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‘Language a barrier to exam success’

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Published Jan 10, 2017


Cape Town - Pupils forced to write their matric exams in languages other than their mother tongue are put at a distinct disadvantage, leading to lower scores on their papers, according to UWC’s linguistics department head.

Professor Bassey Antia said the Department of Basic Education (DBE) should invest in more teachers, moderators and invigilators who speak African languages in order to administer examinations across more diverse languages than just English and Afrikaans.

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“In classrooms, learners are often taught in more than one language.

“It is therefore somewhat unnatural for such learners to be tested in only one of these languages, especially when it is the weaker of their languages,” he said.

“Speakers of African languages, in particular, score the lowest since their languages are not used in examining content subjects."

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“The language of the exam paper itself should not be a challenge; the content of the paper should."

“When results are released everybody says the performance is dismal and the language question tends to be dismissed."

“I say we should look at it differently, because the environments are multilingual and learners acquire knowledge across languages. However, when it comes to assessment, learners are tested in one language, the official language.”

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The DBE said it does not have enough teachers to teach indigenous languages and therefore cannot administer exams in African languages.

Department spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga said the DBE embarked on an initiative aimed at bringing indigenous African languages into mainstream education, but it has yet to bear fruit.

“We implemented the Incremental Introduction of African Languages policy in 2014 which was aimed at forcing all schools in South Africa to offer at least one African language.

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“At the end of the pilot we learned there was a shortage of teachers in this area."

“We have started to attract teachers using a variety of measures aimed at increasing the numbers and thus grow African languages in our schools.

“As things stand, we don’t have enough people that work in this area of our system and that is what we need to do first before we can administer exams in African languages.”

Antia conducted a study which found students who registered to write matric in English and who know both matric exam languages (English and Afrikaans) would flip their exam papers over to read the Afrikaans side if they did not understand the term in English, and vice-versa.

His study, which started in 2013 and is ongoing, includes 119 students from different language groups.

“Terms in one language can be more descriptive than in another language,” said Antia.

“There is knowledge embedded in terms.”

“Knowing several languages can afford different entry points to understanding.”

Antia hopes to present his research to the DBE once it has been published. 

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