South Africa: Mother Tongue Tied

For many South African children who started school this year, there will be several firsts: the first time they learn how to read and write, the first time they learn how to do arithmetic. And for an increasing number of pupils, it will be the first time they speak English.

While that might seem like a good thing, given the global access that English provides, experts who have analysed post-apartheid South Africa’s educational challenges say it could actually set these children back.

Language experts, including those at the national Education Department, say that children who make the switch before they have mastered their mother tongue are at a learning disadvantage that they may never overcome.

But that has been a difficult case to make to South African parents who are loath to give up the perceived advantages of an English-language education.

Principal Henny Petersen says that the problems with communication present a difficult disciplinary scenario.

Principal Henny Petersen says that the problems with communication present a difficult disciplinary scenario.

Most of the country’s 46 million people speak an indigenous language as their mother tongue. South Africa’s education system generally sees children making the switch to either English or Afrikaans, the only languages of instruction at schools, in Grade 4, by which time they are expected to have understood basic concepts in their mother tongue.

But researcher Cas Prinsloo, of the South African Human Sciences Research Council, said too many students are competent in neither their native nor a second language, with predictably serious consequences for their academic performance and cognitive development.

“The whole risk is that if mother tongue education has not developed, then second language acquisition also suffers,” he said, adding that by the time pupils make the switch to English they grapple with both their mother tongue and the second language.

“What’s lost then during this critical period, somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8, can usually never be regained.”

For Keith Riddles, the principal at Woodville Primary School in the impoverished Cape Town suburb of Mitchells Plain, it’s a reality he sees every day.

The school has recently taken on several pupils from a neighboring black township, where indigenous languages are dominant. Riddles said the parents of those students are looking for “more stable” schools than those in the township. But they are snubbing mother tongue education in early childhood and placing their children in first- language English classes instead, seeing them as the gateway to a better life.

That decision is going to have long-lasting effects, he predicted. “The first six years of your life is what stays with you for the rest of your life.”

The principal said most of the teachers at his school cannot speak the country’s indigenous languages, “hence the challenge to make sense to the children.”

The difficulties go beyond words, he said. “Some of the examples used in teaching may be set against an entirely different background to what the child is familiar with. For example, in indigenous languages, there isn’t a term for gender.”

To help the school balance its languages of instruction, it recently hired its first black teacher, Kunjulwa Alicia, who speaks English and three of the country’s indigenous languages, isiXhosa, Zulu, and Setswana.

Kunjulwa Alicia is the first black teacher at Woodville Primary School, hired to help balance its languages of instruction.

Kunjulwa Alicia is the first black teacher at Woodville Primary School, hired to help balance its languages of instruction.

Alicia, who teaches fourth grade, said she has struggled to fit in. “The principal and staff have been helpful, but I do find it difficult here. I am the only black teacher and that is not easy. … Sometimes in life, you need to chat in your own language and there are some things that you can only say in your own language.”

Still, she said, mother tongue-education should be of concern primarily if children lose their ability to speak it. That happened to students in her native Upington, a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking town in the northern part of the country, Alicia said.

“How can we say that their mother tongue is Zulu, but they can’t even speak Zulu? How can we say that their mother tongue is isiXhosa, but they can’t speak isiXhosa?” she said.

Teachers like Alicia are relatively rare across the country, where apartheid saw the sidelining of many native languages. In the 17 years since since the advent of democracy, South Africa has not yet produced enough qualified teachers with indigenous languages to enable mother tongue education to last throughout a child’s schooling.

The effort to expand the use of native languages in schools is further hobbled by a lack of teaching material and learning aids printed in these languages.

While South Africa is the biggest spender on education on the African continent, it has increasingly been criticized for its relative underperformance, frequently ranking last in international studies of pupil performance.

Experts say the reason is linked to the country’s failure to adopt mother tongue education.

At Woodville High School, a few streets away from Riddles and Alicia’s school, language problems simply compound the difficulties for some students.

Some 83 percent of families in the neighbourhood here are single-parent households, and principal Henny Petersen said some children come to school solely to get their only meal of the day.

“The learners coming from the Eastern Cape struggle a lot to even speak English because all of a sudden, it is a first language [in the classroom] and it is also a subject on its own,” he said. “But the minute they leave the classroom and start speaking to each other, they just switch over to their home language.”

The problems with communication also present a difficult disciplinary scenario, he said.

“Sometimes when there are disciplinary problems and they are brought to the office, they start speaking in their own language that I don’t understand and I have to think: Are these kids swearing at me? Are they just sketching the situation in terms of what happened? Or are they just angry?”

Petersen said many children who are taught in a second language lack confidence in their reading and writing and refuse to read aloud in class. “And that’s not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. Children need to have mother tongue education from the beginning.”

It is not just black students who are facing a switch from the native language. Many Afrikaans-speaking parents are making a similar decision to educate their children in English, which in turn is leading to a reduction in the number of schools that offer instruction in Afrikaans.

Petersen said his is one of only four schools of about 50 in Mitchells Plain that still teach classes in the Afrikaans language. “Other schools are phasing it out,” he said.

Afrikaans has its own cross to bear. Once the official language of the country’s apartheid government, it is still seen by many as the language of the oppressor.

Kallie Kriel is the leader of Afriforum, an organization that encourages South Africa’s post-apartheid white minority not to withdraw from civic life. He is also a campaigner for the Afrikaans language, as he discusses in the video above.

“The culture where people feel strongly about their own languages hasn’t really been built in South Africa and it’s uncertain what reason there is behind that, but the myth is quite strong that if you want to make progress in life and in the business world, you have to speak English,” Kriel said.

“It is important to lay the foundation in the mother tongue and then other concepts can be applied in other languages. The myth is one of the unfortunate things — that if you study in your mother tongue, you won’t be able to speak English. So while parents are well-intentioned, the end result is catastrophic.”

A’Eysha Kassiem is a journalist in Cape Town.




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