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A language row is brewing that could see Afrikaans pitted against Zulu as the language of choice at schools in KwaZulu-Natal as changes related to the new national curriculum take effect from January.
Parents at Hillary Primary School near Durban are up in arms after being told that Zulu would be dropped in favour of Afrikaans as a first additional language.
The matter is also the source of a heated debate in several other schools in the country because the Basic Education Department’s new Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements dictate that only one first additional language will be offered.
Educationists argue that many in KZN will opt for Afrikaans because it is considered easier to pass, and Afrikaans teachers and learning materials are easier to come by.
At Hillary Primary, parents have complained they were not properly consulted about the language issue and that even a survey that the school used to determine which language was favoured appeared to be slanted towards Afrikaans.
The letter said: “In the event of your child leaving KwaZulu-Natal, Zulu may possibly not be offered in other provinces.”
The South African Democratic Teachers Union has taken up the matter on behalf of disgruntled parents to ensure the language policy at the school is reversed in favour of Zulu.
Sibongiseni Xulu, the union’s eThekwini secretary, said: “These additional languages must be given equal status. No language should be dominant over another.”
Alex Ndlovu, the chairman of Hillary Primary School’s governing body, said that since their survey in 2011, no parent had raised the issue.
Ndlovu said, that instead of calling a meeting, they sent out letters because most parents failed to pitch up, and they usually ended up calling more than one meeting.
He said most of the survey letters returned to the school called for Afrikaans instead of Zulu, but he did not know what percentage of parents were in favour of this.
Hillary Primary had 800 to 900 pupils, of whom 65 percent were Indian and 25 percent were Zulu. Most parents felt that learning Afrikaans was much easier than Zulu.
Ndlovu said the board would meet again next week and, if there was a need, they would also have a meeting for parents.
Muzi Mahlambi of the KZN Education Department said school governing bodies were only there to implement the will of the parents. They should call a meeting with the parents and implement their wishes when deciding on the language issue, he said.
Tim Gordon, the national chief executive of the Governing Body Foundation, said the policy statements strictly stipulated the subjects that schools could offer, and the duration of each lesson.
From next year grades 4 to 6 (intermediate phase) would offer six rather than eight subjects: home language, first additional language, maths, natural sciences and technology, social sciences and life skills.
“The regulations were implemented in grades 1 to 3 in 2012, and they will be implemented in 2013 in grades 4 to 6. This is why it has only now become an issue,” Gordon said.
Afrikaans is a much easier language to master. There are no clicks, the vocabulary and the structures are part of the same family of languages as English and therefore easier to pick up… [It] has none of the archaic, historical structures of older languages like English, German, Latin, Zulu etcetera.”
Worse was that, for high school pupils, the standard of the externally set Zulu exam papers was beyond the capabilities of even mother-tongue speakers, Gordon said.
The unfairly high standard was putting pupils off, and doing a “huge disservice” to all indigenous languages.
Both Gordon and Jaco Deacon, the national deputy chief executive of the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, believed the schools’ choice also had to do with teacher supply.
In KZN last year, 11 766 Grade 12 pupils wrote Afrikaans first additional language, and 9 159 wrote Zulu. However, according to the KZN Education Department, 99 percent of the pupils studying Zulu passed, compared with 69.87 percent of the Afrikaans candidates.
Julia Mathibela of the Pan South African Language Board said: “If we say let the African languages take a back seat, when is it going to be the right time? We need an attitude change.”
She admitted there were challenges finding educational material, but said that if schools were keen on making a difference they would go the extra mile to find what they needed.
On Sunday, leading academic Professor Jonathan Jansen slammed the decision to drop an additional language, saying it was a “silly trade-off”.
He told The Mercury that some of the strongest economies in the world were multilingual and that children should not have to choose a language, but should do both. He added that it didn’t make sense that pupils were not learning Zulu in a province where so many people spoke the language.