‘Third language’ lost in translation

Why are we still offering the subject called second additional language at South African public schools?

This subject is a relic of the “third language” that used to be offered under the old curriculum. It does not make sense for the department of basic education to continue offering a subject option that lacks any linguistic or financial rationale.

The South African school curriculum allows pupils to choose as subjects official and non-official languages at three proficiency levels: home language, first and second additional languages. Home language is meant for pupils who want to study a language at the same competency level as the indigenous speakers of the language. First additional language is meant for pupils who want to add another language to their linguistic repertoire – albeit at a lower level.

Second additional language is, however, a seriously toned-down language offering whose existence can only be justified by a misconception of the pervasive ethos of multilingualism in South African language policies and legislation. It is worth noting that home and first additional language are compulsory.

Although the rationale behind second additional language might be pragmatically sound in respect of multilingualism and “additive bilingualism”, it fails the test when it comes to linguistic proficiency, attracting a sufficient number of candidates, and providing access to higher education.

In fact, the new Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (Caps) shows that the allocation of instructional time in the foundation, intermediate, senior and further education and training phases of schooling does not accommodate second additional language. Instead schools are advised to find ways to accommodate second additional language wherever they can.

Caps describes second additional language as providing “basic interpersonal communication skills”. Caps also makes the concession that “the reality is that many pupils still cannot communicate well in their additional language at this level (that is, grades 10 to 12)”.

This invites the question of why the department of basic education considers it prudent to continue offering second additional language “at this level”.

Furthermore, second additional language seems to cover only the most basic of language skills such as expressions used in conversations for greeting, asking permission, apologising and so on.

Ironically, gifted pupils are more likely to obtain good marks in second additional language – with very little proficiency to show for it. It is common knowledge that gifted pupils who want to embellish their matric certificates with numerous distinctions target second additional language, among others, because it is perceived to be easy.

Furthermore, black pupils at town schools who display poor proficiency in their home language are encouraged to take second additional language. What these pupils do not know, however, is that their marks help to bolster the image of the school more than they do their own university admission scores.

In 2013 second additional language grade 12 candidate enrolments were as follows: only five for isiZulu, none for Setswana, two for Siswati, 94 for isiXhosa, 135 for Sesotho, seven for English and, interestingly, 20 237 for Afrikaans.

The trends also show that numbers have been dwindling steadily from one year to the next. Most of these numbers do not even constitute 1% of the total enrolment a subject – with the exception of Afrikaans. In total, 20 500 candidates wrote second additional language examinations in the various languages. This constitutes only 2.9% of the total number of candidates who sat for the public exams in 2013 – 707 136.

The number of pupils enrolled for second additional language does not justify the enormous amount of money the department spends in maintaining these subjects.

A good deal of money is spent in providing learning and teaching support material, paying teaching staff, organising external examinations and employing examiners, moderators, markers, and so on. This money could find better use in developing other important subjects.

In sum, I do believe that proficiency in any number of languages is beneficial. I took some introductory lessons in German and I can attest to their usefulness. Nonetheless, a second additional language should be offered by private providers, instead of the public education system.

Private providers are already offering a number of languages at the basic, intermediate and advanced levels. This will save plenty of money for the state, and help to streamline an already packed curriculum.

Lucky Ditaunyane is a senior manager (public relations and communications) at Umalusi, the state’s quality assurer for school-level and certain other qualifictions. He writes here in his personal capacity

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