[lg policy] Q&A with Lara Krause, language activist and PhD researcher into mother tongue education

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon May 28 11:21:35 EDT 2018

“There’s a social justice agenda that gets and keeps me passionate about
this work” – a Q&A with Lara Krause, language activist and PhD researcher
into mother tongue education
by Mila on May 28th, 2018

*Published in the Sunday World: 27 May 2018; Daily Dispatch: 28 May 2018;
Herald: 31 May 2018*)

*By Carla Lever*
Lara Krause, language activist and PhD researcher into mother tongue
education. Photo supplied.

*You’ve specialised in language and education in South Africa for many
years now. What gets you so passionate about these topics?*

It’s always struck me that something as universal as language, which was
never an obstacle in my own education, can make life so difficult for
millions of children at school. So there’s a social justice agenda that
gets and keeps me passionate about this work. I’m also excited by the idea
of debating what language really is – what counts as a ‘proper’ language
and what gets dismissed as unacceptable or informal.

*There is a big and important movement fighting for access to mother tongue
education, but your research suggests it’s a complicated issue. Why is

Well, one issue is that South Africa is a country where most children grow
up speaking more than one neat language category – they mix isiZulu,
English, isiXhosa and maybe Afrikaans as a normal part of everyday life.
They communicate just as efficiently as everyone else – perhaps more
efficiently! – but what is their mother tongue? It shows the shortcomings
of our thinking.

*Can you give us some practical examples where school language policy
doesn’t always help children?*

Well, the numbers used in everyday isiXhosa are mostly adapted from English
– the formal isiXhosa words for numbers are almost never used. When
children learn maths in ‘mother tongue’, though, they are often taught
standard isiXhosa words for numbers – words that are actually foreign to
them! This sometimes has children being marked down in tests if, for
example, they can’t write a number like 153 out in standard isiXhosa words.
These children can often count and work with numbers perfectly well – it’s
just that the words they know are not acknowledged because they don’t fit
into one language category. That’s not a failure of thinking, it’s a
failure of policy.

*In your experience, what creative things are teachers doing in practice to
help students with this?*

Teachers work a lot with visual aids, I find. Even though resources are
often hard to come by, they print posters, bring pictures or postcards to
continuously illustrate what is being spoken about. I’ve also seen teachers
physically act out vocabulary that they are teaching and integrating little
jokes to make learners remember things better. I’ve been really impressed
by the creativity teachers bring under very difficult circumstances!

*Obviously it’s important that we turn around our literacy rates in South
Africa. Do you think a more flexible approach to language use might help
with this?*

Yes! If I could decide, I would relax language restrictions when it comes
to writing in content subjects in primary school. Children should be free
to use whichever language resources they have to show their knowledge. We
should also stop worrying so much about teachers mixing languages in the
classroom – research suggests it’s one of the most efficient ways of
helping students understand. We should legitimise and support any practices
which help our children learn and develop a love of using language to
express themselves. As they are exposed to standard ways of saying and
writing things in the books they read, children absorb the formal rules if
they’re allowed to grow into them.

*You’ve done some work with picture stories to see how children naturally
write. Can you tell us about why you did this and what you discovered?*

I wanted to see how children choose to write if they are allowed to use any
mix of languages they like. It looks as if children write more courageously
and freely when not restricted to ‘one language’. This data is my current
project so the insights are not very detailed yet.

*How can parents and communities best support children to become curious,
creative readers and thinkers? Are there any tips you’d give on supporting
how children close to us talk and write?*

I think it would be great to start early to expose children to different
types of texts. Reading books together with children and talking about them
is incredibly valuable and conducive to any sort of learning activity.
However, if books are not always at hand, a whatsapp message with lots of
emojis that mom just got from dad can be turned into a resource for
learning about reading, writing and creativity as well, just like the
writings on the wall of the spaza shop and the lyrics of children’s
favorite songs.

*From Sunday April 15, Nal’ibali <http://nalibali.org/> will be publishing
its supplements in two new languages. An English-Setswana edition will be
published in the Sunday World in the North West, and an English-Xitsonga
edition will be donated to reading clubs in Limpopo. Clubs in both
provinces will collect their copies from select post offices. The post
offices (10 in each province) will also have 50 additional editions each to
give away to member of the public.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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