[lg policy] The Impact of Language on Education

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 21 10:37:23 EDT 2019

The Impact of Language on Education 0
BY DONNAY OOSTHUIZEN <https://www.grocotts.co.za/author/donnayoosthuizen/> ON
<https://www.grocotts.co.za/category/education-2/education/>, NEWS


South Africa’s education system is currently in a crisis, proven by our
dismal ranking in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

Pupils in primary school are not only hindered by the unfair education
system, but also by language barriers that prevent them from performing at
their optimum potential.

According to the 2011 Census, approximately 88% of the population speaks
native South African languages, and children are accordingly sent to
schools that use their home languages as the medium of instruction from
grades 1-3. Many pupils then remain in schools that teach in their mother
tongue right up to the matric level.

Masechaba Makola, a student at Rhodes University, studied at a
Sepedi-medium school in Limpopo throughout her schooling career.

“All my subjects were taught in Sepedi, even English,” she said. In her
primary school, everybody thought that Masechaba knew English, as she was a
diligent pupil and was constantly reading newspapers and magazines.

“That really helped me,” she noted, “because even when the school had
functions, I would be the MC. In primary school and high school, it did not
feel like my English was not good enough.”

Coming to a tertiary educational institute made Masechaba aware that
studying in Sepedi throughout school had put her at a disadvantage. “With
Rhodes University, everything is in English, even communicating with your
friends. Coming from an environment where you only had to speak English for
presentations at school, speaking the language every single day is
extremely difficult,” she said. “It does not only affect your studies; it
affects your self-esteem as well. You feel like your English is not
polished, so you tend to hide yourself and not say things. Even in class,
you don’t answer questions,” she added.

Kgaugelo Mamogale, who is also a student at Rhodes University, attended
seven schools – all of which taught in Tswana. Like Masechaba, she was a
diligent pupil and enjoyed learning new English words. However, when she
arrived at university, she had a very different experience. “In my class, a
person would ask a question, but before I could even understand the
question that they asked, the lecturer had already answered it. I’ve never
asked a question in a lecture, and not because I don’t have a question,”
Kgaugelo explained. The fear of speaking incorrectly led her to avoid
speaking in lectures. “I felt like it took longer for me to do things
compared to other people,” she added.

The Political and International Studies Department at Rhodes University has
tried to remedy this situation by accepting academic pieces in South
African mother-tongue languages. Koaile Monaheng, the Teaching Assistant at
the department, said that this policy was always in place, but it was just
not prioritised. “We were inspired when a professor submitted an entire PhD
in isiXhosa,” he said.

“When South Africans speak, they flow between languages, which Dr Siphokazi
Magadla – a Senior Lecturer at the university – pointed out. You don’t
realise how much we go through different languages when speaking, to try to
explain a point. We wanted students to express themselves more and have a
deeper understanding of their work.”

This policy was well received by the students, and four students decided to
write their examinations in isiXhosa.

The schools in South Africa that do not engage with English as a medium of
instruction see their learners facing a disadvantage after matriculation.
Furthermore, the emotional strain that is placed on these students is
extremely unfair. If more tertiary education institutions would accommodate
for all official South African languages, students such as Masechaba and
Kgaugelo would be better able to utilise the university space for the


 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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