Mother-tongue education
How language policy can improve student performance

Every January we await the matric results with bated breath given the language policy and the language of learning and teaching in South Africa. However, despite the seemingly “improved” results these achievements have to be put into perspective. Fact is, there is a large number of learners who “have either not made it to Grade 12 or whose results have left them ill-equipped to enter the world of work or higher education”.

The South African Constitution upholds the right of all children “to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice” and the national Language in Education Policy (1997) emphasises the cognitive benefits of home language instruction and bilingual education as well as the goal of multilingualism. Despite this, the current Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS), supports neither teaching through the home language (where this is not English or Afrikaans) beyond Grade 3, nor bilingual education.

In a three-part series of articles, Carolyn McKinney and Xolisa Guzula focus on issues of language policy and practice in our schools and the impact this has on impeding the success of so many children in their efforts to reach matric and achieve good results. Here follows a short summary of the first article.

“While school governing bodies are given the responsibility for determining the language policy of a school, in reality, schools do not have any choice but to switch to English (or Afrikaans) language of learning to teach (LoLT) from Grade 4 for African language children. This change is enforced by provincial departments providing teaching and learning resources as well as assessments exclusively through English (or Afrikaans) from Grade 4. There are no textbooks available beyond Grade 3 in any of the African languages.

“With the best intentions and the most dedicated teachers, it is simply not possible for children learning English as a subject in Grades 1–3 to develop the English language proficiency required to understand the full curriculum through English only from Grade 4.

“Furthermore, the curriculum in the subject English as a First Additional Language (EFAL) teaches children about language (e.g. how to name objects in the home, parts of the body, and colours, as well as how to identify parts of speech such as nouns, verbs and adjectives) more than it focuses on using language. The current English FAL does not teach the kind of English children need to succeed in their other subjects.

“More than 30 years ago, Carol MacDonald completed a research project on learners “crossing the threshold” from four years of home language instruction to Grade 5, where instruction continued in English. MacDonald showed that if the English teacher had done her job well, the average child leaving Grade 4 would have a vocabulary in English of around 800 words. On entering Grade 5 the child would need a vocabulary of at least 5,000 English words (never mind all the aspects of language proficiency beyond vocabulary). MacDonald concluded that this presupposed a vocabulary increase of 600% which would be unachievable even for English home language speakers.

“The current implementation of English LoLT assumes that all South African learners have equal proficiency in English. Our country is blessed with rich linguistic diversity, yet our education system operates as if monolingualism is the norm. The majority of our teachers are bi/multilingual and the majority of our learners are emergent bi/multilinguals or multilinguals, but the curriculum and assessment process operates as if they are monolingual.

“We will not substantially improve the quality or quantity of matriculation passes without addressing the crucial issue of language in schooling. It is essential that in education children are able to learn using a language they understand as they develop proficiency in English.”

You can read the full article here – this is the first of a 3-part series of articles from the bua-lit collective (www.bua-lit.org.za) by Carolyn McKinney and Xolisa Guzula.

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