THEY FOUGHT FOR US. But more than three decades after the Soweto uprisings, most SA pupils are not receiving mother-tongue education.

NONTOBEKO MTSHALI

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IN 1976 it led to bloodshed and today it remains a thorn in the side of SA’s education system.

Though education policy in schools has evolved and aligned to rights upheld in the constitution, the issue of which language pupils are taught in remains factious.

In 1976 white pupils were taught in their home language. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 stated that black pupils were to be taught in their mother tongue in primary school and switch to English and Afrikaans in high school.

The language policy in schools today says children must be taught in their mother tongue and a first additional language. A second additional language is optional.

When registering their children, parents must indicate in which language they want their children to be taught.

The SA Schools Act of 1996 states that it is the responsibility of the school governing body to develop policies that will ensure and promote multilingualism.

The Language in Education Policy, in terms of the National Education Act of 1996, further adds that: “Where there are less than 40 requests in Grades 1 to 6 or less than 35 requests in Grades 7 to 12 for instruction in a language not offered by a school in that school district, the head of the provincial education department must determine how the needs of these pupils will be met.”

Education analysts, however, say that the promotion of multilingualism in schools barely goes beyond policy documents. Even though countless studies have shown that for children to grasp what they’re being taught, the medium of instruction should be their mother tongue, many black parents opt to have their children taught in English.

Research conducted by the Department of Basic Education in 2007 shows that close to 80percent of school pupils were being taught in either English or Afrikaans. It’s argued black parents opt to have their children taught in English, because it’s a global language that will enable children to succeed in higher education and the workplace.

In addition, the fact that vernacular languages were previously marginalised and not developed in the academic sector plays a role.

There is also the argument that even if parents insist that their children be taught in their mother tongue throughout their schooling, teachers aren’t trained to teach in vernacular languages.

In April last year Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande said that if he had his way students graduating from university would not do so without having studied at least one vernacular language.

This was largely welcomed by analysts, who said implementing this would go beyond improving academic performance to fostering social cohesion. Some even called for the policy to be implemented at an earlier level of education.

“African languages need to be assigned greater value in the system. I believe (in) nothing short of making an African language compulsory at matric,” said Michel Lafon, a fellow at the centre for research on the politics of language at the University of Pretoria.

Masennya Dikotla, chief executive of the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, said if people learnt one SA vernacular language, they would gain an understanding of other languages.

“If your learnt Northern Sotho (Pedi), for instance, you will be able to understand Southern Sotho (Sotho) and Tswana without much additional effort. Learning Zulu will enable you to understand Xhosa, Ndebele – also applicable to Zimbabwe – and Swati, applicable to Swaziland,” Dikotla said.

During a meeting among ministers of higher education from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region held in Joburg last week, then deputy minister of Higher Education and Training Hlengiwe Mkhize (Mdu Manana holds the position after President Jacob Zuma’s latest cabinet reshuffle) said the fact that the majority of students were taught in their second language had an adverse impact on their academic performance.

“We are not developing our indigenous languages in order to make them languages of scholarship and research. Our youth are struggling to grasp learning content because they are taught in a second or third language.”

This, she said, is a large contributor to the fact that even though the global average of enrolment and participation in institutions of higher education is 30 percent, the SADC region’s participation rate currently sits at of 6,5percent.