Imagine moving to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a first-language English speaker and trying to learn French. The experience might be overwhelming at first, the words difficult to pronounce and the grammatical rules impossible to remember. But gradually, you’ll start to find your way. The alphabet, barring the odd accent, is the same, and even if you struggle to speak French, you’ll probably quickly start to recognise written words and phrases.
Now imagine attempting to learn a foreign language without being literate in your own. Imagine having no foundation to fall back on: no grasp of basic spelling, tenses or parts of speech and how they work. With no one to communicate to you verbally in a language you understand, the sounds around you are incomprehensible and the letters meaningless.
September marks International Literacy Month. Held for the first time in 1967, International Literacy Day (September 8) represents “an opportunity for governments, civil society and those involved in education to highlight improvements in world literacy rates and reflect on the world’s remaining literacy challenges”, the United Nations says.
This year’s theme, Literacy and Multilingualism, has particular relevance in South Africa, a country known for its progressive Constitution — and its 11 official languages.
But what does multilingualism mean in practice in this context? What are the benefits and difficulties of prioritising it, especially in the adult education and training space?
Whether learners — children and adults — should be educated in their mother tongue or English first is a contested topic, with champions and opponents on both ends of the spectrum. South Africa’s education policy recommends mother-tongue instruction until grade 3, after which most schools switch to English. Generally, adult education and training institutions adopt a similar approach.
The reasons for this have been well researched. If you don’t have enough of a foundation in your own language, many local and international studies suggest that you’re unlikely to grasp concepts in another. Mother-tongue instruction has also been shown to make people more confident learners, and better able to absorb another language as they progress through their studies. Adopting a multilingual approach, in other words, largely improves levels of literacy.
In adult education and training, it’s also important not to dissuade people who may already feel insecure about their academic knowledge or abilities. Perhaps even more than children, adults need to feel comfortable with the content before them. One of the most important ways to achieve this is to provide educational material to adults in languages they understand.
In her article on South Africa’s multilingual education policy, Kathleen Heugh suggests that the quality of the lessons and materials that children receive complicates the language-literacy debate. “What makes it worse for children who have received poor reading and writing instruction and inadequate provision of reading materials in their home language is that they are expected to switch over and to read, write and navigate their way, from the fourth grade on, through a curriculum in English that they barely understand.”
The adult education and training space can be problematic in much the same way. Technological advances have helped to deal with these issues. Adults need to work with high quality and easy-to-understand content. Digital education has therefore been a teaching method for decades. Media Works, a company that provides materials for adult education, has introduced multilingual “bubbles” in isiZulu, Sesotho, Setswana, English and Afrikaans into its programme. Having this information available at the literal touch of a button enables people to learn at their own pace and in a language they are comfortable in, which fuels literacy.
When it comes to adult education, multilingual instruction and material should be an option. Although the transition to English, still the language of further learning and business in South Africa, is important, this move is only going to be possible if the groundwork is laid first.
Dennis Lamberti is the development director at Media Works, part of the FutureLearn Group