Sunday, 27 October 2013

Thoughts on mother-tongue based education

I wrote the following synopsis of my own and others research for a friend who asked for some insight on the topic of mother-tongue based education. The topic has recently flared up (again!) in the South African media and, frankly, I'm a little fed up of people treating these insights like they are new. Educationists have known this for years. Policy makers just don't want to listen because the research is inconvenient and requires a political will and long term resource planning that the government is unwilling, or unable, to commit.

So here it is. The old stuff. That every one seems to have forgotten.

Thoughts on mother-tongue based education

There are strong feelings on both sides of the argument, pro-mother tongue and pro-English only. Very rarely are the contextual factors influencing the practicality of either option discussed in a nuanced, pragmatic way. The argument tends to be fueled a lot by ideology.

The first critical mistake people make is to talk about all our schools as if they are in the same situation, when they are clearly not. Setati and Adler very importantly pointed out the difference between schools in rural areas, which have relatively homogenous language settings, and urban schools with their diverse and very fluid langscapes (langscape--the word used by linguists to refer to the linguistic make up of a particular community, environment or place and purpose of language practice).

In the former, you'll find all the students and teachers share a mother tongue. Often non-academic texts are unavailable due to resource shortages and a lack of literacy practice in the home. Parents' own literacy levels are poor and a culture of reading is absent. Spoken language is almost exclusively the mother tongue, including the choice of radio, TV and music. The school is the only environment in which the child is exposed to the second language, and although the school's official policy might be 'English' as the LoLT (language of learning and teaching), this is not what happens on the ground. It does not make sense for a teacher, who themselves are not confident in English, to talk to students with whom they share a first language in a second language. In such environments, Setati and Adler quite rightly term English a FOREIGN language, as opposed to a second language. It is almost as foreign as French or Portuguese to most South Africans, and the opportunities to use English for any purposeful activity is very rare.

In the latter, you may find a class of 50 students in a township school who have 12 different mother tongues between them, especially in Gauteng. That's a VERY different situation to a rural school, and a lingua franca is required. That said, these children are still second language learners and the pedagogy in the classroom needs to be structured as such. Teachers in these environments have VERY different challenges to those in rural schools.

The mother-tongue as the bridge to second language acquisition

One phenomenon that is well understood is that of the primary language being the platform off which other languages are learned. This is almost always the case where a child has not been brought up bilingual from the cradle.

Cummins' research is seminal in this regard. Extensive vocabulary and knowledge of complex grammatical structures in the first language almost always predict better second language acquisition. In the context of rural South African schools, where children are not brought up truly bilingual from the cradle, this idea is very important, because it affects the decision on when students can or should transition from their mother tongue as the way they learn at school to a second language.

Many South African children reach school with limited academic language proficiency. This is due to many factors: lack of reading in the home, the limited vocabulary they are exposed to due to the lack of available adult attention (parents and caregivers often work very long hours and are unable to spend the dedicated time to stories, songs and reading that middle class parents can) and the educational level of the caregiver themselves. Reading is only first introduced at school in Grade 1, by which point our children are 7 years old. The correlation between English and class here becomes clear: English speakers are often also middle class income earners, with the literacy and language practices of middle class families (Shirley Brice Heath did some great research on what class means for acquiring the language practices that work well in schools--middle class families: how they talk to their children, how they play with their children and how they read to their children, apprentice their children into the language practices that are replicated in the schooling system). It is not surprising then, that children coming to school and only meeting text for the first time then are way behind their counterparts who have had far richer language experiences at home.

If this is the situation, then the school has to be the location where deep language practices are acquired. This has to happen in the mother tongue first, both verbally and written. The 3 years currently given to our children to learn both their home language formally and their second language is insufficient to prepare them for the demands of a curriculum at school when they transition to second language instruction in grade 4. Margie Probyn did some good research on how children only have a vocabulary of 800 or so words in grade 4 in English, and yet the textbook in grade 4 required a vocabulary of 3000 words upwards. The gap is huge and the children aren't ready. In this situation, further mother tongue-based education makes more sense, with excellent second-language instruction.

The written/verbal dichotomy

Language acquisition has two components: verbal and written. Often proficiency in the first is acquired where transactional conversations have been necessary to reach certain goals (getting what you want/need). The second (written) is acquired when what you want/need is only available in a text form. The two do not develop naturally together. People are often fluent conversationally and yet unable to write a language (most African languages in South Africa fall into this category). There are also languages which are almost exclusively written and yet people cannot speak them (e.g. Latin).

This distinction is extremely important in the South African educational context. Often students are not adequately taught literacy in their mother tongue. Texts are scarce in their home language. This makes mother-tongue based education extremely difficult: a point for English-only instruction as this is the language in which resources are available.

However, developing literacy in a second language does not mean a good grasp of the language per se. Students are often able to read texts without 100% understanding. Many South African students can read an English text out loud exceptionally well and not have a clue what they just read. Reading for meaning means an ability to attach written words to the real world. This occurs far more easily in the mother tongue. Some institutions are working hard to translate educational resources into mother tongue (e.g. Xolisa Guzula at NMMI in East London is working on the DBE's workbooks in mathematics, translating them into isiXhosa). Literacy in the mother-tongue is critical. Written word is often context independent so more words have to be used to describe a setting, a situation or emotion. The ratio of new vocabulary in writing is 3 times that which is used in spoken conversation. Exposure to more complex lexicons and grammar is through reading, not speaking. These complex language structures are often the difference between those who succeed in the schooling environment and those who don't. Another point for mother-tongue based literacy. PRAESA and other institutions have been working hard at encouraging mother-tongue based literacy practice in the home.

Other schooling models around the world

People often invoke other schooling models around the world as examples where students can become proficient in a second language by using it as their medium of learning. The most common one is that of French Canadian schools.

This is, however, not a good comparison for the South African situation. Firstly, most of the students attending such schools come from homes with good socio-economic backgrounds, where vocabulary and literacy practice in the mother-tongue has had a strong foundation from the home. Secondly, these schools are staffed with truly bilingual teachers who are well trained in the practice of second language acquisition, even if they are content teachers (e.g. mathematics, science etc.). Thirdly, these schools are true immersion programmes. Students are not allowed to use their language AT ALL: only French is allowed. The school day is extended with a rich variety of practices, both curricular and extra-curricular, which are supported via well planned language development resources.

A student can also be schooled in their mother tongue for their entire school career and still be proficient in a second language, provided the political will and resources are committed to that model. A good example of this is the acquisition of English by Afrikaans speakers and Afrikaans by English speakers pre 1994. Despite being taught exclusively in English, many South Africans are adequately equipped in Afrikaans and, when exposed post school to a study or work environment that requires Afrikaans, improve rapidly in their proficiency to the point of being perfectly functional. Their content knowledge, given to them in their home language, is already present. They need only attach new words to this pre-existing knowledge. This is another point for mother-tongue based schooling, with good second language teaching.

Other African countries succeed in using their colonial language as a lingua franca in their schools in a space where South Africa fails. In this instance, apartheid does have to take the blame. Parental mastery of the language of instruction in other African countries is relatively high. Even though the language of home might be Lingala or Kikuyu, the parents have full mastery of French and are able to bring their children up bilingual from birth. South African parents are often not in a position to do so, most especially those in the former homeland areas. Unsurprisingly, Pam Christie's latest research shows clearly that the geographical location of a school in a former homeland is the best predictor for educational failure.

In short: the only language acquisition model that works for developing a second language without using the first language is complete immersion. We DO NOT have the resources for this in South African schools. Only 8-9% of our population are first language English speakers. Many of these are NOT interested in becoming teachers as the vocation is one of the toughest jobs in the country (believe me) and other, more appealing and lucrative options are often available since English mother tongue correlates with class, income and educational level. We cannot create schooling environments in which our students are completely immersed in English with the resources we have. So mother tongue has to be the bridge to English acquisition. Which means the mother tongue must be properly and deeply developed first.

Parental resistance

It is completely understandable that many South African parents for whom English is not a first language want their children to acquire the best proficiency in English possible. Firstly, mother-tongue based education lives under the dark shadow of Bantu education. Parents still remember the use of their languages to educate them as a means of denying them access to the formal economy. Secondly, parents quite rightly identify proficiency in English as the means of access to formal tertiary education and jobs--this is not a figment of their imaginations. What is not well understood is the need for the development of the mother tongue as an important stepping stone to excellent English acquisition. People are often of the opinion that language acquisition is subtractive: this has been well debunked by linguistic scholars around the world. One does not have to sacrifice the development of one language in favour of the development of another. Education of parents in this regard is critical to schools adopting alternative models of language development and practice.

English and content subjects with specific discourses and registers

Subjects such as mathematics and science are not only English heavy (i.e. most of the resources available are only available in English), but they also use very specific language unique to their subject areas. So students are learning the language of mathematics through the language of English through the language of home. A bit of a mess. Even academics around the world find themselves having to write about these subjects in English as the words they need to describe mathematical and scientific phenomena have not been developed in their home language.

Such development is a matter of political will. Afrikaans is again an excellent example where vocabulary can be explicitly and purposefully developed if the desire is there that the language should be used in scientific spaces. Pam Maseko at Rhodes and others have done a lot of work on developing mathematical lexica in isiXhosa. Such programmes are incredibly resource intensive again, and it is understandable when people argue for students to simply learn English and acquire these words that already exist instead of creating new ones, as mathematical jargon in isiXhosa will have limited scope for use beyond school.

Teacher resourcing

All the theory about language acquisition must be read in the context of teacher resourcing. The following facts are salient:

1. Many South African teachers are not mother tongue English speakers and struggle with English themselves. This is not an indictment on them, but rather a simple fact of training and teacher education.

2. Many teachers are often the only exposure to English that students have.

3. Most textbooks are only available in English. Teachers depend heavily on textbooks in the South African context, particularly in content subjects, due to their lack of confidence in their subjects.

The reality on the ground...

But most importantly, certainly from my own experience, our teachers are in such tight spots at school due to staffing shortages that language is hardly on the top of their agendas. My own training was in the use of scaffolding and code-switching techniques to teach mathematics. I have a degree in pure mathematics and was taught isiXhosa by an EXCELLENT teacher at UCT. My research at the Masters level was about the interaction of language and mathematics instruction in deep rural isiXhosa speaking secondary schools and I started my job this year with the sole intention of putting the theory of scaffolding language in the mathematics classroom into practice.

The few opportunities I have had to do so have been very fruitful. Explaining to students in isiXhosa has made a huge difference. My own isiXhosa skills are still developing in the space of pedagogy, but it has already been quite clear how powerful this scaffolding tool can be. Not only have I been able to manage my classroom behaviour better (mother tongue is always best for this), but relationships with my students have been critical in my ability to be a teacher and my formal training in isiXhosa has enabled me to be a language teacher too (my students' isiXhosa is often very mixed and incomplete... they speak a strange township dialect which, while perfectly functional in their current context, holds no weight in an academic space at all!).

My deepest regret is how under-staffing and the trauma that schools are perpetually faced with constantly pushes language development to the back burner. Whether it is gang violence, student abuse or lack of basic resources such as the availability of enough textbooks, a reliable electricity connection, adequate security or acceptable levels of communication from the department about what is expected of us, language--while critically important--is not urgent compared to these other day-to-day demands. We are constantly in fire fighting mode.

What I really need to teach mathematics well and to use my language skills and training to do this, is 5 less lessons a week and a teaching assistant in my classroom: even a trainee teacher who is apprenticing me and able to spend extra time with those students who have obvious learning difficulties (Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, dyslexia, autism, etc. There are many! Up to 30% of my students have special education needs which I am physically unable to attend to). Most of my students live in high trauma environments and are either exposed to primary or secondary abuse. Their higher cognitive functions shut down until they feel safe, heard and wanted. Again, my ability to speak isiXhosa has been invaluable in creating relationships that have enabled me to bond with and support my students through their difficult lives. But the time I need to develop curriculum resources and lesson plans that speak specifically to language acquisition is simply not available. A 60 hour week is a good week.

We cannot talk about the lack of language acquisition or educational attainment without talking about these other issues: they all interact deeply. Most schools where students don't speak English are schools in poor areas. These schools are also wracked by gang violence, drug abuse problems, lack of teachers, lack of infrastructural resources, departmental apathy, poorly educated parent bodies and students who are regularly exposed to abuse and do not feel safe. Changing to mother-tongue or English-only education is not going to make a feather's difference to our schooling outcomes until those committed and skilled teachers who want to be in the system do not feel compelled to leave for their own or their families sakes due to the extreme pressure and workload. Two committed teachers in my school are either leaving or have been booked off by medical advisors for stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Teachers need more support to do their jobs, in the form of protected non contact time and/or teaching assistants and reasonable class sizes (under 40). Until these happen, any policy put in place regarding the language of teaching and learning will be nothing but another piece of paper.


  1. Thank you on 2 accounts:
    For your succinct summary of the country's language-and-learning complexities, and 2. Though working in a rural not urban environment, as an English speaker currently aquiring isiXhosa in order to experiment with code-switching as a pedagogical practice in the classroom, much of your above writing resonates.

    1. A pleasure Kristi. I see you are working in Zithulele... ungandithume i-email.... sincokole. Ndiyamazi uCraig: umama wakhe ngu-supervisor wam.

  2. Hayibo, ihlabathi elincinci! :-) UCraig nomfazi wakhe iinduna zam. Ndizoyenze...kodwa andiboni iaddress yakho. Yam ngu-