Because language is key to learning and teachers are central agents in quality education, it is vital that teachers are able to address language issues in their classrooms. But what techniques and strategies do teachers need in order to enhance teaching and learning in a multilingual or multicultural classroom?
The latest Teachers Upfront seminar, which took place at the University of Witwatersrand's school of education last week, provided a rich set of teaching strategies for this context but also made clear just how difficult and controversial language is in South Africa.
As Dr Leila Kajee of the University of Johannesburg's faculty of education said: "We have 11 official languages and we need to be multilingual for the sake of building our nation. However, language has historically been used to divide us."
She painted a picture of what it is like for pupils who are coping with instruction in a language that is not their own: "When they enter primary school for the first time, and if they are taught in a language they don't understand, little children feel as I would if I were walking down a street in a foreign country and people were gesturing wildly to me and I did not have a clue what they meant: it's daunting and foreign."
Remembering that language is a tool for learning
What seems to make sense, Kajee said, is to go back to what makes educational sense, which is learning in or through the language one knows best in the early years, because "for language to be used as a tool for learning, pupils need to be familiar with it as well as proficient in it".
She recommended "dual-language programmes that continue to promote literacy in both the first and second languages of a learner" to help pupils and to mitigate the dangers inherent in abandoning the mother tongue and adopting a higher-status language for business and economic reasons. "Cherish your mother tongue," she said.
Universities are addressing these difficulties in their courses for teachers. Kajee described her faculty's initiative of a teaching school, Funda uJabule, which is adjacent to the university's Institute for Childhood Education in Soweto.
"Our teacher education students work there, and from there we run many community outreach programmes," she said. "We insist all our students be involved in work in the community because, as future teachers, it makes a great difference to create networks of social communication."
Professor Rinelle Evans of the University of Pretoria's faculty of education described three language-based modules that are compulsory for all BEd students at her institution. These aim not only to create an awareness in training teachers of the language diversity that characterises South African classrooms, but also to provide them with strategies to deal with a multicultural classroom.
Because the seminar focused primarily on providing teachers with techniques to cope with language factors in the classroom, Evans described several that can be used in multilingual settings. One was the so-called "Think-Pair-Share", which works from preschool level through to adult education and is ideal for people whose mother tongue is not English and for large classes.
She described how a teacher can prompt pupils to think about a question for a short time individually, and then pair them up so that peer teaching can happen. As a general approach, a teacher should "be a life-long learner who reads, researches and reflects" and develops "as a teaching tool, an awareness of one's personal as well as one's learners' linguistic repertoire", she said.
Sibongile Balungile Magwaza of the Wits school of education urged language educators "to take the lead in changing the pedagogy of teaching languages in our multilingual and multicultural classes" because "South Africa is undergoing great changes in language education, especially in the teaching and learning of African languages".
Putting a stop to inhibitions
She spoke, for example, of the power of lowering inhibitions in the classroom. "Playing guessing or communication games, doing role-plays and singing songs encourage risk-taking and build self-confidence," she said. "It's exciting to learn something in a new language and, by emphasising the fun in learning, you can develop intrinsic motivation in your learners and get them to engage in co-operative learning, whereby they share their knowledge, think as a team and do small group work".
Magwaza recommended "right- brain processes", where the aim is to get pupils to talk or write a lot without being corrected, such as free writing without looking at notes or oral fluency exercises. Pupils should be encouraged to ask questions, and a teacher's theoretical explanations should be kept simple and brief.
"If you need to translate in the home language of your learners, do so if it means they understand," she said — but "practise and encourage intuition in the classroom by praising learners for good guesses and correct only selected errors, preferably just those that interfere with learning".
Feedback on errors is vitally important, but pupils themselves can be made central to that process if teachers "record the oral production of learners, let them identify their own errors and encourage them to make lists of their common errors and to work through them on their own with the help of dictionaries".
She even suggested encouraging pupils to write messages on the teacher's Facebook wall in the language they are studying: "We are teaching students who are exposed to digital literacy and we must encourage them to make use of the technologies."
Evans endorsed this approach, suggesting that teaching pupils appropriate vocabulary and phrases in a specific African language, including songs and proverbs in that language, enriched the classroom experience. The speakers ultimately agreed that, when people are multilingual, it's not necessarily divisive; indeed, highly multilingual pupils are much esteemed.
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief operations officer of the Bridge education network. Teachers Upfront is hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of Witwatersrand's school of education and the University of Johannesburg's faculty of education