The practicalities of implementing the policy will be difficult but the benefits are enormous
It was shocking to hear someone on Xolani Gwala's SAfm early morning news programme this month referring to the use of African languages in the schooling system as "dragging us back to the days of apartheid".
That it was a mother-tongue speaker of an African language who expressed this view suggests South Africa is liberated as a country but our languages remain in bondage. We are still unable to free ourselves from our colonial and apartheid past.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's declaration that an African language will be taught at all schools from next year in grades R and one, and incrementally by grade thereafter, has helped to fuel this debate. So, too, has the University of KwaZulu-Natal's decision to make the learning of isiZulu compulsory for students from 2014.
I wish to discuss only one facet of this complex debate: Will mother-tongue African-language speakers benefit from mother-tongue instruction while acquiring good English as an additional language?
Many media discussions of this portray language as a "problem" rather than a rich classroom resource.
True, there are problems, including where we teach a child in English and the child does not understand the language; where we teach the child in a standard African language that differs from the child's dialect (for example, isiMpondo as opposed to the standard isiXhosa); and where the child is taught by a teacher who is not competent in the language of instruction.
But all of these are solvable challenges and should not stand in the way of logic: we must teach our children in a language that they understand best, thereby creating better conceptual understanding, while at the same time properly teaching English as an additional language as part of additive bilingualism or even multilingualism. This is what the late Neville Alexander referred to as mother tongue-based bilingual education, which has for many years been used to teach Afrikaans and English. Imagine if Afrikaners had simply capitulated to English: Where would their language be today?
Consider, too, the Eastern Cape education department's Cofimvaba Project. Here, using Alexander's model, children are taught and examined using isiXhosa in mathematics, alongside English, and English is taught as a subject. The result is that in these schools the pass rate for the mathematics national benchmark tests has gone up from around 30% to 70% in the past two years.
It is true that we need to qualify more good language teachers and to pursue subject concept development in African languages in order to aid cognition and to use the mother tongue to transfer conceptual knowledge to English where this is required. The African Language Catalytic Project, announced by the higher education and training department and hosted by Rhodes University under the leadership of Dr Pamela Maseko, will contribute in this regard.
Making use of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction, while acquiring English and other languages in an additive bilingual approach, rather than in a subtractive linguistic approach (where languages are reduced and the mother tongue is replaced) is nothing new. In Malaysia, China, South Korea, Brazil and many other developing countries the mother tongue is used as medium of instruction. This is also the case in European countries such as Britain, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Iceland and France. The result is an increased pass rate in subjects such as mathematics and science for the simple reason that learners understand what they are learning.
Although our situation is complex, one of the key reasons for the dropout rate from school — where only one in three learners reaches matric — is language. Children become disillusioned because they have no idea what is going on in the classroom and they drop out.
The result is that it costs the state R408 525 to graduate each matric student whereas it should cost only R84 000 per student if there was better throughput and no repeat years. The essential question remains: Is it cheaper to invest in failure or success? The answer is self-explanatory and the key to this question is partly held in the medium of instruction.
In certain schools, the African-language mother-tongue students are taught in Afrikaans. It is bewildering that some school governing bodies are unable to grasp the need for cognition in a language that children understand best, while also allowing them to acquire good English and for the mother tongue to act as a conceptual conduit to English.
A school in East London recently had to be taken to court to enforce a ruling to offer isiXhosa as the first additional language rather than Afrikaans, where more than 300 learners are isiXhosa mother-tongue speakers and there are only a handful of Afrikaans-speaking learners. Where is the logic in this?
The minister of basic education's recent announcement should, therefore, be welcomed in principle. No excuses for the teaching of African languages need to be made, even though the practicalities of implementation may present challenges that will require hard work and visionary leadership.
Complex issues of culture and identity are subsumed under the language that one speaks. In other words, your language provides a window into your reality and world view. This is denied once your language is reduced in status and no longer used in the education system. Arguably, it is language that is at the heart of transformation and decolonisation, yet we have chosen to keep these languages in bondage, keeping them away from the centre of transformation in our society.
It is telling that the recent debates centred on the Judicial Services Commission failed to take into account the possibility that a multilingual judge could be better and more sensitive in the new multicultural South Africa than a monolingual one. Languages and cultures, when interpreted and translated into English, can create cultural and linguistic voids that can lead to injustice.
It is not Afrikaans that is to blame for apartheid or an African language that keeps people "tribalist" in their philosophy. What makes us racist or "tribalist" is not the languages that we speak but the attitudes we hold.
It is ludicrous to suggest that teaching someone in a language they understand best — their mother tongue — while acquiring other languages is going to recreate apartheid. It is not the language of instruction that matters, whether that language is isiXhosa, English, Xitsonga or Setswana, it is what you teach that matters, how you teach it and for what purpose.
Russell H Kaschula is professor of African language studies in the school of languages at Rhodes University, where he holds the National Research Foundation's Research Chairs Initiative chair in the intellectualisation of African languages, multilingualism and education