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The South African Language Policy in Public Schools

The South African Language Policy in Public Schools



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Published by Donnette Davis
I don't just like this article, I love it! It is written by a South African discussing all the new changes that have taken place - most unsuccessfully - since 1994 in the education system. This actually reflects the true situation in the country, if one considers that it is deteriorating daily. 10/10
I don't just like this article, I love it! It is written by a South African discussing all the new changes that have taken place - most unsuccessfully - since 1994 in the education system. This actually reflects the true situation in the country, if one considers that it is deteriorating daily. 10/10

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Published by: Donnette Davis on Oct 12, 2007
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The South African language policy-in-education: realistic or an ideologicalimport?By Emmanuel Mfanafuthi MgqwashuUniversity of KwaZulu-NatalEdgewood CampusLanguage Education ProgrammeConference PresentationBack to Proceedings--------------------------------------------------------------------------------There is no doubt that much has changed in South Africa since the first democraticelections held in 1994. Firstly, the disenfranchised black majority won the rightto participate as equal citizens alongside the white minority in the politicalactivities of a newly created democratic state, secondly, the once oppressedmajority can now decide where they want to live and work and whom they wish tomarry and have families with, thirdly, whom they want to associate with sociallyand, finally, which schools they want their children to attend. These changesfurther allowed debates around the question of language and language-in-educationin the ‘new’ South Africa. Because of the sensitive nature of the subject, suchdebates began as early as 1992, with a focus on the number and status of officiallanguages in the country. The outcome of these debates saw the country adopting amultilingual language policy that gives official recognition to eleven languages,including English and Afrikaans and nine indigenous languages. To ask whether suchan ‘empowering’ and democratic policy is realistic or merely an ideological importneeds serious interrogation.Elevating the previously marginalized indigenous languages in a country whosesociety has been structured along racial, and thus linguistic, lines for manyyears is an honorable policy-decision. But, I want to argue, whether all the newlanguage freedoms and opportunities, which the historically privileged whiteminority have been taking for granted for many years, are really there for all toenjoy and make use of, is a different question altogether. While it is politicallyjustifiable for the language policy to reverse the injustices incurred by speakersof indigenous languages through colonization, and later apartheid, I intend tocaution against an unrealistic assumption that the introduction of indigenouslanguages as medium of instruction at all levels of education in South Africa willbe a reality, and that, if it were to happen, that would result in economicdevelopment and improvement of living conditions for all. Using Kenya and Tanzaniato include a comparative element, this paper offers a critical reflection on theSouth Africa’s language policy-in-education by contrasting policy intentions andimplications with the practical realities that, like sunrise and sunset, are hereto stay. Foley (2003) presents us with part of these realities:[The] South African education is facing some central and complexdilemmas. These dilemmas arise from two contradictions of anessentially linguistic nature which lie at the heart of the country’scurrent educational policies and practices. The first contradiction isthat the South African education system purports to be multilingual,and yet most educational institutions do not use the learner’s mother
tongues as languages of learning and teaching. The second contradictionis that the majority of parents expressly prefers their children to be taughtthrough English, and yet most teachers have been inadequately preparedto teach in English.(Foley, A. 2003:5)Another rather painful reality is that while student strikes, vandalism, andviolence in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s justifiably undermined the ability ofapartheid schools to function, the effect is that South Africa's industrialeconomy, with its strong reliance on capital-intensive development, providedrelatively few prospects for employment for those who had only minimal educationalcredentials. This is because, according to the 1999 HRSC report, nationwideliteracy was less than 60 percent throughout the 1980s and an estimated 500,000unskilled and uneducated young people faced unemployment by the end of the decade.At the same time, job openings for highly skilled workers and managers faroutpaced the number of qualified applicants. This means the legacies of apartheid,the insufficient education of the majority of the population and the backlog ofdeficiencies in the school system are main challenges for the country and willremain for decades, or perhaps generations.Given the foregone discussion, our government’s attempt to achieve linguisticequity for eleven official languages, nine of them previously marginalized andonly used to divide black people on linguistic grounds and still need informedtechnical elaboration, while at the same time supporting the other cultural andheritage languages, including sign language, and helping to maintain dialects, ischallenging, to say the least. All of this does not include the need to solve theproblems of unqualified teachers, lack of teaching and learning materials, largeclasses, and shortages of classrooms and desks. Have I left out the challenge tomake Outcomes Based Education work?If the South African education system is obviously confronted by these hugelycomplicated and two-prong challenge: language related and resources availability,what is the rationale behind arriving at a conclusion that it is through the useof indigenous languages as medium of instruction that the upliftment of the largermasses of South African society can be effected? Kadeghe (2003) offers us usefulexplanations with regard to the origins of such ideas:There has been a general conviction that one only learns within the familiarhabits of thought, experience and expression suggested by one’s traditionalculture; and that colonialism occasioned a disruption of the natives’ traditionsand experience that left them culturally impoverished, spiritually dislocated andin a state of moral decline. (80)Implicit in this view is a claim that it is within our traditional culture that wewere most at ease with ourselves and that there was a comfortable co-existencebetween us and the world. The logic in this claim is the idea of African identityas an irreducible essence of the race whose objective existence is the traditionalculture as the only thing that defines the world. This has developed into somekind of an African philosophy or way of life and society. Irele (1981) summarizesthis philosophy as “an appeal to traditional culture as a remedy to our manifoldproblems” (2). Prah’s (2002) introductory remarks in Rehabilitating AfricanLanguages, a collection of essays edited by him, offer a classical example of thisphilosophy:The need for the rehabilitation of African languages is a simple one. Africanslearn best in their own languages, the languages they know from their parents,from home. It is in these languages that they can best create and innovate.Such innovation and creativity are crucial not only for development in aneconomic sense, but also necessary for the flourishing of democracy at acultural level; they are languages which successfully engage the imaginationof mass society. It is in these languages that the culture and histories ofAfrican people from time immemorial have been constructed. It is inthese languages that knowledge intended for the upliftment of thelarger masses of African society can be effected. (1)
Within the context of South Africa, and other countries in Africa, this philosophyhas had a huge impact on the language-in-education policy debate. That language isboth a product and reflection of culture, thus the use of an additional languageas a medium of instruction alienates one from one’s culture is a directmanifestation of this philosophy. The Department of Education document of 2002a:5insists that ‘the learner’s home language be used for learning and teachingwherever possible’ and, as though to clarify this, Section 29 of the South AfricanConstitution affirms that everyone has the right to receive education in theofficial language(s) of their choice, (although this is qualified by an additionalcomment), “but only where this is ‘reasonably practicable’”. One witnesses themanifestation of this philosophy again in Vic Web’s (2002) assertion that “Africanlinguists, it seems to me, [] suffer from intellectual and spiritual colonization”(214). These are but a few illustrations of the extent to which the so-calledAfrican philosophy of life underpins much of the language-in-education debates.Inherent in such assertions is an erroneous belief that African traditional valuesand world concept form significant, if not permanent, essences of our identityand, as such, the use of languages other than our own leads us to become somethingother than our ‘real selves’, a state of affairs at the root cause of ourunderdevelopment. It follows then that as a corrective measure, the way forward isto reclaim African languages as media of learning and academic expression. One mayask: is the use of an additional language as a medium of instruction necessarilyalienating? Can one only learn within the familiar habits of thought, experienceand expression suggested by one’s traditional culture? Is the crisis in educationin South Africa and in Africa in general reducible to the choice of language sothat reversion to an indigenous language is the answer to our educationalproblems? The findings of the research project I conducted in Kenya, Tanzania andSouth Africa in July 2003 will attempt to feed into these and other relatedquestions in the next section.Research on Language-in-Education in Tanzania and KenyaTANZANIAThe research aims to re-examine postcolonialism and the specific demands of theSouth African situation in the area of language-in-education. Many of thechallenges facing South Africa are those that generally preoccupy postcolonialism:identities of cultural nationalism (traditional, foundationist) versus multiple(split, unfixed) identities and, differing perceptions of time (accumulated wisdomor progress). The project, however, does not wish to oppose the theoreticalpotential of the 'postcolonial', but to redirect its focus to the pressingchallenges of South Africa. Such challenges are not parochial, but have globalresonance. The shift is from a singular, monolithic use of the term to aconceptual category alert to continuities and discontinuities in the politics ofculture. The dilemma - one generally recognisable in postcolonialism - is how incurrent world configurations to respect linguistic and cultural differences whileseeking commonalities, and, in the context of this study, how the attempts toanswer these questions impact on decisions around the languages of instruction ininstitutions of formal learning learning.This particular study’s objective was to test the students’ academic achievementsin tests conducted in English (T1), Kiswahili (T2) or in both Kiswahili andEnglish (T3) in order to see in which medium they would have better academicperformance.Selection of schools.Through the assistance of Dr. Qoro and Professor Ragumbayi, four schools wereincluded in the study. Two were experimental and the other two acted as a controlgroup. Umbwe secondary school and Uru Seminary from Kilimanjaro were chosenbecause both schools were among the best five schools in the country in bothlanguages and science subjects, according to the 1996 results of the National

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