As the number of second language English speakers multiplies in the world, the need for native English speakers to communicate in any other medium is becoming less and less necessary. In South Africa children are required to learn two languages at school – their own and one other.
This is a blessing for English speakers who, content in their comfort zone, would probably choose to remain monolingual without realising what they are missing. Each language opens another window on the world and a diversity of windows enriches our lives.
Now there is a plan to add a third language to the school curriculum.
A draft policy document on the incremental introduction of African languages in schools proposes to lengthen the school day to allow for a third language – an African language – to be taught.
Learners of course will object on principle. Like trade union members, school children are automatically opposed to any measure that increases the working day and involves more effort.
Though many are prepared to spend endless time and energy resisting work, they carefully ration the time they will devote to their studies. With only a short lifetime behind them, young children generally lack the ability to understand the longer term. Hopefully their parents will encourage a more positive attitude.
But there are practical challenges – and they aren’t just the product of white whingeing and an ingrained resistance to change. The policy document concedes some of them, including that new teachers would have to be trained and existing teachers would have to be reskilled to teach pupils the third language.
This brings us to the essential problem: the basic education system is struggling to do what it already does. More bluntly: it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, which is to equip children to be productive and satisfied in the world of work.
In a country where many languages are spoken, educating children is extremely complicated. In South Africa there are 11 official languages, but many more are spoken. And this diversity in the schooling system poses enormous challenges.
As English is the language of business, it is favoured by pupils and parents. Other language speakers perceive an economic imperative in acquiring it. But what a challenge it is to children who start their school life learning in their mother tongue and only a few years later find themselves being taught in a language they haven’t yet mastered.
There are different theories about how and when children should be taught new languages and at what stage they should be expected to cope with a medium of instruction that is not their own tongue. But the debates are academic because teacher skills and commitment are lacking.
Children in our public schools generally have to make do with teachers who see themselves primarily as union members. Of course there are dedicated teachers, but the outcomes of the public schooling system indicates they are few.
Upgrading teaching skills is top of the official agenda. But only in theory. What the ANC could have done, when it first became aware of the long tail of apartheid’s “bantu education” among generations of teachers, was import teachers: teachers to teach teachers to teach children.
In this way they could have broken the vicious cycle of disempowerment. But a mean-spirited approach prevailed – “foreigners might steal our jobs”. Politicians are strong on promises but are rarely prepared to compromise their support base by looking to the long term.