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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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!).
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.