From year four, most South African schools teach all subjects in English only. The devastating consequences of this for the education of children who speak African languages ​​at home were convincingly portrayed in the documentary film Sink or Swim. These consequences include a lack of conceptual understanding and little identification with the content.

South Africa has 12 official languages, including South African Sign Language. The constitution allows the use of any of these languages ​​as a medium of instruction in schools. But only English and Afrikaans are used in a minority of schools and are used after 3rd grade.

Only 9% of the population speak English as their first language, and most of these speakers are white. This means that schoolchildren who were advantaged during apartheid are still advantaged today. That is why the Bua-Lit language and literacy collective, of which we are members, has called the language policy in place in South African schools racist.

The announcement by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga in Parliament on 9 March 2022 that African indigenous languages ​​will be used as languages ​​of instruction beyond Grade 3 is therefore very encouraging. No implementation details have yet been announced.

The department’s decision is based on a pilot project in the Eastern Cape province using mother-tongue bilingual education as a model. A pilot initiated the use of Sesotho and Issos as languages ​​of instruction in Grade 4 in 2012, and in 2020, examination papers in mathematics, physics and history were available in Sesotho and Issos as well as English. In 2019, Grade 6 students who participated in the bilingual pilot study scored an average of 28 percentage points higher in science and technology than their English-only peers.

The Department of Basic Education’s announcement was met with mixed reviews, with commentators debating whether an Afrikaans language could work.

But the bilingual aspect of the Basic Education Department’s project is lost in the debate. And the fact that most South African teachers already teach in two languages ​​is not acknowledged. They do this illegally, in the form of verbal “code-switching” between the African language(s) used by the children and English as the official language of learning and teaching. Decades of research into code-switching has shown that it can be effective in South African classrooms.

But code-switching is not supported by bilingual materials or assessments and is often frowned upon by department officials. This is due to fears that English will be compromised and also because of colonial ideas that African languages ​​are inappropriate for use in education.

The Department of Basic Education’s new move is an opportunity to recognise, strengthen and, importantly, reinforce these bilingual practices.

Bilingual education for whom?

In South Africa, bilingual education has historically been associated with the education of white children. During apartheid, Afrikaans and English were the two official languages, with the aim of all white South Africans becoming bilingual in those languages.

Bilingual education was implemented in different ways. It was common to use one language as the medium of instruction and to teach the other as a subject. There were also schools that used both Afrikaans and English as the language of instruction for different classes within the same classroom.

In “dual” schools, the teacher taught both English and Afrikaans, and students could choose the language of assessment. Bilingual schools with two secondary institutions continue to have great success in training bilingual people who speak English and Afrikaans.

Until now, bilingual education on a scale using any of the nine official African languages ​​and English as the dual language of instruction has not been available to children.

Language policy and multilingual education

Schools need help developing language policies that support bilingual or multilingual learning. One size certainly does not fit all schools in a multilingual and diverse society.

For example, many schools in the isiXhosa-dominant rural areas of the Eastern Cape could implement a bilingual model using isiXhosa and English. Bilingual teachers can teach using both languages ​​- as they now do informally – and use textbooks written in both languages.

A school with students from different languages ​​in a more diverse urban environment like Soweto will need a different approach using language translation. Translanguaging involves the fluent use of more than one language to communicate. For example, children can be grouped according to their dominant languages ​​when they are solving a math problem or translating a poem. Or they can work in mixed language teams to create multilingual scientific definitions. The aim is to support in-depth learning of subject content as well as to increase competence in all languages ​​used in the classroom (including English).

Multilingual materials and assessments

A major challenge for education in South Africa is the lack of materials in languages ​​other than English and Afrikaans beyond Grade 3. As with classroom methodology, there is a wide range of approaches to instructional materials that can support bilingual or multilingual learning. For example, bilingual textbooks have been successfully developed in Rwanda.

The same textbook may be available in multiple languages. In one textbook, two languages ​​can be parallel (the entire text is available in two languages). Or a more flexible approach can be taken when different aspects of the text, such as glossaries, are available in different languages.

An example of this is iScience Yethu (Our Science), which was developed in English and isiXhosa. Subject dictionaries can also be excellent teaching resources, such as one developed by the University of Cape Town and one developed by the Humanities Research Council of South Africa.

The final exams were only available in English and Afrikaans, with the exception of the isiXhosa pilot exam in the Eastern Cape in 2020. Bilingual exams in English and Afrikaans have been piloted and proven successful in the Western Cape Province. and in Zimbabwe. Again, a diversity of approaches is preferable.

Teacher training

Successful implementation depends on the preparation of teachers for bilingual education. Pioneering bilingual university teacher education programs at South Africa’s University of Fort Hare and Nelson Mandela University have pioneered this work, which can be extended to other universities. Practicing teachers will need appropriate materials as well as in-service education that builds on existing bilingual practice.

Bilingual education is possible for all South African children. Through a multi-pronged approach to implementation as described here, bilingual models will contribute to the goal of decolonizing the country’s school system.

Robin Tyler, Senior Research Fellow, University of the Western Cape; Brian Ramadira, Vice Chancellor, University of Fort Hare; Carolyn McKinney, Associate Professor, Department of Language Education, Bua-lit Team Member, University of Cape Town, and Dr Khalisa Guzula, Lecturer, Department of Applied Languages ​​and Literacy, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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