Wednesday, April 20, 2011

my mother mother's tongue

For most of my life Mama and I have been two peas in a pod. However, being the youngest of her three daughters has not been without its tensions. From a young age I understood that Mama and I lived in different worlds; hers a world of oppression and resistance and mine freedom and choices . Thanks to my formal education and socialisation, language became the obvious marker that we were always growing apart. I was educated in a former Model C, public girls school where English was the only language of instruction. The shallow isiXhosa lessons once a week did not recognise the language that came naturally to me. Attending a new school also meant moving to the leafy suburbs where white children asked their parents for permission to play with black children. The obvious danger of a complete immersion into English meant that by being proficient in the language and code at school, my mother tongue was in jeopardy.

The alarm bells went off for Mama while I was reading a paperback cartoon version of The long walk to freedom. I stumbled on Tat’uMadiba’s name and I asked Mama for help. She asked me to sound out the word and I responded “Roli-hala-hala” but she demanded to read it herself where she corrected me “Rolihlahla mnta’am!...sisiXhosa esi!” (Rolihlahla my child! This is a Xhosa name). Mama recalls with a bitter-sweet expression that I was an avid reader and writer but I wasn’t reading isiXhosa because no children’s literature was available in the school or the local library which meant that isiXhosa was slowly replaced by English and I was labelled the quintessential coconut. By the time I was 11 I was a monolingual English speaker with no idea of the estrangement I was yet to encounter.

Growing up in predominantly English speaking environments Mama never stopped speaking isiXhosa at home. She never made it explicit, but she was concerned about losing her child who was immersed in her second language. This meant that I lost the nuances of Mama’s language with the proverbs and nursery rhymes that carried a history I would never know. I interpreted Mama’s insistence on speaking isiXhosa as a sign of her backwardness. The modern world in television, internet and magazines didn’t acknowledge the language she used to get our attention. There was no place for my mother tongue in the world I was growing up in which meant no place for my mother in my world. My school teachers became the benchmark for aspiration in spite of the fact that Mama was the first teacher I encountered when I learned to be a fluent reader, giving me skills to reading for meaning that I still use to this day.

A transition began near the end of primary school when I began to understand the importance of language diversity in the Rainbow nation that South Africa was becoming. Our lives in the leafy suburbs was disturbed which meant we had to leave the predominantly white neighbourhood to experience another reality, living “down town” and later an informal settlement. For the first time I learned that you couldn’t ask a taxi driver for directions if you spoke to him in English, it was important to say “uxolo bhuti” . The women who sold fruit and veg at the taxi rank would ignore my sister and I unless we addressed them by saying “Molo mama”. I learned that the proverb “Ukuza kukaNxele” meant more than waiting in vain but its meaning was couched in a historical narrative. I began to realise that the world was a different place and the language I had regarded as irrelevant was the language I needed for survival. The smatterings of isiXhosa I knew (thanks to Mama) meant that as a bilingual speaker I was able to straddle two different worlds and make meaning of the South African reality that often appears as disjointed.

My current research into literacy in isiXhosa in Grade 1 classes has given me further understanding into the complexity of language learning in education and making meaning of the world. No one doubts the importance of English and the opportunities it allows, but the value of speaking and understanding the world in ones mother tongue has been underestimated. As an aspiring teacherI have interacted with children and they have taught me that their inquisitive minds can handle more than one language and they understand the relationship of social capital and languages even when they are in Grade 1.

I have re-educated myself and I now speak, read and write isiXhosa and Mama speaks English more often than she would like to admit. My knowledge of my mother tongue has not limited me in any way, it has broadened my world with stories and interactions with people English monoligualism would have limited me from.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

baby steps and being literate

I have a six year old nephew who started Grade 1 this year. For various and obvious reasons, my sister decided to send him to a school where English is the language of teaching and learning in spite of the fact that his mother tongue is isiXhosa. Even though this is the case, English was never a foreign language for him because he was born into a bilingual home environment. He’s been exposed to both isiXhosa and English through the media,our adult conversation and his small collection of books that he has. When I asked him what he was doing at school and he told me he was “building words”. I couldn’t help but notice the hesitation in his voice as he struggled to express this concept in isiXhosa.

Evidence of learning at school is already coming through because recently we had our first argument about language. It was an argument about the letter C: he knows c for cat, and c for CNA and he couldn’t understand how the same letter could have different sounds. We ended up reading a book that made reference to the sea and he asked me of it was the same as see (pointing to his eyes). In spite of my keen interest on teaching language and understanding how children become literate, I couldn’t help my nephew with understanding the complexity of learning to read English. When I was his age I didn’t question the language, I simply read and listened to what was said around me at school.

The language conundrum continued for my nephew when we were looking at a book about the human body. We started talking about the skeleton which is fortunately not an abstract concept because he can feel his own bones to make sense of the images in the book. I used the word ukuva, encouraging him to feel his own skeleton and he responded in English that he could hear his bone. So this became an opportunity for another lesson: the word ukuva means to feel and to hear, but my nephew translated ukuva into hear instead of feel because that was the word that must have been available in his mind at that moment. After I tried to explain this to him he lamented how difficult English is and he wishes he could speak isiXhosa all the time! The conversation ended when he asked me to read the book he had selected before bedtime twice before he started nodding off to sleep.

Another two year old nephew received a book based on one of his favourite cartoons. Being two, he obviously cannot read but understands the concept of having his own book, especially one with faces he feels he can recognize, “Dora the explorer”. He understood what to do with the book immediately after I gave it to him; he sat down and started “reading” to himself, paging through the book whilst making sounds as though he was reading. Clearly he had already become accustomed to the practice of someone reading to him and he had convinced himself he could do it for himself. This didn’t last longer than 5 minutes but I was able to see how he had become socialized into a literacy through merely seeing other people reading to him.

Like most aunts, I have convinced myself that my nephews and nieces are amongst the smartest kids in the world and the conversation I describe above confirms this for me. I have always taken for granted how another language is actively learned because I cannot remember having to speak one language because I have always been in multilingual environments and always in walking distance to the library. I now wonder more and more how it is that we think that children who are mostly exposed to one language at home and only hear English at school will become proficient with English to the extent of having to apply that language across their subjects in Grade 4. Success in education is improved for children in homes where literacy is an everyday practice where it isn’t simply something one does because of homework, it is a way of life. But for children who are in homes where parents cannot read to them before bedtime who cannot read to them at all, they need to find alternative avenues to catch up to their peers who have this opportunity.

But the nature of education in South Africa is that it is causing the gap between the rich and the poor to widen. Learners from poor homes, schools and communities are struggling at the first hurdle in education because of the quality of education, lack of access to books (because only 7% of the schools in South Africa have libraries) and for complex reasons, parents are often unavailable as a secondary source of learning as parents from more affluent families do. This complexity makes teaching and learning far more difficult as teachers are expected to work beyond their means because children are only being stimulated at school rather than everywhere they go. Hence the crises in education is not only a symptom of bad leadership and lack of prioritising the real issues, it is also a result of social relations amongst families and communities that no longer see the education of their children as their responsibility as well and sadly to the detriment of their children.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"I don't want to be here" says the Grade 1 learner

The last two weeks of school I spent in a classroom observing and building rapport with the teachers I have been doing my research with. The few days that I sat in the classroom I quickly learned that I was not going to be a distant observer but a participant in the life of the classroom. So I learned all the names (which was easy because they are pasted onto their desks) and interacted with the learners when the teacher stepped out the classroom as a pseudo-teaching assistant.

I won't lament how this school is an epitomy of what education is like in South Africa. For a township school however, it is generally functional.The amount of time spent on learning dwindles to about 4 hours because school only starts after 8, meal time and play time is an hour when combined and learning is often disturbed by administration for the teacher or out of the blue visits from parents.

So last week I was left with the class of 31 learners while the teacher had to sort out schedules (also known as reports). I quickly got creative trying to keep them busy with a numeracy workbook that the learners are familiar with. I haven't quite mastered the booming teacher voice that utters a word and the learners stand to attention so keeping the learners attention and focus on the activity was a problem. Eventually I resorted to my mother's tactic of trying to engage the young minds about their devilish behaviour: first they had to put their fingers on their mouth and look at me... "why couldn't they just keep quiet and listen and participate in the lesson?...Why were they at school?" I asked. They looked at me dumbstruck for a few mintues. I got impatient and decided that engaging learners who are mostly spoken to by adults was not the best tactic.So I decided to be passive-agressive saying anyone who didn't want to be in the classroom was welcome to leave. All the learners except one understood that I didn't mean this but it was just a matter of saying(as I had observed their teacher do with them often).

"Asanda" stood up and walked towards the door. I asked her where she was going and she said outside. I asked her why and she said she didn't want to learn. It was my turn to be dumbstruck. Not only did she answer my question, she also gave a reason(very rare for these learners, they only engage with each other and not the teacher about their reason for doing anything). She looked quite certain about what she was doing and I had to realise that my tactic wasn't going to work for this little girl.I eventually told her to sit down and we continued with the random lesson of "which picture is the odd one out...and why?" from the workbook.

This incident left an impression on my mind. What does this say about the kind of education learners are exposed to if learners in Grade 1 can identify that they are not interested in school? What stops a teenager from dropping out when someone who is 6 years old does not want to be at school? My guess is that Asanda will be one of the learners who might not make it to Grade 7 if the kind of education she has doesn't engage with her mind and whatever it is she conceives as the world.

The obvious challenge is that in big class sizes, teachers cannot engage every learner, instead they spend most of their time doing classroom management(Though 31 is relatively okay considering this teacher had 40 learners last year). And any sort of deviance in the classroom is often rewarded with a hiding. One of my favourite learners in this classroom is "Ntosh", she has a song in her head the whole day and isn't shy of walking around the classroom humming while looking for a pencil to steal so she can write. If she needs to go to the dustbin to throw away anything, she will take the scenic route around the classroom rather than take a short cut less than a few steps away from her desk, and she will dance the whole time. If she is caught by the teacher, there's trouble.Ntosh is also the learner who misses out on school, her mother looks too young to be her mother and has another toddler to look after and Ntosh is one of the struggling learners in the class. Where does a teacher begin to meet her and peers like her(about 6 in this classroom) at their pace while she has administration and the rest of the class to consider?

As much as I pine for the classroom, I can't help but wonder where I would begin with convincing learners that school is a good idea, whether they are in Grade 1 or Grade 11. There are many learners like Ntosh and Asanda in our classrooms and one wonders what they will become. Ntosh is clearly an artist/dancer/singer and Asanda a maverick who will tell it as it is!But the current system is clearly not designed for them.