English does not determine competency levels, says language lecturer

25 August 2022

Reflecting on a recent announcement by the Department of Basic Education in the Eastern Cape province to translate question papers into isiXhosa and Sesotho, Dr Yanga Majola, a Tshwane University of Technology lecturer at the Department of Applied Languages, highlights the language challenges in the South African education sector in an article. 

Dr Yanga Majola.

“The decision to translate question papers into isiXhosa and Sesotho by the Department of Basic Education in the Eastern Cape province is nothing but an implementation of the Constitution and the Language in Education Policy of South Africa,” he writes

“The constitution of RSA (1996), Section 6(1), stipulates that there are 11 official languages in South Africa. Furthermore, everyone's linguistic rights should be protected and respected. The Language in Education Policy (LiEP) aims at  promoting multilingualism as well as the development of ALL official languages and supporting the use of ALL official languages for Learning and Teaching. 

“Tantamount to that, several scholarly studies  have concluded that the use of English as a Language of Learning and Teaching (LoTL) hinders learners' comprehension and performance in none language-based subjects. Although I understand that there may be those learners who do not perform well due to reasons beyond language, there are also those who underperform due to the language used in their teaching.

“Now, I know that some are worried that learners are being disadvantaged because being taught in a Language such as isiXhosa or Sesotho will not benefit them beyond high school and university. First of all, I think that is an unnecessary argument because English as a language does not determine one's level of competence. In tandem, language is a means of communication, but a person's understanding or the lack thereof, would not necessarily determine their ability to know certain things. So, knowledge and comprehension are not tied to English only.

“For example, if we brought all learners speaking the 11 official languages into one room and  taught them how to fix a generator or how to plant cabbages in their different languages, the learners who were taught in English, will not be the only ones who can fix generators and plant cabbages afterwards. Only learners who understood what they were taught, will be able to fix generators and plant cabbages. 

English is a linguafranca not just in South Africa but globally. I, for one, would encourage that all learners be taught English as a subject and as a medium of instruction for them to be able to compete locally and globally. However, if English is a stumbling block for the learner's understanding of content in complex subjects such as Maths, Physics, Accounting, and more, there is a need for a pedagogical approach that will speak to that. Hence, I agree with the move by the DBE in the EC to consider those learners who prefer that both instruction and assessment be done in the language of their choice (not by force). This will in no way mean they should not develop their language competence in English, but it would mean their understanding is primary, then the language used will be secondary. I truly do not believe that the knowledge shared in English is superior to the knowledge shared in another language or an African language for that matter. Neither do I believe that English is the key to our understanding and interpretation of the world. I mean, as it is universities through DHET, USAf, COPAL, BAQONDE and other similar structures, which advocate for the inclusion of African languages in learning and teaching, are not just in talks but are implementing progressive policies that promote and develop the use of African languages in the higher education sector. If we reject this then, why do we accept the provisions by the LiEP and the constitution stated above?”

Dr Majola concluded his article by saying:
“African Languages cannot be good only for use anywhere else besides the classroom, this will also help people to find it easy to use them anywhere else and even be encouraged to learn one another’s languages. Question papers have always been written in Afrikaans and English and learners had to choose, but no one argued about where these learners will use Afrikaans post their education. Now that it's African languages, Africans are becoming worried about the promotion and development of their own languages.” 

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