Learning through a second language

Learning through a second language

The Language in Education Policy (LiEP) (Department of Education, Government gazette no. 18546, December 19, 1997) attempts to promote language equity and quality education in all 11 official languages. This policy document (‘The South African National Educational System Language Policy’ 1997), recognises that the cultural diversity of South Africa is a national asset (Mothata & Lemmer 2002). The LiEP’s underlying principle is to maintain home language(s), while providing access to the effective acquisition of additional languages. Therefore, an additive approach to promoting bilingualism from a home language base is followed, meaning that South African learners receive instruction at school in their home language until they reach Grade 3. In Grade 4, the language of instruction changes to mostly English or Afrikaans, a second language for more than 80% of learners who come from African language backgrounds. The policy states that all learners have the right to be taught in their mother tongue where practical and reasonable.

But how is practicality and reasonability measured against reality? Policy-wise, South African children are supposed to start their learning at school from Grades 1 to 3 in their home language. However, many schools are faced with teaching learners in these Foundation Phase grades already in a language of learning that is different from what is spoken at home (Heugh, 2013). When learners progress to Grade 4, the language of learning changes again, resulting in more than 80% of learners being taught in a further second, or even third language (usually English, a language spoken by less than 10% of the population as their first language). For Grades 1 to 3 learners, ‘home language’ therefore does not necessarily coincide with ‘language of learning’. To illustrate this complexity, Mesthrie (2002) quotes an example taken from a 23 year-old male student from Germiston as saying:

My father’s home language was Swazi and my mother’s home language was Tswana. But as I grew up in an isiZulu speaking area we used mainly isiZulu and Swazi at home. But from my mother’s side I also learnt Tswana as well. In my high school I came into contact with lots of Sotho and Tswana students, so I can speak those two languages as well. And of course I know English and Afrikaans. With my friends I also use Tsotsitaal.’

This quotation confirms the argument that the majority of South Africa’s teachers work in classrooms where English is the official language of learning and teaching, but that English is neither the teacher’s nor the learners’ main language.

PrePIRLS 2011, an international comparative reading literacy study (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy and Foy, 2007), provides nationally representative achievement data for all 11 official languages for children who were tested at Grade 4 in South Africa. Van Staden, Bosker and Bergbauer (2016) undertook a secondary analysis of prePIRLS 2011 South African data. Findings from their study illustrate a substantial effect on reading literacy achievement when a discrepancy exists between the language in which the learners were tested in the prePIRLS 2011 study and home language when controlling for learner background characteristics. In most languages, the achievement was substantially higher when learners wrote in their home language with the exception of Afrikaans, isiZulu and Sepedi where there was no significant difference if discrepancies existed between the prePIRLS 2011 language of the test and the learners’ home language.

An 80-point difference in achievement was observed for learners who wrote the prePIRLS 2011 test in English when it was not their home language. A difference of 80 points means a two-year difference in educational terms for those children who wrote the test in English in home language compared to those children who wrote the test in English when it was not their home language. Learners from African language backgrounds were most severely affected when the language of the prePIRLS 2011 test did not coincide with their home language. For example, learners who had Tshivenda as home language and were tested in Tshivenda achieved 22.95 points lower than learners who were tested in English. Learners who were tested in Tshivenda when it was not their home language achieved as much as 78.90 points lower than learners who were tested in English. This same pattern of expected achievement is observed across all the African languages and would therefore suggest African home and test language already predicts significantly lower results as compared to English.

The complexity of the language context of the South African education system, coupled with a lack of adequate language resources in specifically disadvantaged communities, continue to contribute to the widening educational gap and poor quality education despite goals of equity and equality.

Author: Surette van Staden 
            Senior lecturer 
            Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education
              University of Pretoria
ReferencesDepartment of Education, South Africa, (1997), December 19. Government gazette no. 18546.Heugh, K. (2013). Literacy and language/s in school education in South Africa. In V. Reddy, A. Juan, & T Meyiwa (Eds.), Towards a 20 year review: Basic and post school education (pp. 18—33).Mesthrie, R. (ed) (2002). Language in South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Mothata, M.S. & Lemmer, E.M., 2002, The provision of education for minorities in South Africa.  South African Journal of Education 22(2), 106–112.Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Kennedy, A.M. & Foy, P. (2007). PIRLS 2006 international report: IEA’s study of reading literacy achievement in primary schools. Chestnut Hill, Boston College, Boston, MA.van Staden, S., Bosker, R., & Bergbauer, A. (2016). Differences in achievement between home language and language of learning in South Africa: Evidence from prePIRLS 2011. South African Journal of Childhood Education, 6(1), 10.