The language of education: one we all need to be fluent in

The language of education: one we all need to be fluent in
ZahRah Khan

In 1952, East Pakistani (now Bangladeshi) students campaigned to use their mother tongue, Bengali. This came after the then west Pakistan government declared Urdu its national language. Scores of protestors were killed or injured by the police. Twenty-four years later, South African students defied the apartheid government’s attempt to suppress indigenous languages. Many perished opposing what was manifestly unjust.

This International Mother Language Day, we reflect on the parallels between these watershed events, and the inviolability of linguistic choice. It is also an opportunity to frame what linguistic choice means in a new dispensation. Today, linguistic choice and its correlation to academic performance at school, has become an important but divisive topic.

From as far back as 1953, UNESCO has encouraged mother tongue instruction in primary education. Studies conducted during the early years of the 21st century highlight the advantages of mother tongue education: children are more likely to enrol and succeed in school and parents are more likely to communicate with teachers and participate in their children’s learning. Into the bargain, children who are taught in their mother language during the seminal years of education, while grasping a second language such as English, tend to develop better thinking skills compared to their monolingual peers.

The research points to one thing: the provision of mother language education puts children on the path to a brighter future scholastically – and this makes it a compelling option. This, however, needs to balanced with an awareness that legislative frameworks, policies and sound evidence do not catalyse change. It is their real-world implementation that does.

To create consistency on mother language education, the 1996 Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities proposed, ‘The principle that children should be taught in their mother tongue for at least the first six years of the schooling life is universally acknowledged’.

South Africa’s advantage is its progressive Bill of Rights which states that ‘Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education reasonably practicable.’

The policy on mother language education in South Africa, too, mirrors international norms. Schools are permitted to use mother tongue instruction up until Grade 6. Most schools, however, only maintain mother tongue instruction until the third year of schooling, a practice education experts argue exposes the disparity between language policy and the schooling experience.

Then there are the practical challenges.

First is a prevailing bias toward English as a medium of instruction at schools. In a 2015 study* that sought to establish the extent to which learners and their parents value the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction, the majority of the respondents said that they favoured English in the Foundation Phase because ‘’…English is a gateway to success in school and subsequent employment opportunity.’’

This perception was confirmed in the 2018 South African Social Attitudes Survey where 65% of the respondents favoured English as the main language of instruction at school.

Advocates for mother language education suggest that people are so ‘’linguistically colonised’’ that they have more trust in the second language than they do in the first language process of learning. While this is a fair assessment, mother language education has little chance of success without the buy-in of learners, parents and teachers.

Equally critical is the issue of resources. A Kenyan study* found that teachers receive little training on how to teach children in mother tongue. Secondly, instructional materials are lacking in many languages. Where the materials do exist, they are often of poor quality. This has been observed in other Sub-Saharan nations, including South Africa.

Not be trivialised is political context. In South Africa, mother language education could potentially create racially divided schooling – a painful vestige of the past that still lingers today. As South African journalist and political commentator, Stephen Grootes, posited in 2013, ‘’linguistically separating our classrooms will lead to more trouble in the long run.’’

All this considered, there is still a paucity of data on the implementation of mother language education. Without sufficient, rigorous data, we cannot reasonably expect policymakers to influence decisions about language instruction going forward.

It seems that, in the interim, multilingual teaching is the practical compromise. This means that classes are presented in English, with teachers ‘switching’ to explain concepts in the children’s mother language.

A proponent of this is University of Cape Town Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. In a case for multilingualism in schools, she states: ‘’Relying on English as the sole language of learning and teaching mathematics has not worked. Matric results show that our children are not learning mathematics at the level they need to enter university-level science, engineering and technology programmes. If we want our children to succeed in mathematics, science and technology, we must use their home languages as a resource to help them learn these subjects’’.

The robustness of our democracy greatly depends on the conversations we are willing to have. They might drudge up the past, cause discomfort, but will ultimately strengthen us. Mother language education is such a conversation.

If we are to create a more equitable future for our children, realising quality education for all should be our common language, our lingua franca. Whether that means we embrace mother language education, or implement the best of what it has to offer, is yet to be seen. It is in our hands to shape what inclusive, quality education will look like.

* Learning in Mother Tongue: Language Preferences in South Africa (2015)

* Implementing Mother Tongue Instruction in the Real World: Results from a Medium-Scale Randomized Controlled Trial in Kenya (2013-2014)

About the author

Zah’Rah Khan heads the editorial team at Symphonia for South Africa. Her focus areas are education, politics, law and research. Symphonia for South Africa, an internationally recognised social enterprise, runs programmes that develop leadership capacity, reduce inequality and ultimately create a better future for all.

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