The language of true freedom

18 June 2019 | Story Mamokgethi Phakeng. Photo Je’nine May. Read time >10 min.
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng used Youth Day 2019 to argue for multilingualism in South African schools.
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng used Youth Day 2019 to argue for multilingualism in South African schools.

Language is political. Just consider the youth uprising of 16 June 1976, when so many learners were shot and even killed while protesting peacefully against the apartheid government’s insistence that Afrikaans must be the language of instruction in black secondary schools.

The youth uprising followed decades of government policy restrictions, beginning in 1954, when Hendrik Verwoerd, the then Minister of Education, told the Senate there was no reason to teach mathematics to black people. He said it would make them dissatisfied with their position in life, which was to serve white people. Twenty years later, the Bantu Education Act’s new Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 forced secondary schools to use Afrikaans as the language of instruction. The learners were not just resisting being taught in the language of the oppressor; they also understood that this step would limit their ability to achieve academically.

Deeply discriminatory policies such as this ended with the fall of Apartheid. In 1997 our first democratically elected government announced a new Language in Education policy that recognises 11 official languages and encourages multilingualism. Within this policy, learners (or rather, their parents) must choose the preferred language of learning upon admission to a school. Where the language they choose is not available, parents can apply to the provincial education department to provide instruction. Schools also have to choose a language for learning and teaching mathematics, and school governing bodies are required to state explicitly their plan to promote multilingualism.

“Cheating our children”

While this new policy is excellent in principle, in practice we still do not exercise the freedom that learners like Tsietsi Donald Mashinini demonstrated for in June 1976. We are cheating our children of their potential to excel in maths, science and technology and become full participants in the fourth industrial revolution. In our schools, we are turning our back on the very real opportunities multilingualism offers to our learners. Instead, we have fallen under the spell of one language: English.

In this country, the issue of language has always been interwoven with the politics of domination and separation, resistance and affirmation. The decision to teach only in English is related to the deep belief that this is the only language that provides access to important “social goods” such as a career, higher education, and the opportunity to make a success of yourself. I have heard learners say things like: “If you can't speak English, there will be no job you can get.” I’ve heard teachers say: “If you don't know English, you look like a fool, and you are considered as not intelligent. If someone knows English it means that person is intelligent.” English has power in our country and, in fact, around the world. It is often referred to as a universal language. While there is no systematic research evidence, it is widely held that many schools with an African student body choose English as the language of learning and teaching from the first year of schooling. As do the parents.


“If we teach only in English, we don’t allow African learners to be who they are, or to reach their potential.”

The bottom line is that language is political – it has implications for how social goods are, or ought to be, distributed. If we teach only in English, we don’t allow African learners to be who they are, or to reach their potential.

It is unfortunate that debates on teaching and learning in multilingual classrooms in South Africa tend to always create dichotomies that are not helpful:

  • Teaching in English versus teaching in the learners’ home languages
  • Focusing on developing learners’ fluency in English versus on their mathematics proficiency
  • Seeing the use of the learners’ home languages during teaching and learning as a commitment to the development of African languages and the use of English as being against the development of African languages
  • Seeing the use of the learners’ home languages during teaching and learning as decolonisation and the use of English as being colonised.

These dichotomies create an impression that the use of the learners’ home languages and the use of English must be in opposition.

In a multilingual country such as ours, teaching only in one language – whether in English or in a home language – emphasises these dichotomies, which can hurt learners in the long run. We can fall into the trap of focusing on the learners’ fluency in English instead of on their mathematics proficiency. If we choose only one language of teaching and learning (in other words, English), we are teaching our children that it is the language of the intellect, and that until they can express complex concepts in English, they can’t be “intelligent”. English – one of the many languages of colonisation – continues to colonise our children. And this time, it is with our approval and collaboration.

Really, English should be no more than one of our communication tools. My own research shows that learners’ home language is an overlooked, essential tool for teaching subjects like mathematics and science – subjects we need in the fourth industrial revolution. It is important that we understand how multilingual teaching and learning can free our children to take their rightful place as leaders.

Relying on English as the sole language of learning and teaching mathematics has not worked. Our matric results show that our children are not learning mathematics at the level they need to enter university-level science, engineering and technology programmes. If we want our children to succeed in mathematics, science and technology, we must use their home languages as a resource to help them learn these subjects.

Multilingual approach

For many African teachers and learners, English became the only possible choice for teaching and learning mathematics for a simple reason: it is the language of the textbooks and assessment. But I have used multilingual textbooks and papers with great success in the classroom. Learners can read a problem written in English on one side of the page and in their home language on the other side. As they worked together to consider the problem and develop answers, they used whatever language was comfortable for them. What is most interesting is that when they were asked about the lesson where this multilingual approach was used, most of the learners were not even aware what language they had used; their focus was on the mathematics they were doing.

A successful multilingual approach to mathematics education needs the teacher to make deliberate, strategic and proactive use of the learners’ home languages. Written texts need to be given in both the home language and English, and learners must be given the freedom to interact in any language they feel comfortable with. My research has shown that when learners are given mathematics tasks that are relevant to their daily lives, along with the freedom to use their home languages as and when they need to, they focus on discussing the problem and possible solutions in all the languages available to them. They can forget the issue of language and concentrate on learning the mathematical principles.


“Language plays a very crucial role in mathematics learning and achievement.”

Teachers I have worked with in my research say they want to use English in the classroom, yet they agree that multilingualism is important. They say things like: “To me those different languages must be respected. We must never look down upon different people speaking different languages.… Much as we are respecting English as an international language, I think it is high time that we realise that we need to interact with other languages.” It is clear that deep down all of us African people understand the value of using our home languages; we also understand that by not speaking our own language, we are limiting our potential.

Why are we surprised at the consistent low performance of black African learners who learn mathematics in English? It is true that poor performance by multilingual learners cannot be solely attributed to their limited proficiency in English (suggesting that fluency in English will solve all problems). Nor can we view the language of learning in isolation from the pedagogic issues specific to mathematics as well as the wider social, cultural and political factors that infuse schooling. However, language plays a very crucial role in mathematics learning and achievement.

Learning mathematics has elements that are similar to learning a language: you have to learn new terminology and symbols, how to use them in discussing a problem, and how to use mathematics terminology in different contexts. If children are learning mathematics in a language that is not their home language, then their task becomes even more demanding. Most research on multilingual classrooms has established good reasons for using learners’ home languages alongside English for learning and teaching mathematics. As a multilingual society, we need to take advantage of home language as a support that our children need in learning how to become proficient in mathematics.

Research locally and internationally has shown that multilingualism does not impede mathematics learning, and that learners’ home languages are a resource for learning mathematics. Researchers elsewhere in the world have also argued that children in multilingual education develop better thinking skills as compared to their monolingual peers. The question for us in South Africa is: why does the preference for English continue to dominate, even though we have a language in education policy that recognises 11 official languages and encourages multilingualism?

Language policy

Our language policy, progressive as it seems, assumes that parents, teachers and learners in multilingual classrooms are somehow free of economic, political and ideological constraints and pressures when they apparently freely opt for English as their preferred language of learning and teaching. This policy seems to be taking a view of language that assumes that all languages can be free of cultural and political influences. The truth is that given the hegemony of English in South Africa, the freedom that our policy offers for learners and parents to choose their preferred language of learning and teaching is a false choice. Not all languages are equally “powerful”. The power of English is an international phenomenon and therefore, the fact that English is in the list of choices means that the choice is already made.


“It is not ideal to enforce English-only monolingual teaching, which gives a message that African learners are not allowed to be who they are.”

Enforcing purist, home language-only monolingual teaching at Foundation phase, as it has been done in some provinces, is not consistent with multilingual policy. It can be interpreted as discriminatory, because it only happens in black townships and rural schools and thus suggests that those who have money can buy access to English by registering their children in city or suburban schools. As things stand, access to English means access to social goods such as higher education, jobs, international opportunities and social status, which poor working-class children also deserve. It is not ideal to enforce English-only monolingual teaching, which gives a message that African learners are not allowed to be who they are.

We have to make African languages worth learning. Learning at least one African language must be made mandatory for all who are studying towards professions in the public sector. After all, how does a teacher, nurse, doctor or social worker serve people whose language they do not understand? It is for this reason that all medical students at the University of Cape Town are required to study and pass a first-year module in IsiXhosa in order to graduate.

The political nature of language must never be ignored. Language is not just an innocent tool for communication and thinking; it can be used to exclude or include people in conversations and decision-making. Therefore, choices about which language to use, when and for what purpose, are always political. It is in this context that I argue for a multilingual approach to teaching and learning mathematics. This approach recognises that while learners want access to English, we must also embrace multilingual teaching and learning, In so doing, we can normalise the use of African languages in classrooms and free our learners to focus on the important tasks they need to learn, rather than on only English. They can use words they are familiar with to answer a question. If learners must focus on giving an answer in English, they may know the answer but not how to express it. In that instance, language becomes an obstacle instead of a resource.

In the context of teaching and learning, it is important that language must be both visible and inviable: visible in the sense that we can see which language is being used, but also invisible in the sense that we do not focus on the language itself. The teacher and learner can both focus on the subject, whether it is maths, geography, science or history, without worrying about using the “correct” language. Most important, learners in a multilingual context can participate more freely and take a deeper interest in the subject, without worrying about language. Teaching and learning can be the focus, rather than the language of teaching and learning.

I believe multilingual teaching should begin in Grade R and continue right through matric, if we are to develop the maths potential that lies within our learners. It’s time to take the lesson of 1976 to heart: to stop limiting the language of instruction and free our learners, and ourselves, to show what we are capable of as a nation.

Professor Phakeng is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT). She delivered the Tsietsi Donald Mashinini Memorial Lecture at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto on 15 June to mark Youth Day.

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