Mediums of instruction

15 June 2015 | Story by Newsroom

Dr Tessa Dowling from the Department of African Languages and Literatures reflects on 1976 and its implications for the languages we speak and regard today – and what we should be doing now to encourage multilingualism.

HS: Where were you in 1976?

TD: I was 16 and at a convent school in St James, Cape Town. There wasn't any debate about language at school. I hated Afrikaans because at the time I didn't see it as the beautiful and subtle language I now know it to be. For me, it was the language of a bullying, racist government. Even from my protected convent cocoon I felt sympathy for the anger of the Soweto learners who had the language forced on them – not merely as a subject, but as a medium of instruction.

At school the Irish nuns would lead us in prayers for peace and openly criticised the government, which was refreshing. But there were no black learners or teachers at our school. The Latin teacher was Chinese and absolutely brilliant: I think she made me fall in love with grammar.

I wish I had been more vociferous about the lack of African languages at our school. I was aware that they were the languages of the oppressed and also languages that I loved the sound of. I also wish I had been taught both standard Afrikaans and its local varieties. There was no fun or creativity in our Afrikaans classes: the language was presented as separate from its many diverse speakers. A similar situation has developed in contemporary isiXhosa second language classrooms: sometimes the language is taught as if has not changed at all in the past 50 years. Teachers penalise non-standard varieties and any evidence of multilingual influences.

HS: How do you think the 1976 event shaped youth's approach to education and particularly language?

TD: I think it strengthened the position of English as the language of education. People associated English with progress and freedom. At the same time it undermined the intellectualisation of African languages, which had been robust in the early 20th century. Great African writers and intellectuals had to use English in order to be heard, and consequently African languages were ghettoised and their study and codification left to English and Afrikaans speakers who sometimes could not even speak the languages they researched. A few brave African pioneers like AC Jordan did superb work, and we can be grateful for their outstanding scholarship, which was often not fully rewarded.

The youth do not regard the study of African languages as something they can do at university. At UCT's Open Day this year a group of mother-tongue isiXhosa learners hooted with laughter when they heard that they could study their language up to PhD level. "Ngoba kutheni?" "But why?" they asked. I told them how many jobs need skilled African language linguists, and they were truly interested, but it seemed like the first time that this had been suggested to them as a possibility.

HS: Have we done enough in the past 39 years or have we failed the students of today?

TD: Many students fail because they are not competent enough in academic English. We need to interrogate the reasons for that and ensure that the correct interventions are put in place to bring about greater fluency and access to the language. But a lesser-known fact is that many students fail their first language at school. I recently spent a month in an Eastern Cape village in which only isiXhosa is spoken, and the young woman in whose house I was staying told me (in isiXhosa) that she had failed matric isiXhosa four times. A PhD student of mine who was researching the impact of siSwati on the learning of academic English discovered that the best students of English had been properly taught in their first language, and often the worst were those who had not acquired any literacy in siSwati. We need huge support for projects like Nal'ibali, a fantastic initiative that encourages reading in the first language from a young age.

HS: What big changes have you been aware of in the past 39 years with regard to teaching language and multilingualism?

TD: There has been a huge amount of talk and research about language teaching and multilingualism, and some important policies have been put in place. Children now learn in their first language up until Grade 4, but then have to switch to English. Instruction in the first language is crucial for children's cognitive development, but the switch to English is radical and problematic: teachers often have a poor command of English and learners sometimes resort to chanting English phrases without actually understanding them. Many parents want their children to learn in the medium of English and are not interested in research which points to the benefits of first-language instruction – understandably they see fluency in English as a ticket to employment and increased opportunities. I have yet to see a first-language, English-speaking parent battle to get her child into a township school because the medium of instruction is isiXhosa there. I would love it to be so – maybe in the next 39 years?

HS: What has government got right and where does more need to be done?

TD: I think government has heeded research into the importance of first-language instruction but has failed to interrogate the question of what our children's first languages actually are. Children speak dialects and varieties that reflect the multilingual societies they grow up in, but these are seldom acknowledged in testing procedures. So, for example, the national literacy and numeracy tests fail to acknowledge that children seldom count in their first languages but rather use English: some recent research I did showed 91% of isiXhosa respondents gave isiksi (six) instead of the isiXhosa thandathu. The same research shows that certain English and Afrikaans words have become part of the standard language, for example isekile for "circle" instead of isangqa. When I was asked to look at learners' responses in the numeracy and literacy tests, I could see that often they did not understand the isiXhosa question as the words used were not ones they would encounter at home. It would be like me being asked mathematical questions in an antiquated variety of English that I just do not understand any more!

HS: What should we be doing at universities?

TD: We should be empowering our African language departments with sufficient funding and resources to attract the best students, so that we can do the work that other departments do as a matter of course – that is, research. Language communication teaching is a noble task, and one I enjoy, but it is hugely time-consuming and exhausting and enjoys very little status in the academy.

Interview by Helen Swingler. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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