The great language debate

South Africa’s immense diversity continues to astound me. This country truly is the Rainbow Nation in so many different ways. Linguistically, South Africa plays home to 11 official languages although many more tongues can be found. This great linguistic spread can create confusion when dealing across ethnic or traditional boundaries. Luckily, many South Africans are capable of speaking numerous languages and can navigate the divide between languages with relative ease.

Unfortunately, this ease does not tend to translate into the learning, teaching, and speaking of English. In most schools in South Africa, learners study in their home language (in my case, Setswana) from Grade R-Grade 3. During those early years, learners will (ideally) complete one hour of English each day. When learners reach Grade 4, English is no longer just the First Additional Language, but the language of instruction. This means that all subject content (math, history, science, etc.) is expected to be conducted in English.

For those attending schools in a deep rural area, this immediate switch can be disconcerting and even impossible. Many teachers feel incapable of communicating the subject material in English and rely upon the home language to make their points.

So the question often discussed by educators is whether learners would be better off completing all their studies in home language and completely disregarding the use of English? While it seems to me that it would be almost guaranteed to improve scores by teaching solely in home language, I feel it would deprive learners of access to the outside world and inhibit future opportunities beyond the village. Similarly, I believe it would create a disconnect across the nation, making it devoid of a common language to share.

That said, I understand that many feel that by using English, we are perpetuating a system of oppression imposed by the British.

Language selection remains a far from easy decision. Many teachers in my community opt to send their children to private schools where they study in English and Afrikaans, a language protested not long ago for its own oppressive links. Some schools opt to identify English as a home language, beginning instruction in Grade R and supplementing the traditional language as a First Additional Language.

While I am certainly no expert, I do know what it feels like to look at a math test and have the gut wrenching feeling that I have no idea what is on the page in front of me. For my learners who see nothing more than specks of ink splotched across a page, I am sorry. For me, the importance of mastering a second, third, or fourth language has never been more clear but the path to success remains murkier than ever.

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