Multitongue teaching is the only way

Can we use the current standoff between the Gauteng authorities and Afrikaans schools as an opportunity to make a paradigm shift in education? Or are we going to wrestle forever over the same stale arguments about language that do not face up to our reality?

Mary Metcalfe’s article in last week’s Mail & Guardian (“War talk won’t end language row”), regarding the threatened imposition of English as a parallel medium of instruction in Afrikaans-medium schools, should alert us to the potential role that Afrikaans schools could play in a breakthrough for us all. With their bone-deep knowledge of the importance of language in education, they could become pioneers of multibilingualism.

Multibilingualism does not separate pupils into different schools or streams. All pupils are taught together in the same classroom. Teachers use specific techniques that get pupils to use their own languages to support and supplement the common classroom language.

If English is the common language, the teacher would use English, Afrikaans pupils would use English plus Afrikaans, and their classmates would use English plus their respective home languages.

All South African pupils currently need to learn English anyway, so the choice of English as the common language is a reasonably obvious one. Importantly, this approach would turn its back on our single-medium system.

Afrikaans schools have been a source of social dissonance that has placed the authorities in a quandary since 1994. Our Constitution is clear that everyone has the right to receive education in an official language of choice but, for all to exercise this right in a single-medium system, we have to be prepared to have all pupils separated into different schools or streams along language/ethnic lines.

This leads us straight back into the apartheid pattern of separation, exclusion and isolation, which runs counter to our objectives for social cohesion and all our efforts to root out this sad aspect of our history.

By exercising their right of choice, Afrikaans schools have set up the quandary.

The problem lies in the inflexibility of a single-medium system, which is also the source of a much bigger and more pressing problem. Any pupil is disadvantaged, to a greater or lesser extent, by not being able to use a primary language in the process of learning. By their “choice” of English as a single medium, nearly 80% of our pupils have faced a serious systemic language disadvantage. This has led to a major social injustice being perpetrated on the majority of our pupils, with chronically negative implications for their performance.

Although English-medium learning has appeared on the surface to have been the choice of the majority, this should not be allowed to cloud the issue. The only other option offered to these parents has been a different single medium (a home language, not even necessarily their own) with clearly no chance that the necessary resources would be provided to make it a real option.

Afrikaans-medium schools, already well resourced, have been able to avoid this conundrum, but not without falling into the trap of isolation and all its drawbacks. Their pupils miss out on the opportunity of learning as part of an inclusive society, and the perceptions of retained privilege and racial exclusion will not go away.

This is the wider context in which the Afrikaans school battles should be viewed. The imposition of two separate parallel-language streams would just be a variation on the single-medium theme (Afrikaans for the Afrikaans class and English for all the others). This may make it possible for others to share their extra physical space and resources, but Afrikaans pupils will still be a separate group and most of the rest will still be disadvantaged second-language pupils … and we will have made little progress in addressing what is possibly the most critical factor in the poor performance of the majority.

If we can break out of the limitations imposed by some of our traditional practices, particularly the application of a single medium, new options immediately open up for sound education and achieving the equity pursued by the Constitution.

There are clear advantages for any child in being able to use more than one language in the process of learning, with increasing evidence emerging of bilingual pupils having an edge over monolinguals. Other advantages come with the fact that multibilingual techniques demand a shift away from some of the weak traditional methodologies that have been plaguing our classrooms for decades.

Even the use of the old term “medium of instruction” limits our current thinking. There are many kinds of talk needed to facilitate good learning, but only one of these is teacher talk and only one type of teacher talk is “instruction”. We also need to move away from the trap of thinking that learning can only take place in a “language-circumscribed space”; nothing in South Africa works at its best for all in such a space.

We know from small studies that a multibilingual approach can work effectively, even in large, highly multilingual classes. We now need this approach to be seriously demonstrated and tested in properly funded studies. Afrikaans teachers could play an invaluable role in these, fleshing out and adapting existing techniques to their particular contexts. They need the chance to demonstrate for themselves how to empower all pupils while disadvantaging none.

I fully agree with Metcalfe that a legal war would be damaging and cannot resolve the current standoff between the authorities and Afrikaans-medium schools. But I do not have her faith in good leadership, discussion and compromise as a way to produce anything other than a shallow short-term patch-up. Our challenge is to rise to the opportunity for a real paradigm shift.

Margie Owen-Smith is the manager of the Home Language Project (

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