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.


Phillippa said…
I found your reflections very poignant and refreshing. I keep meeting young people who give me hope! You are one of them! I love the compassion with which you note the inequalities and injustice in SA education. But I'm sad about isiXhosa: a friend sent me to look at this TED talk by Wade Davis about indigenous language EXTINCTION that makes the whale's story look like a whole melodrama. I hope that you can come with an insightful and meaningful contribution to the problem of marginalization and loss of African languages.

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