The Education Conversations sees education specialists, parents and government address the issue of the implications of the language policy for the foundation phase learner.

What role does – or should – English play when it comes to educating children who speak a different home language in foundation phase? And what role should their home languages play?

These were some of the challenging questions posed in “Education in a Multilingual Society: The implications for the foundation phase learner”, the latest panel discussion topic in the series of Education Conversations hosted by the Kagiso Trust in partnership with the University of Johannesburg on 19 May 2016.

The discussion was facilitated by radio and television personality Masechaba Ndlovu, and the panel featured Haroon Mahomed, Director for Teacher Development at the Department of Basic Education; Karina Strydom, Co-Founder and Product Developer at Brain Boosters (providers of early childhood development tools) and Jemina Mosia, winner of the 2013 Award for Excellence in Education and educator at Makhaloaneng Primary School, one of the schools Kagiso Trust supports under its whole schools development programme, the Beyers Naudé Schools Development Programme.

Opening the discussion, Ndlovu noted that the issue of language in education remains a hurdle for many black South African children, with children struggling to grasp often complex concepts in a language that they are still grappling with.

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Nontando Mthethwa, Communications and Marketing Head at the Kagiso Trust, expanded on these thoughts in her opening address. “We live in a multilingual society, and language is used to acquire knowledge,” she stated, adding that the aim of our schooling system is to nurture well-rounded individuals. The problem, however, is that all children already speak a home language when they enter the system, and in South Africa, for the majority of learners, this is not English. Moreover, it will take a significant number of years to master a new language – and yet, during this time, this language will be used as the primary medium of instruction. In essence, she supported University of Pretoria Foundation Phase Teaching lecturer, Maryna du Plooy’s views that learners have to come to terms with three languages: their home language, which is an expression of the personal and emotional; a regional language which is a tool for social intercourse; and a global language, which is a symbol of achievement and self-actualisation.

Within this context, how can educators best balance the dynamic between home languages and English, the lingua franca, especially for children at the delicate foundation learning stage?

Karina Strydom was the first to present her argument, suggesting that it is, in fact, possible for children to learn in two languages. “Children in foundation phase find it easy to learn an extra language,” she explained, noting that the problem lies in the gap between home and school, as well as the big classrooms that characterise today’s schools. She maintained that the solution lies in ensuring that children master a thorough grasp of mathematical concepts early on – this being the biggest predictor of academic achievement – and that these concepts should be taught in English, thereby “killing two birds with one stone”. Strydom said that the principles of neuroscience, such as repetition, can play a key role in helping children learn.

Jemina Mosia’s presentation focused on her own experience in helping children learn English. Mosia explained that she teaches at a school where the most commonly spoken language is Sesotho. “I feel it is crucial to be multilingual,” she stated, indicating that it can be limiting to speak only one language. This is why she invested an enormous amount of time and effort into helping her learners master English, which is taught at her school as a second language level. Mosia scheduled extra lessons, using tools such as phonics, rhymes and storytelling – and successfully increased the school’s pass rate from 30% to 80%, with one learner earning 82% at the Conquesta Olympiad in English as an additional first language.

Haroon Mahomed spoke next, expounding on the challenge from the perspective of government. He admitted that the issue of multilingual education is not a new one, but little progress has been made in addressing it since the 1980s. “Although English is spoken as a home language by only 8% of the population, it is the dominant language of instruction,” Mahomed noted. This has given rise to significant problems: often, learners struggle to understand concepts, especially in maths and science. There is strong evidence that teaching in the home language can make an observable difference; for example, in schools in the Eastern Cape, where Xhosa has been used as the medium of instruction, high results have been achieved – but, said Mahomed, this is not an easy solution.

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“The Constitution enshrines our learners’ right to be taught in the medium of their choice, but few schools offer this,” he said. In the meantime, an effort is being made to ensure that English-speaking learners become adept at African languages through the Incremental Introduction of African Languages, intended to ensure that African languages become part of the curriculum where this was not previously the case. This will have the additional benefit of fostering social cohesion; however, capacity restrictions are inhibiting this programme from moving forward. Mahomed said that ideally, learners should be able to complete their primary schooling – or, at the very least, a number of subjects – in their home language. The problem, however, is that there are not enough quality teachers to help make this a reality. Thus, short-term interventions are required: for instance, the status of indigenous languages should be raised (as English – the lingua franca, is generally thought of as more prestigious than African languages), while the quality of English teaching at foundation levels must be strengthened. He said that it would also be important for NGOs and the private sector to lend their support to the issue.

During the panel discussion, a number of issues were raised, highlighting the complexity of the issue. For example, the reality is that English is the global language, and South African has chosen to participate in the global economy; thus, a level of proficiency is required. At the same time, the growth of the Internet spurs this on, as this is an English milieu. That said, language is integral to who we are, both as people and as a nation, and a monolingual society is not desirable.

A number of different approaches were debated, including providing bilingual exam papers or introducing English early as a second or first additional language.

Ultimately, concluded Themba Mola, Chief Operations Officer at the Kagiso Trust, this is the sort of dialogue that the Education Conversations aims to stimulate.

Although there are no easy answers, it’s critical to engage people around the topic: “by fixing our foundation phase education, we may be able to improve our pipeline,” Mola said.

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