Tongue-tied on language policy

ow is it that the language in education policy in a country with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world still fails the majority of its learners from their earliest school years?

This was the question addressed in the latest Teachers Upfront seminar, held last week at the University of the Witwatersrand's school of education. The seminar considered whether language policy and practice in the foundation phase (grades one to three) is the root cause of poor learner performance both at that level and beyond.

"South Africa's inclusive language policy is diplomatic in ensuring that all the major languages of the country are given official status, importance and recognition," said Graham Dampier, lecturer in the department of childhood education at the University of Johannesburg. Adopted after 1994, the policy marked a decisive break with apartheid practice and is central to a Constitution regularly praised for its progressive and liberal underpinnings.

However, "multilingualism as a pervasive feature of the South African identity is something yet to be realised and, although learners are expected to be able to use English as the official language of learning, many are excluded from it", Dampier told the seminar. In the foundation phase classroom, learners who have had little exposure to English before they come to school are forced within four years to use it.

"The failure of policy has been to compel learners who grow up speaking isiZulu, Sesotho, Tshivenda, and so on, to acquire this notoriously difficult language within a ludicrously short space of time," he said. "If English is so essential to South Africans, then steps should have been taken, or should be taken, to introduce the language at home. To introduce it at school is already too late."

Arguing that "the best way to ensure that a child learns two or more languages is through a radical immersion in more than one linguistic system", Dampier said that language policy reduces the potential and power of language to a mere tool of communication for the purposes of creating and sharing meaning.

"According to the Caps [new curriculum] document, the first additional language is used for certain communicative functions in a society, meaning it is merely a medium of learning and teaching in education," he said. The home language, on the other hand, is a tool of cultural preservation and articulation.

"By relegating language to the status of being a mere tool of communication, we are alienating learners from the first additional language in particular," Dampier argued. "If English [as the first additional language] is a tool, while the home language is more fundamental to the being of the learner, it is likely never going to become essential to second-language speakers."

Under these circumstances, the first additional language will only be used when it is absolutely necessary. The result is "it assumes a very unstable and uncertain existence in the foundation-phase classroom".

Ultimately, South Africa should transform through encouraging bilingualism in all levels and spheres of society, Dampier said. "If we are to proclaim a truly multilingual South African identity, we must stop viewing English as a tool for communication in the global village, business and education," he said. It should rather be seen as an essential part of South African identity.

Anthony Essien, lecturer in mathematics at the Wits school of education, spoke about language policy and practice in relation to maths. Arguing that swapping between languages (that is, code-switching) in the classroom is detrimental to the teaching and learning of maths, he said that managing the transition from home language to English is a critical step for maths education.

He cited research that not only investigated the effect of bilingualism on children's capacity for learning in school but also explored whether the use of a home language by learners impeded or enhanced their mathematical understanding. This research indicated that "bilingual students with proficiency in both mother tongue and English outperformed students who were proficient in only one of either mother tongue or English, even when the bilingual students came from less-resourced schools", Essien said.

But he cautioned that "cognitively beneficial bilingualism can be achieved only if learners' first language is adequately developed" and that the ability to make effective use of languages in the classroom has to be learned. It is the same with code-switching, which is a skill that comes with time.

"You need to mediate the transition to English as the language of teaching and learning," he said, "and there has to be competent teaching of English in grades one to three so that students don't drown in grade four." But "there should be appropriate training of teachers to manage the transition into different linguistic contexts as well as the training of teacher educators", he said.

"I believe in the strategic use of English [as a second language] in the foundation phase and the use of a learner's home language as a second language in higher grades to develop mathematical concepts," Essien concluded.

How language challenges manifest themselves in the foundation phase, what strategies might address these and the extent to which official policy is supportive of these strategies was Lorraine Marneweck's focus. She is executive director at Class Act Educational Services, a Johannesburg-based educational training and development company specialising in the delivery of education and community development-focused projects.

Focusing on the Gauteng education department's primary language and mathematics strategy, she and Deborah Botha, a member of the Wits school of education who is one of the strategy's leaders, cast their net more widely than language policy alone in considering the cause of poor results.

The Gauteng strategy aims to improve reading and writing and to change teacher practice. But, said Botha, "we have had a plethora of policies and curricula, and yet reading and writing remain a problem".

She identified three factors that impede progress: the morale of teachers; the lack of teaching and learning programmes for them; and the new curriculum. The Gauteng strategy involves the use of coaches, resources, training and support, as well as detailed and integrated lesson plans, and is going some way towards improving reading and writing. However, the barriers it faces include the quality of literacy resources, and the fact that some curriculum documents are not properly translated in all official languages.

And then there's the reality of learner/teacher ratios, Marneweck said: "Some classrooms are horribly overcrowded. We have to give teachers classroom management tips that help them in an overcrowded situation."

Barbara Dale-Jones is chief operations officer of the Bridge education network. Teachers Upfront is a partnership involving the University of the Witwatersrand's school of education, the University of Johannesburg's education faculty, Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre and the Mail & Guardian. The M&G's articles on previous seminars can be found at

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