Trying to find the right words

My daily exposure to the desperation so many of our students experience as they negotiate their learning at university spurs my writing now. The ways in which the state’s language in education policy is implemented, coupled with a lack of second-language teaching expertise, sets up many of our students for failure in higher education. I believe this means they are being denied social justice.

I have been involved in the teaching of academic literacy at university level for the past 15 years. It is heartbreaking to see our first-years really struggle to access their academic texts. Students are confronted with a 300-page textbook in each of their subjects and they have little idea of how to access the information in that text.

They try to memorise large sections of the text without grasping the main ideas. Many are not able to paraphrase and end up plagiarising from the internet or their texts and copying from one another as a means of coping.

When I asked one of my students why she had plagiarised, she answered tearfully that she knows what she has to write but does not have the words in English. And she is right. Without an adequate academic vocabulary in the language of instruction, our students find writing difficult. Language difficulties play a large part in the plagiarism that is rife at universities.

In addition, our students have little understanding of how an academic textbook is organised. Everything in that text looks like a main idea. Without knowing where and how to find the key ideas, students are lost. Without an adequate academic vocabulary in the language of instruction, they are lost. Without any knowledge of how to organise their academic writing assignments, as required in particular subjects, ­students are in trouble.

Copying and not processing
Our students often ask us to point out or highlight what is “important” in course materials—in other words, what will be in the examination. This sabotages any process of deep learning. Many students attempt to record their lectures verbatim—they are “copying” and not processing the texts of the lectures. Identifying a main idea is very difficult for students studying in a language that is not their mother tongue. Many learners ignore graphs, tables and illustrations because they struggle to “read” them.

To teach academic literacy at university level is a complex and demanding task. It needs to be done by people who have some expertise in the acquisition, learning and teaching of multiple languages. A degree in English literature is not the same as a qualification in second-language instruction and learning: the coursework and therefore the content are usually different in South Africa.

In this country we have not developed enough academic capacity in training prospective teachers in second-language teaching, learning and acquisition. There is little expertise in relevant pedagogical approaches for language learning. Contrast the models in other countries for qualifying language teachers to teach English to students for whom English is not a mother tongue.

For example, a qualification in teaching English to speakers of other languages (Tesol), or variants of that, is offered by many English and education departments at universities in other countries. But such qualifications are offered by only one or two universities in South Africa. We are not producing sufficient teachers and teacher trainers to deal with the academic literacy needs of higher education.

We have this wonderful wealth of linguistic capital and we boast 11 official languages that, if harnessed, could add up to an inclusive approach to a richly diverse society such as ours. Yet we choose to marginalise the mother tongue in favour of a non-mother-tongue language of instruction.

Mother-tongue learning is best
Research shows that learners who are taught in their mother tongues—that is, when their medium of school instruction is the mother tongue—are more successful academically when they do switch to English. This is because they acquire the cognitive academic language proficiency needed for academic success. For example, once you have learned the concept of telling the time in your mother tongue, you can easily transfer this concept to another language of instruction.

But the build-up of cognitive academic language proficiency in the mother tongue cannot continue when the learner is required to switch to an additional language of instruction. The acquisition and development of cognitive academic language development will be interrupted if the mother tongue does not continue to be used and supported. This is referred to as subtractive bilingualism.

On the other hand, if the mother tongue is continued while an additional language of instruction is introduced, it is likely that the cognitive academic language proficiency will continue to develop. This means that the earlier the mother tongue is removed as a support, the more difficult it is for learners to develop skills for academic success.

It is estimated that it takes six to eight years of teaching and learning in any language to gain the proficiency required for academic success. This suggests the mother tongue needs to be strongly supported for that length of time—especially if an additional language of instruction is introduced in that period.

Additive bilingualism
Yes, in this country many parents want their children to learn through English because it is seen as a language of advancement that connects them to the world. This may be true, but we can have both English and the growth of academic language proficiency if we teach English alongside, and in support of, the mother tongue. This is called additive bilingualism.

Learners can learn to transfer skills and concepts they learned in the subject areas (in their mother tongue) to English. Such learners are positioned to meet more easily the demands of tertiary learning in English or any other language as a language of instruction.

Several studies have been done in this country and elsewhere that strongly support additive bilingualism as a means of successful transition to tertiary literacy practices. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in Africa, successfully implements additive bilingualism. Why are we not listening?

At university students have to be able to read an academic text, make sense of it and then reproduce this content in their own words. This is at the heart of learning and discovering one’s own voice at university. Why are we robbing our children of this rich gift of deep academic learning?

Dr Arlys van Wyk is a senior ­lecturer in English and co-ordinator of ­academic literacy at the ­University of the Free State. The views she expresses here are her own, not those of the UFS.

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