Debates similar to ours in the area of bilingual education in Africa. -Angela
29 November 2006
In a language children can understand
EDUCATION Minister Naledi Pandor recently announced that her department was working on a plan to teach children in their mother tongue. Mother tongue will now be the language of instruction for the first six years of primary education, as opposed to the current policy of three years. Given the importance of English as the “international language of business”, critics of mother-tongue education have argued that children should be immersed in English as early as possible. They worked on the assumption that the longer children are exposed to the English language, the better their outcomes would be when tested in this language.
To teach learners exclusively in English (or any second language) is known as “immersion” teaching. There is a huge body of evidence that shows that this form of teaching actually has deleterious effects on the first language and hinders progression in the second. Immersion teaching is now well known to cause a condition known as “subtractive bilingualism”, in which the first language is actually eroded by the learning of the second, and both languages remain relatively underdeveloped.
If children who are still grappling with the complexities of their mother tongue are educated almost exclusively in a language that they do not understand, the first few years of instruction in this new language have little educational value other than to force them to acquire this new lexicon. Maths taught in English means little to a child who speaks only Xhosa, and the lesson at best teaches the child something about English but nothing about mathematics.
Worse still, the basic language manipulation skills of children who have not yet mastered their mother tongue are retarded, and they may leave the educational institution with reduced proficiency in all languages.
There are, broadly, two types of language use, basic communication and academic communication. Basic communication is mostly oral, and incorporates gestures, facial expressions, changes in intonation, and is rich in contextual meaning. Academic communication is mostly textual, relies almost solely on the written word, and operates in a context- reduced setting in which the language alone must convey meaning. Thus when children are observed as they communicate with peers and teachers, it can seem as if they understand English very well. When their academic results are examined, however, it is usually immediately clear that the second-language learners are at a severe disadvantage when compared with their first-language peers. It seems that a generalised type of language proficiency needs to be attained before those developed language skills can be transferred to a second language.
In other words, for English-speakers to learn Zulu effectively, they need to be proficient in their mother tongue first. As people learn a second language, they construct thoughts in their home language, and then substitute words of the second language as and when they learn them. So we begin wanting to say: “Today I’m going home.” We then substitute Zulu words for the English. “Namhlanje I’m going home.” Then: “Namhlanje I’m going ekhaya.” And later: “Namhlanje ngiyahamba ngiya ekhaya.”
The point is that without the mother tongue framework to build upon, I could never have constructed the sentence in Zulu. Without my mother tongue, I cannot hope to successfully learn a second language.
A growing body of research indicates that this relationship goes even deeper, as it seems there is a direct correlation between the level of proficiency in the mother tongue and the subsequent level of proficiency that can be attained in a second language.
So if a child has not attained proficiency in its mother tongue, it is immediately crippled when trying to cope academically with a second language.
The minister’s plan of more comprehensive mother-tongue education is thus a good one, and fits in exactly with the accumulated knowledge on language learning. Ironically, the best way to teach Zulu kids to speak English is to teach them in Zulu.
‖MacFarlane is a researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article is based on research conducted during his masters degree.