[lg policy] The science is clear about 'mother-tongue' education. So why are we attacking it?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon May 27 10:49:14 EDT 2019

The science is clear about 'mother-tongue' education. So why are we
attacking it?2019-05-26 09:00
[image: School desks. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)]

School desks. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)

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   - Why mother tongue education is the best
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   - Be proud of your language

*A new assault on the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction for
children who speak Afrikaans at home, serves to diminish the opportunities
for all children to learn through a language that they know best,
writes Kathleen Heugh.*

The controversy about "mother tongue education" is not new. It's been
around for at least 117 years in South Africa. If we want to cast "blame"
around, we might point a finger at the British "anglicisation" policy and
restriction of Dutch medium education at the end of the Anglo-Boer (South
African) War in 1902.

Lingering resentment of linguistic discrimination resulted in policy to
protect and privilege Afrikaans once the National Party came to power in
1948 and resurfaced in 1953 in the Bantu Education Act, according each
ethnolinguistic community "the right to mother-tongue education".

Ironically, this was the same year that UNESCO's report on *The Use of the
Vernacular Languages in Education* made recommendations based entirely on
educational concerns for use of students' "mother languages" in school
systems of Africa.

What sets the two documents apart is that National Party policy was
entangled not only in the principles of "rights" and best educational
practice. It was enmeshed within racist, segregationist, and inequitable
socio-economic policy.

In the case of the UNESCO document, the home, local or mother language of
the child was recognised as the essential foundation for education for all
children. At the time it was thought that three years of the home language
would be enough before a switch to one of the international languages (or
former colonial languages) could occur with success. Since 1953, across
twenty countries in Africa, we have found that most students need to have a
minimum of six years of good teaching through the medium of the home or
local language plus good teaching of English before students can learn
through the medium of English.

The Six Year Primary Project, 1970-1976, led by Babs Fafunwa and colleagues
in Nigeria demonstrated this, not only to Africa, but to the world. It was
only 15 years later that the first longitudinal study led by David Ramirez
found similar findings in the USA. These findings were further corroborated
by Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas, in large-scale studies, also in the
US in 1997 and 2002.

UNESCO and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa
(ADEA) commissioned a 25-country study of language education policy in
2005. By mid-2006 they were able to report to the ministers of education in
Libreville that in Africa, we need a minimum of six years of mother-tongue
medium education plus good teaching of either English, French or
Portuguese, before students can switch to learning through one of these. We
were able to understand from both South African data and more recent data
from Ethiopia, that under less optimal or less well-resourced conditions,
most students require eight years of mother-tongue education plus the
teaching of English before they can learn through this language.

These later African research findings have been widely disseminated by
UNESCO and currently inform language education policy in South-East Asia
and South Asia. They are available in accessible form
<https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000188642> by UNESCO in: *Why and
how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education:
an evidence- and practice-based policy advocacy brief.*

The African research has similarly informed several international and
transnational forums of research including the Council of Europe's Research
Network of Excellence, Sustainable Development for a Diverse World. Most
recently, for example, it has informed the *Salzburg Statement for a
Multilingual World

In an international context when South African and African research is
being taken up beyond our borders, why are we going backwards in time, and
why are we yet again attacking mother-tongue education in our country?

*Heart-breaking failure of current system*

Disentangling sound educational principles from discriminatory and
inequitable policy, twenty-five years after the official end of apartheid,
should be possible. We have decades of research evidence from within South
Africa, from across Africa, and elsewhere. This proves beyond any doubt
that most school students cannot learn through a language that they do not
know well and that they do not understand.

It is simply not possible to establish strong foundations of literacy and
numeracy in a language that neither the students nor their teachers know
well enough. The appalling, and let us be honest, heart-breaking failure of
our current education system to teach students to read, write and
understand even basic mathematics is shameful.

Even though we began our new vision for an equitable South Africa in 1994,
with a Constitution that enshrines the right of all children to receive
education in a language that is appropriate, we have failed. Even though we
invested in a Language Plan Task Group Report (1996) and the establishment
of a statutory body, the Pan South African Language Board, also in 1996, to
oversee a new vision for multilingualism in the country, we have failed.

Even though we developed a new language in education policy in 1997, one
that made provision for an additive approach to bilingual or multilingual
education based on the mother tongue (or home language) plus English, we
have failed. We have done very little to make sure that we do this
properly. We have tried to deny most of our children what they need. For
the most part we have pretended that they can get this through English,
sooner rather than later. The result is that they have not.

*Assault on Afrikaans not helpful*

A new assault on the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction for
children who speak Afrikaans at home, is not helpful. All that it does is
to diminish the opportunities for all children to learn through a language
that they know best. It serves to discourage parents from insisting on both
the mother tongue and an opportunity to learn English, and possibly also
another South African language well. It takes us away from multilingualism
that will prepare our students for employment and meeting the needs of an
increasingly diverse world.

The only students who will continue to succeed under present circumstances
will be a small minority of those with English as home language, and/or the
children of socio-economic and political elite of the country. This is not
democracy and it does not achieve equity.

- Kathleen Heugh is associate professor of Applied Linguistics at the
University of South Australia. She is an educational linguist whose
research focussed on pre-empting and working with post-apartheid language
policy in South Africa from 1988 to 2007. She has advised governments in
more than 30 countries on the role of mother tongue, minority languages and
multilingual education.

*Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of
diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore
their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.*

*Read more on:   * *education
<https://www.news24.com/Tags/Topics/education>*  |  *language


 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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