Pupils gather for an outdoor storytelling session in Durban. The lack of printed literature in indigenous languages is a spoke in the wheel of the plan to teach African languages at schools. Photo: Puri Devjee

As Winston Churchill might have said, the current policy of parental choice is the least worst option, writes Nick Taylor.

The language we speak when growing up is part of our identity. It locates us in a family, a culture, a language community. No wonder that questions about language and schooling raise such strong emotions.

One principle on which we agree is that children should learn to read and write in their mother tongue before or at least at the same time as learning a second language. Another point on which there is wide agreement is that the mother tongue should be the main language of the classroom for at least the first three years.

The first difficulty in achieving mother tongue instruction in the Foundation Phase (Grades 1-3) is the fact that in a high proportion of classrooms more than one mother tongue is found. This is widespread in the 133 urban primary schools visited by the National Education and Development Unit (Needu) last year.

The most extreme example occurred in a school in the Johannesburg West district, where all 11 official languages were found in one class. In this class, whichever language is chosen as the language of learning and teaching, at least 79% of pupils will be learning in a language which is not their own.

Needu researchers found similar situations in most of the 15 districts visited last year.

A second difficulty commonly found in schools is the fact that in different parts of the country each language begins to incorporate words and structures from the other languages with which it comes into contact.

Thus, the Zulu spoken in Soweto is increasingly different to the Zulu spoken in Mamelodi, and both in turn are diverging from their roots in the rural heartland of KZN.

A major stabilising and standardising force is literature, which leaves African languages in a particularly vulnerable position. Very few books or other reading material of any kind exist in the country’s nine official African languages.

A third difficulty is posed by the terminology used in mathematics. Although technical terms have been developed for mathematical entities and operations in African languages, teachers are not always familiar with them, nor are they used in everyday commercial transactions. English names for numbers are commonly used, for example, in spaza shop transactions conducted in African languages.

Teachers complain that when the official math terminology appears in the ANA test papers, it causes confusion among learners.

Across the country, Needu evaluators encountered teachers who felt that mathematics would be best taught in English from Grade 1, or at least that Africanised English terms be used, since the latter were more widely known by teachers, parents and children than the more recently contrived official terms.

While the abovementioned problems encountered in designing appropriate language policies for the first three grades of schooling are largely technical, a fourth is related to parental aspirations and therefore far more difficult to address.

Many parents see English as the route into higher education and the labour market for their children and schools are increasingly choosing English from Grade 1.

One-third of schools visited by Needu last year offered English as language of learning and teaching for foundation phase African-language speakers in at least one class. This occurred in ex-House of Assembly (whites only under apartheid), House of Delegates (Indian) and House of Representatives (coloured) schools where the language of learning and teaching was either English or Afrikaans and most pupils came to the school from the surrounding townships and spoke one or more of a number of African languages.

In addition, an increasing number of township and rural schools provide English as the language of learning and teaching in the foundation phase.

The trend towards English brings a fifth problem. To facilitate the transition in most schools from mother tongue in the Foundation Phase to English from Grade 4, the new curriculum has introduced English as a second language in Grades 1-3 in such schools. Primary school teachers in around 70% of schools now either teach through the medium of English, or teach English as a second language in the Foundation Phase.

Effective teaching is heavily dependent on the teacher being proficient in the language she is teaching. In many schools this ideal is not met. While most schools struggle with language issues, few have investigated programmes focused on English proficiency. Departments of education, national and provincial, should investigate the extent of the problem and prioritise it in teacher capacitation interventions.

Under the circumstances, it seems that the present language policy for schools is most appropriate, or, as Winston Churchill might have said, current policy of parental choice is the least worst option.

But the government should recognise that there is a steady drift to English, and provide two kinds of language support to schools. First, teachers need to be proficient in the language of learning and teaching of the school, and selection procedures and training programmes must be directed towards this goal.

Second, the African languages are being neglected and need to be strengthened. While a number of individual reading titles are available for the foundation phase, graded sets of readers are much less common. Development of such sets in all African languages is important for promoting reading, as is incentivising the development of literature of different genres for the other school phases.

Finally, the introduction next year of an African language in all schools must be seen as a positive move in the direction of fostering communication and understanding between different language communities.

* Taylor is the chief executive officer of Needu, an independent body reporting to the minister of Basic Education and tasked with making recommendations for improving the quality of schooling.

Transformation of schools in our divided society is socially too crucial to be postponed any longer, writes Michel Lafon.

According to the recent announcement by the Department of Basic Education, making good a demand voiced at the Mangaung ANC conference, an African language will be compulsory for all pupils until Grade 9. The introduction is to be gradual, starting in 2014 with Grade R and Grade 1, and then one grade up each year.

Such a move is long overdue. Together with UKZN’s intention to make Zulu a language of instruction, it seems to herald the linguistic transformation of the education scene.

It is reassuring to see that it has not triggered principled opposition so far. However, the devil lies in the implementation. Some argue for preconditions to be met – in particular that teachers be trained and material ready. These common sense points are sound and valid. But, for two reasons, they should not be taken as excuses for inaction.

Since 1996 we have seen the force of inertia, if not worse. On the one hand, it is only through the pressing necessity imposed by a curriculum requirement that progress can be made regarding the development of African languages.

On the other, transformation of schools in a society still as divided as South Africa is socially and ideologically too crucial to be postponed any longer. The time is ripe, and there are ways to overcome the very real issues put forth.

Let us look first at human resources. The department claims to have the teachers. Some will consider this statement to be wishful thinking. But it may be true if we allow ourselves to think outside the box.

It is clear that the main target of the measure – and very appropriately – are the schools where no African language features.

These schools include former model C schools as well as private ones. As a rule they do not have teachers able, trained or experienced in African language teaching. Some have only a few teachers that speak them.

How can African languages be introduced given that no massive recruitment of (altogether non-existing) specialised teachers seems on the cards, at least for the public schools?

Bearing in mind that all public schools fall under the same administration, one could consider transferring teachers from “black” schools (viz township and rural schools that cater for black children).

However, no reverse transfer is possible on a significant scale: the language barrier would disqualify most former model C teachers to take a Foundation Phase class in a “black” school (supposing they were willing), lest the principle of mother-tongue is flouted, and communication with pupils impaired. Moreover, as a result “black” schools would be even further weakened with a loss of staff.

But there might be another, less drastic, way: inter-school co-operation through teachers’ mobility.

Teachers could move between schools. Say in Grade 1 the African language is allocated four periods a week, distributed in two days. A former model C school with four Grade 1 classes would therefore need from two to four African language teachers over two days (one teacher could attend two classes).

The school could enter into an agreement with surrounding “black” schools for them to send – on a voluntary basis – one or two teachers each, possibly with different languages, while the former model C teachers, whose time would have been freed, would replace them in loco for – obviously – the English lesson. In Grade R time is not divided into periods. African language could occupy one morning a week or so, on the same principle, even though financial implications may be different as teachers are not (yet) fully paid for by the department.

The existing structure of clusters (which groups six to seven schools for mutual support) could be redrawn so as to include, whenever geographically feasible, schools of the two categories. For instance, Mamelodi could link up with Pretoria East, Alex with Sandton, uMlazi with Durban south, KwaMashu with uMhlanga, etc.

The benefits of the integration of schools across the divide in terms of support, sharing of experiences, mutual knowledge and, of course, social cohesion, need not be demonstrated.

It could indeed contribute to bridging the gap between township and suburban schools and their population.

The issue of material follows. The manuals developed by the Department for African Languages target native speakers.

They are not adequate for non-native speakers. However, there exist in the main African languages alternative material. More, obviously, need to be developed. Such a project would give a strong incentive.

Within these parameters the decision could be implemented without further delay, in at least a significant number of schools while the reminder would be scheduled for the following year(s). If it led in due time to the inscription of an African language as a requirement at matric, other universities would more easily follow in UKZN’s steps.

Thus the linguistic transformation of the whole education landscape would at last be set in motion, undoing long-held prejudices and opening up social and ideological castles.

* Lafon is a research fellow at the Centre for Research on the Politics of Language at the University of Pretoria.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.