Getting the language mix right

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Jun 9 12:49:22 UTC 2005

>>From Business Day (South Africa)

Thursday, 09 June 2005

Getting the language mix right

Margie Owen-Smith

EDUCATION Minister Naledi Pandor is determined to move indigenous
languages from the margin to the centre and wants to develop a language
policy that vigorously and effectively promotes indigenous languages in
schools. She is not just talking about the common sense of ensuring that
English and Afrikaans speakers are taught to communicate in one of these
languages, but she envisages them being used as languages of learning and
teaching. It makes obvious cultural and psychological sense for
African-language learners to maintain their home languages, but does it
make for academic progress in areas where it really matters? And is there
a practical way to use nine indigenous languages in the process of
learning and teaching in the same classroom?

In 1998, the school governing bodies of six Johannesburg schools
English-medium, former model C schools got together to provide
home-language maintenance for their African-language pupils. They were
inspired by goals set by the new language-in-education policy (1997), and
backed by research pointing to the relationship between a sound
home-language base and the development of proficiency in English in turn
benefiting the learning of all subjects being taught through English. They
were also inspired by the possibility of developing a cost-effective model
that would be replicable for other, less-advantaged, urban schools faced
with the Gauteng reality of up to 11 official languages in every class.

Particularly interested in the research and development challenge in what
was perceived as a vital area in education, the Anglo American Chairmans
Fund provided start-up funding for the project and has been its mainstay
ever since. In April 2001, the Gauteng education department provided two
teachers to make it possible for the Home-Language Project to begin its
work, sharing the teachers among the six schools. Since then, experience
has shown unequivocally that there are practical, relatively inexpensive
ways to provide meaningful homelanguage support, despite the multilingual
complexities of the Gauteng situation. Moreover, it has been shown that it
should be possible to think in terms of a systematic and cost-effective
way to use home languages for learning and teaching alongside English, in
key subjects such as maths and science.

A problem in traditionally English schools is that the home language is
being ignored (in some cases even suppressed) as a resource for learning.
In traditionally African-language schools now using English as a medium,
the home language is still being used to an extent by reasonably
multilingual educators. But what is missing is the bilingual methodology
and learning materials needed to make this approach effective. In neither
of these types of schools are language skills (in either language) keeping
pace with the demands of the conceptual thinking required by the maths and
science curricula, or even with the understanding of text needed to handle
the books and exams for these subjects. The result is consistent
underperformance of African-language learners in maths and science, as is
clearly indicated in systemic tests recently administered by our national
education department, as well as by other studies including that conducted
by the Centre for Development and Enterprise last year.

Interestingly, findings show that pupils from schools using the home
language as the language medium are performing above average for the
African-language group. This corroborates the view that the home language
is a resource waiting to be used. A childs home language is his or her
most basic tool for learning. And yet proficiency in English and being
able to learn through English have indisputable advantages, particularly
for learners progressing to higher education. The challenge is to use both
in an effective mix explicitly teaching the language of maths concepts,
logic and reasoning at the same time as doing the maths.

The Home-Language Project is developing a bilingual model that will do
this, with every child in the classroom using identical materials in both
English and one of our 10 other official languages. The methodology will
initially be developed using the projects two language teachers to assist
the in-house maths teachers, but once it has been proven and the related
materials have been developed, the in-house teachers will be equipped to
handle these lessons on their own. At the end of last year, Gauteng
terminated the contracts of the projects two shared teachers on the
grounds that the agreed pilot period had come to an end and there was no
longer any place for them in the departments budget.

The countrys need to lift proficiency in maths and science is critical and
the ministers vision for indigenous languages can indeed be part of
achieving this. We have to make our multiplicity of languages work for us
and not against us, but this will need practical solutions backed up by
focused teacher training and learning materials. A small but dedicated
parent initiative in Johannesburg is trying to contribute in all these
respects but cannot operate on its own.

Owen-Smith is co-ordinator of the Home-Language Project.

Copyright  2004 BDFM Publishers (Pty) Ltd.

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