Government needs to fund language initiative

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 23 12:42:32 UTC 2005

Government needs to fund language initiative if it is to become reality

>>From the Sunday Independent

By Edwin Naidu

Education experts have welcomed plans by Naledi Pandor, the education
minister, to eradicate Eurocentric modes of learning and teaching by
promoting multilingualism at schools. However, there is doubt that the
government will be able to afford the resources to back its language
policy ambitions. The government's language policy for schools, on the
back-burner since 1998, was spelled out by Pandor while clarifying the
country's new Further Education and Training certificate, which makes
provision for two languages, one of which must be the current language of
learning and teaching: English or Afrikaans.

However, much of the debate since her address to parliament on Tuesday has
centred on whether Afrikaans or English would be removed from the
classroom. "That is not the intention of the policy. It opens up the
possibility of developing the other official languages into languages of
learning and teaching," Pandor told parliament. "Clearly while we work to
achieve this noble objective, the current choice of English and Afrikaans
as the languages of learning and teaching will remain.

"Language in education cannot be seen solely as being about English or
Afrikaans. In the past, before 1998, pupils were locked into a system that
privileged Afrikaans and English for those in search of a matric
endorsement. That is now no longer true and all languages will now be
equally available as subject choices," she said. Critics argue that
promotion of all 11 official languages, not just English and Afrikaans, is
necessary to prevent the country's culture from disappearing; but more
significantly, to help boost the performance of pupils in schools and
students at tertiary institutions.

"The minister has not made any provision of resources for the promotion of
languages, other than English or Afrikaans, at school," said Brian
Ramadiro, an education analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand's
education policy unit. "Pandor's comments may in fact undermine indigenous
languages in the country because, without any infrastructure, English or
Afrikaans would by default remain the subject of choice," he said.

Dave Balt, the president of the National Association of Professional
Teachers of South Africa, said the policy, though welcome, would take a
while to be implemented. "It's a question of getting textbooks in
indigenous languages and having teachers trained to be able to teach," he
said. "Many people have reacted negatively to the government's plans but
without understanding that the language of instruction would still be one
of English or Afrikaans and an indigenous official language," he said.

Salim Vally, a senior researcher at the Wits education policy unit, said
he accepted a multilingual language policy for learning in teaching in the
country but feared it would be "dead unless the state plunges resources
into making it work". Vally said the catalogue of needs in education was
so great that the government was not delivering essentials such as water,
sanitation, electricity and libraries, among other necessities.

"Children are still learning under trees despite President Thabo Mbeki's
pledge in his state of the nation address to tackle this as a priority,"
Vally said. Duncan Hindle, the director-general in the department of
education, said the government's language policy was "aspirational" and
would not radically reshape the culture of learning and teaching in the
country. "English or Afrikaans will remain, there's not going to be any
drastic change," he said.

Hindle said the department hoped that publishers and provincial education
departments would take up the cudgels and work together to develop
materials in indigenous languages. Asked whether it would be possible to
implement a language policy in the face of other pressing constraints,
Hindle said: "It is not impossible. We employ 360 000 teachers and I'd say
as a start it would not be impossible to find 5 000 teachers willing to
teach in indigenous languages," he said. Pandor said she wanted to make
the learning of an indigenous African language compulsory in schools,
since language was used as a tool of exclusion in schools.

In its policy document, the department of education said cultural
diversity was a valuable national asset; therefore it strove to promote
multilingualism, as well as the development of and respect for all the
official languages. Vally said that multilingualism had been debated
vigorously before and that experts agreed that, although English had
market value, there was merit in learning one's mother tongue. Vally
added, however, that most parents saw English as the beginning and the end
in education because of its market value and globalisation.

In terms of the government's original policy on language, all pupils
should be offered the chance to take at least one approved language as a
subject in grade 1 and grade 2. From grade 3 onwards, all pupils should be
offered learning and teaching in a language of their choice and at least
one additional approved language. All language subjects should receive
equitable time and resource allocation.

Ramadiro said the fact that only 18 percent of matriculants obtained
passes with exemption last year, ensuring university entrance, showed that
the bilingual (English and Afrikaans) medium had affected access to the
doors of higher learning for many. "The state is investing billions for
children to learn in a foreign language they don't understand," he said.
According to the Council on Higher Education's Study into Languages at
Universities and Technikons in 2000, 16 of 21 universities used English as
the language of tuition.

In five other institutions, English-medium tuition was increasing
alongside, and perhaps at the expense of, Afrikaans because of the
demographic shift in the student population at all South African
educational institutions. Although the same trend can be observed at
technikons, much more Afrikaans-medium tuition takes place at these

The universities that returned the questionnaire on which the study was
based did not use African languages for tuition. At the end of April 2000
not a single university was officially exploring the possibility of using
African languages for tuition except in the relevant language and
literature studies. Although the survey did not elicit information
regarding the pass rates at the then 36 higher-education institutions, on
the basis of the data available, there is reason to believe that these are
unacceptably low.

While language is not wholly responsible, the council said there was
little doubt in the minds of most educators that it was one of the most
important factors. Pandor has given the council the go-ahead to focus on
finding ways to train more teachers in areas of critical need, including
indigenous languages.

Published on the web by Sunday Independent on May 22, 2005.

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