the language that is used to teach the child, from birth, about the worldview of the society they are born into. The society’s cultural values and norms, traditions, its worldview and its organisation are passed on to a child in this language. It is also the language the child uses with her peers. In other words, it is the language that is passed on by family members and is mastered before children go to school. Concepts are first developed in this language.

Learning from first language therefore means that, in formal schooling or learning, a child draws from his or her immediate environment; that is, in terms of their first language and everything that is embodied by it. Learning in the first language links the formal schooling to the child’s home. The transition for children from home to school is effortless and they are able to use the knowledge acquired from home in deciphering and making sense of new knowledge taught at school.

On the one hand, it enables the child to be comfortable with its self, and that self interacts with the “otherness” formal schooling can present. On the other hand, the cultural and linguistic knowledge that the child brings into the classroom is harnessed to the new knowledge to enrich teaching and learning. School learning should then develop this knowledge so that learners can acquire the higher cognition, or academic language proficiency, required to engage with knowledge at university.

Ramani and Joseph point out that education should encourage students to categorise, confront and defend their reasons for taking particular action in any classroom without any inhibitions. This can undoubtedly occur if the medium with which children engage with the teacher (and learning materials) is their first language. This encourages “deep learning” as opposed to the “transmission model” in which students are lectured and assessed on what is in textbooks, without being engaged on issues beyond these books.

Sensationalising arguments
Arguments for the use of African languages in the university lecture halls, therefore, need not be sensationalised. We can no longer afford to argue that African languages should be used because English and Afrikaans are also used, or that it is “hip” to learn an African language. The promotion and intellectualisation of languages at university need to focus on how these languages can assist students to perform better in their academic work.

There are many other factors that affect students’ performance at university, including poor schooling and disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. It so happens that many of those affected are speakers of indigenous languages. African language scholars need to advance the argument that students learning in the language they know best enables them to accomplish cognition that they would struggle to manage when learning in another language.

Elbie Henning, in the same edition of the Mail & Guardian, argued that English should not be seen as the cause of African children’s underperformance at school (“Finding the real culprit”, July 29). The point is: it is true in South Africa that English is desirable—but is it attainable for most African children?

I do not think we have the liberty of finding ways of teaching better in English—these have been tried since the introduction of Western education in Africa with no success. We need to put our energy into teaching African children in their mother tongues and understanding that the knowledge acquired in this process enables them also to access other languages that are desirable now in our history, as well as other knowledges.

Intellectualising African languages
I agree with Ramani and Joseph when they say there has to be education in intellectualising African languages for use as mediums of instruction at university. As a scholar in African languages, I have always admired, and learnt enormously, from their BA in contemporary English and multilingual studies programme at the University of Limpopo.

In their article they allude to the vocation-specific second language learning programmes at Rhodes University, but do not seem aware of the isiXhosa mother-tongue programmes that we introduced in 2008. Let me share some of the teaching and research that Rhodes University’s African Language Studies (ALS) section embarked on in 2008 to advance the “intellectualisation” of African languages, with a focus on isiXhosa.

The ALS offers a three-year major in isiXhosa in which disciplines in applied language studies such as sociolinguistics, translation studies, literary discourse, syntax, and African languages and localisation are taught in isiXhosa. The metalanguage in isiXhosa in various university disciplines is growing and is benefiting
isiXhosa-speakers. One must remember that although teaching, learning and research in African languages started in the early 1900s and is therefore relatively old, their teaching has been through other languages, even when taught to mother-tongue speakers. Therefore, there is no metalanguage is these languages.

The ALS has also undertaken research in developing bilingual (English-isiXhosa) glossaries to support students in various disciplines at Rhodes. These glossaries are used as support teaching material and have been developed in ICT and political studies, with the active participation of scholars in these disciplines.

isiXhosa as a scientific language
The primary focus of our major is on the development of isiXhosa as a scientific language, as recommended by the Language Policy for Higher Education (2002). Developing teaching material in the form of multilingual glossaries is a way not only of supporting students but also of illustrating that these languages can be developed for use to support learning in higher education.

The traditional role of the university—as a centre of research and enquiry, and as a source of solutions to problems of the society within which it is located—demands that South African universities look into using African languages to promote the meaningful participation and success of speakers of African languages in higher education.

Dr Pamela Maseko is a senior lecturer in the School of Languages: African Language Studies at Rhodes University. See ‘Trying to find the right words”, Page 8.

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