What literacy means in a multilingual SA

“IT ALL starts with literacy” was the theme of the conference that launched the Reading Association of South Africa in the Eastern Cape. This is an association, already based in other South African provinces, that seeks to be a voice to the challenges we face in literacy and the language question in schools and universities.
We often think of literacy as reading and writing, an activity in classrooms where teachers are the only people who can influence this, but conversations held at this conference opened up the idea that literacy is more than what happens at school, it is a daily activity that also occurs in homes and communities. Central to the question of literacy is language. Living in a multilingual society with a past that used language for control and discrimination, South Africans often think we have a language crisis. This does not need to be the case. We have 11 official languages although they are not all equal in status or value.

Many parents want their children to be taught in English because this is the language that is used in the working world, universities and some countries across the world.The complexity with the language question is that the dominance of English and the belief that an English education is the best education has left many pupils in South Africa at a disadvantage.

The Language in Education Policy in South Africa supports an additive approach to bilingualism which means that pupils’ home languages (commonly known as mother tongue) should not be removed but rather supported so that pupils are able to use and be literate in more than one language.This is not the case for all pupils, especially those who have an African language as their mother tongue (where Afrikaans is an exception).

Many parents opt for their children to be taught in English as soon as possible as they believe early exposure to the language will help them know the language better.
This, however, has its challenges as we see many pupils are not able to read and write in either English or Xhosa when they get to high school.The challenge is that while pupils might be able to speak a language this does not guarantee that they will read and write in the language as fluently, especially if their mother tongue is not fully developed and supported.

Bilingualism is something that hasn’t been fully considered in many schools (in spite of the history of bilingual and parallel medium schools where Afrikaans and English were used). Many pupils attend schools that have a subtractive approach to bilingualism which means the mother tongue is virtually removed because of the emphasis of English at the expense of the mother tongue.

I recognise that children learn languages all the time through television and other informal interactions but hearing and speaking a language is different to being educated and reading in it. It seems that parents are caught between a rock and a hard place as the belief in going straight for English has huge implications for children’s development as well as social interactions.
What does this mean for our everyday lives?

There are no easy answers. We need to start questioning why we believe an English-dominated education is the best in South Africa in spite of the results we see across the grades, especially in our disadvantaged schools.Why do we believe that our African languages do not have a place outside our homes? South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, which means all our languages can have value, but more work is needed to make this a reality.

We need more books in African languages for children to use from an early age. Appropriate support needs to be put in place in all schools where literacy in the mother tongue (both English and African languages) is supported.Parents need to be made aware of the educational value of their children’s mother tongues being supported for as long as possible while acquiring another language such as English.
Young black people need to consider teaching as an option if the reality of mother tongue education is to be achieved in South Africa, as without enough teachers who speak these languages, our children cannot be taught in their languages.

This is not without its challenges. The teaching profession in South Africa has become complex as many teachers across privileged and disadvantaged schools are questioning their role in a society that takes them for granted, hence young black people are reluctant to consider teaching as a career option. Many peers laugh at my confession of wanting to be a teacher as this is not a lucrative profession such as being an accountant.

More importantly, many people do not see the value of teaching African languages as careers do not require people to be multilingual.English is always the important language, but why?The only way African languages can be developed is through users of those languages demanding that their languages are used in all contexts of society: the more a language is used, the more opportunities there will be to develop it for more spheres in society. The responsibility is not with the education system alone, however, but with all South Africans: monolingualism should be abnormal in a country with 11 official languages.

First published in the Daily Dispatch: 2010/10/11


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