Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In a language children can understand

Debates similar to ours in the area of bilingual education in Africa. -Angela

29 November 2006
In a language children can understand
Marco MacFarlane

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.


  1. Anonymous7:03 PM

    I was in South Africa for the summer and had the opportunity to visit a school that had a predominate language (Xhosa) other than english. The unique situation is that SA made so many languages the official language, that they are having some difficulty having a national conversation. Pushing English only seemed too much of a throwback to Apartheid, but no English left them crippled economically.

    The other interesting thing that I observed is that many schools had ditched the traditional liberal education model. They see it as a luxury of wealthy nations. Their high schools have engineering and economics classes as mandatory and history as the elective. I found this intriguing as a model and came to the conclusion that it made perfect sense for the situation that they find themselves in as a nation.

    I hope that the mother tongue initiative grabs hold and that there becomes a wealth of resources to support the basis for their argument about instruction and language. I know there are many passionate voices weighing in on the issue in the country.

  2. Anonymous9:28 PM

    The debate over whether or not children should be instructed primarily in their native tongue or in the language that will carry them furthest in the work force is one that has received considerable attention from educational reformers. What makes the debate so difficult to choose a side in is the fact both sides clearly have the best interests of students in mind. While those advocating instruction in the native tongue do so because they believe that any other form of instruction will ultimately be detrimental to a students’ linguistic abilities, those advocating a program geared specifically toward the language of the work force believe that to do otherwise will prevent students from being able to improve their socioeconomic situations. Despite the validity of both sides of this argument, I must say that I am very pleased that Minister Pandor decided to devote three additional years to a Zulu-based curriculum. My support for this decision comes from my own personal experiences as well as the writings of Lisa Delpit, a massively influential figure in the field of educational reform. Both of these sources point to the fact that a comprehensive knowledge of a student’s native tongue is, in the long run, extremely beneficial to their overall education.
    Many of my personal experiences reinforce the notion that the lack of proper training in a student’s native tongue will ultimately impedes all walks of education. A good example of this is the development of my younger cousin Gabbie. My aunt, an English speaking American citizen and my uncle, a Chilean citizen whose native tongue is Spanish simultaneously raised Gabbie. While my aunt attempted to teach her English, my uncle spoke to her solely in Spanish. The result of this method of linguistic training was not as they had hoped it would be. Gabbie had extreme difficulty grasping the basics of either language, and initially lagged behind most of her classmates in terms of being able to express herself. She had problems in other subjects as well, and had no idea when to use which language. To me, these deficiencies in Gabbie’s development can be wholly attributed to the fact that she had, in the confusion resulting from learning two languages at once, not acquired the necessary skills to externally express herself, nor the ability to internally process information to the extent necessary to master concepts vital to her education. After all, a great deal of our thought processes are performed through internal dialogues with the self, usually in a mental reproduction of the language we feel most comfortable with. Without the means of internally expressing one’s self, these reflections are rendered impossible. Yet another example of this is my own education in Spanish. I cannot imagine having been able to grasp even the most basic aspects of the Spanish language without having an extremely comprehensive knowledge of the English language, my native tongue. For example, without a knowledge of English I do not see how I would have been able to grasp something so deceptively simple as the notion of separate verb conjugations. By remembering that, in English, we attach different forms of a verb to different pronouns, I was able to rationalize the fact that when using the pronoun “yo” I would follow it with the “estoy,” to express a present state of being, whereas, while using the pronoun “él,” I would follow it with “está” to express a present state of being. Had I not understood the reasoning behind this as applied to English, the fact that “I” is followed with “am” to express a state of being while “he” is followed with “is” to express the same thing, I see no way that I could have mentally justified using different words to express the same verb. The first steps that I took in mastering Spanish were to take basic Spanish vocabulary words and translate them directly into English. By first processing my thoughts into English, and then translating them directly into Spanish. Making any necessary structural changes along the way, I was able to express myself in Spanish in a relatively short period of time.
    In Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict In The Classroom, Lisa Delpit puts forth the argument that a prior education in the mother-tongue will ultimately allow students to excel in the accepted language of the “culture of power”, otherwise known as the ruling class, as well as other fields of study much more than they would if solely instructed in a language completely alien to them. Delpit uses the Villis Tokples school system in Papua New Guinea, a country distinguished by its multilingualism, as a source of support for her argument. The school system serves children that find themselves in a similar situation to those in the African School system in that, while Tok Pisin is the most common native tongue spoken in their homes, it is English that will carry them furthest in the realm of business. Due to this fact, from the 1950s onward literacy instruction was administered exclusively in English. However, it became obvious that this approach to education was creating a number of major problems: “By the late 1970’s, several concerns about schooling and school language policies had arisen-notably the cry from government officials that literacy and mathematics standards were dropping” (Delpit 81). This revelation led to a reform program called the Vilis Tokples Pri-Skul scheme, which advocated that children be taught to read, write and count in Tok Pisin as opposed to English. The children would then move onto an English based curriculum once out of the program. The effect that this change had was immediately noticeable: “Interviews with English-medium Grade One teachers revealed that the Vilis Tokples Pri-Skul children were learning English more quickly than children who had not attended Vilis Tokples Pri-Skul” (Delpit 88). Clearly, the complete mastery of the students’ native tongue prior to any other form of linguistic instruction allowed the children to process incoming knowledge with greater ease. Delpit’s argument points to the fact that, without a comprehensive knowledge of a single language, regardless of whether or not this language will be useful in the workforce, overall comprehension is rendered virtually impossible.
    Minister Pandor’s change will doubtlessly produce generations of students much better prepared to approach the task of receiving a basic education in many subjects than previous generations. Unfortunately, simply deciding to devote three additional years to Zulu rather than English is not enough. Due to the importance of being able to communicate effectively in the language of the dominant classes, the English based curriculum cannot be compromised as a result of this decision. Whatever reforms need to be made to the pacing of this portion of the curriculum must take immediate effect in order to promote any sort of possibility of social ascension on the part of the students. Thankfully, the knowledge that the students will possess of their own native tongue will doubtlessly assist them in adapting to the quickened pace of their education in the English language.

  3. Anonymous9:39 AM

    I was happy to read that the South African government is leaning towards mother tongue teaching the mother tongue first. It is nice to see researchers have come to appreciate the harm immersion schooling can inflict on the development of a child. However, I am worried that practicality and a child’s performance is the only aim of this change. The article makes no mention of preserving the Xhosan culture; there is only the worry of holding children back in their English education. Certainly we do not want to financially cripple the students, but if that is the only aim, I can imagine a white legislator eventually forming an entirely English curriculum because—if we can imagine his reasoning—“It is more efficient to teach children the language of the world as children.”
    Teaching the mother tongue is a good way to preserve the native culture that has been so devastated by western, white settlers. Language is a great unifier but it can also be used to silence dissenting cultures, and I fear trying to teach exclusively English would become a tactic to eradicate other native languages and with that, culture.
    Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children spends a chapter talking about the Vilis Tokples Pri-Skul (literally ‘village talk of the place pre-school’) in the North Soloman’s Province of Papa New Guinea. Delpit notes that they were also conscientious of the falling scores of children who were immersed, but the natives had other worries in mind.
    When children were taught only English, “Traditional customs, beliefs, values, and practices were devalued,” which, for the parents led, “to a sense of powerlessness vis-à-vis the school” . One Huli man put it succinctly:

    “They put our children inside buildings so how could we teach our forefathers’ knowledge to our children when they were shut up inside and we had to stand on the outside?”

    The natives wanted their children to be successful in the world without forgetting where they came from and the culture of their family. It is so easy to get caught up in the promise of success that we lose sight of the people who mean the most to us.
    So the leaders of the Buka regions in the North Solomon’s set up a school where children learned to read and write in their native language before learning English and then were taught the foundations of their customs and culture. Lastly, the children were instructed on “basic ways to succeed in a Western sense”.
    The difference between the Tokples school and the new South African policy is one of intent: culture through the Xhosa language will be preserved as a side effect whereas those schools in Papa New Guinea meant to preserve it.
    The effect of Tokplesian education was that children were prepared for two worlds: one that was fitting of those staying home and one that was geared towards those students planning on leaving the village and going to a larger town or city. The villagers kept what was “good from the old” and mixed it with “the best from the new”. Most importantly, as Delpit notes, the villagers planning this curriculum wanted autonomy. They wanted the old and new mixed in their way. John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for this own child, that must the community want for all of its children.” With that spirit in mind, these caring and motivated leaders and parents came together to write a curriculum they thought most beneficial for their children.
    The effect of this experiment, started in 1980, was that children learned their native language fully and corrected their parents’ grammar from time to time. They were also more willing to help with chores around the house having learned about traditional ceremonies. One parent noted how his child would always “know how to live at home”.
    Practically, they also learned English more quickly than those who had not attended the Vilis Tokples Pri-Skul. Delpit claims that “children only learn to read once, and if they learn to read in a language they already understand orally, they become literate much more quickly and effectively than those who learn in a foreign language.” This is some of the same research that motivated Pandor’s change of policy in South Africa. What I am trying to point out is that what the Minister is trying to do has been accomplished in Papa New Guinea, and those reformers from the North Solomon’s were able to include cultural education in the curriculum. Pandor might take a page out of the Vilis Tokples Pre-Skul’s book.
    Like I said, I think this move on Minister Naledi Pandor’s part is a good one. It will not only help the children learn English more effectively—which will prepare them to leave their downtrodden communities—it will also preserve the aspects of their culture that are left in the aftermath of apartheid. I just worry that the latter effect is more of a side effect and may be foregone with later reform. Educational performance should not be the only factor guiding how we teach.
    Maybe the No Child Left Behind Act could learn from Papa New Guinea too.
    Like I mentioned before, if all that is motivating the legislators is a desire to raise children’s performance (a good goal, if insufficient), I worry that one day the mother tongue will be eradicated for efficiency’s sake. Immersion school does not work now, but an augmented version of it may work in the future. If such a program was implemented, it would spell death for native languages, and in effect native culture.
    I end with a parent who was supportive of Tokples summing up the issue: “It is important to teach our children to read and write, but it is more important to teach them to be proud of themselves, and us.”