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The language of inclusion and exclusion

One of my colleagues recently took down the sign “English-speaking zone” from her classroom wall. She had put it up at the beginning of the year as a way of dealing with the “language problem” in our school. She is a monolingual English speaker who teaches students who speak isiXhosa (and Afrikaans occasionally) and she did not want them to speak any other language but English in her classroom. The situation my colleague finds herself is a microcosm of the “language problem” in education in multilingual communities. English dominates the classrooms of children who do not necessarily speak English as their primary language.

Many people don’t like talking about the “language problem” in education because it evokes the question of inclusion and exclusion; dominance and marginalisation in our schools. Countries with a rich cultural heritage and a history of dominance are faced with the challenge of deciding which languages should be the languages of teaching and learning. In most countries the language that is chosen will be the language that has cultural capital and has the necessary resources to make sure that learning can happen. Depending on the region, English, French and Spanish are the languages that countries choose to be the language of education. This is also done in the face of sacrificing the indigenous languages that have not been developed fully to be used formally in classrooms (they often lack resources such as having books and material written in indigenous languages).

According to a teacher in Honduras (the Bay Islands) the Honduras ministry of education has declared this year as the “Year of Inclusion” where the ministry will support and prepare every teacher to create an inclusive classroom; embracing learning styles and cultural difference. In Honduras, English and Spanish are the dominant languages in a context of nine other languages that are not highly developed. Research shows that children who learn in a language that is unfamiliar struggle with literacy acquisition because they have to make the leap between the language of school learning and the language they speak at home. The Education for All Global Monitoring Report reveals that in Mali, where the language of instruction is French — different from the language most children speak at home — 92% of children were unable to read a single word by the end of grade two.

Language can be a great resource where people can and must speak more than one language. When it comes to educating our kids it seems there’s a tension because the language skills a teacher brings into the classroom. The teacher will determine whether language is going to be a barrier to learning or a rich resource that can expand learning. Teachers who are bilingual often view language as a resource rather than a barrier in their classroom because learners know that they have access to knowledge in more than one language in the classroom. Bilingual learning is not without its controversies. If a child is raised in a multilingual community, by the time they start school they have more than one language in their arsenal to use in the classroom. This is often seen as a disadvantage if it is not the language that the school recognises as the language of teaching and learning. Children are expected to learn a new language in the context of the classroom as though they are in the classroom tabula rasa. In South Africa this happens with English. English is an additional language for many children in our schools. And many have to make the switch to learning all their subjects at school in English when they are in grade four. This often happens with a haphazard introduction to English when they start school in grade one. English is introduced too late and they never develop the skills they need to learn other concepts in a language that they are unfamiliar with. This continues to happen despite the policy changes that challenge the introduction of English in the curriculum where the foundation years are taught in a child’s mother tongue (the language they speak at home).

The language children begin with when they start school (the mother tongue) can be seen as the “minority language” and poor students speaking a minority language at home are among the lowest performers in schools where the language of teaching and learning differs from the language they normally speak. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in Turkey, for instance, poor grade four students speaking a non-Turkish language — predominantly Kurdish — are the lowest performers in maths at school because school instruction happens in the dominant language. In Peru, the struggle is the use of Spanish and Quechua and their bilingual programme focuses on these two languages. But they find that most students who don’t have Spanish as their main language (Quechua and other indigenous languages) perform badly in both languages and their performance in their school work suffers; their performance in Spanish as well as their own language is weak.

It’s too easy to simply say that children who speak a “minority language” in their early years should simply assimilate and learn the dominant language. Children should be encouraged to be multilingual and teachers should be adept at teaching multilingual students. Language death doesn’t need to be the fate of minority languages because teachers, parents and policy can ensure that children’s languages are affirmed in the classroom, instead of being part of the “language problem”.

This blog post is part of a blog project #Teacher Tuesday which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.


  • A teacher in Johannesburg.Interested in education,feminism and sometimes a bit of politics (with a small letter p).


  1. bernpm bernpm 4 March 2014

    The concept of “minority languages” versus “dominant languages” is an interesting concept which can lead to an intelligent approach to multilingual societies. The situation is often approached with emotions rather than rationality.

    Grown up in a mono language country, we only had to correct our “slang”. Subsequently I learned French, classic Latin and Greek, followed by German and English. Mostly taught by a home language speaking teacher.

    I feel with the “dominant language” only speaking teacher. I would go so far that such a teacher does not belong in a multi language environment. It could be frustrating for both the teacher and the students. Unless the school manages to create a special line in the language curriculum.

    Mixing languages can be fun for both the students and the teachers. Lovely article.

  2. lindsay clowes lindsay clowes 5 March 2014

    Interesting post. The person with the ‘language problem’ is the teacher and her ability to locate it with the kids, instead of herself, is an example of unearned privilege in action. I say this with the full knowledge that I have the same privilege and my classes are all in English at an English medium institution. I’m interested in why she took the sign down?
    I was in Ghana recently where (luckily for me) everyone seemed to speak very good English. I was told that the educational system begins in mother tongue and introduces English early on so that when the transition to English does come learners are well prepared.

  3. Conrad Conrad 5 March 2014

    Excellent and thoughtful post. I am distributing it.

  4. Samson Samson 5 March 2014

    I have read almost everything(most) you posted online.It shows beyond a shadow of doubt that you are an inspiring teacher.I also watched your TED video “Learning from Teenagers” it is great and I am going to watch it again.I have a habit of rereading and this time around I will extend it to re-watching.

    Back to this blog- it is true multilingualism should be encouraged.All languages are rich resources of humankind…

  5. Bongani Khumbuza Bongani Khumbuza 7 March 2014

    a thought provoking piece, as a practising academic i can relate to this. as a country with diverse yet “equal” languages one has to contend with the language challenges, barriers and problems almost daily. what tends to be more frustrating at secondary level is when teachers mainly of content subjects think that they are exornorated from relating their subjects to the language, ie, english, in the process the blame is always shoulderd by language practitioners…what is astonishingly worrying is that you find those educators teaching in learner’s vernacular yet they expect learners to interact with their work and write tasks,tests, and exams in english…its just a huge test that requires collective effort from all affected to adroitly craft a way forward so tha we can develop and produce competitive citizens who has a chance to make it out there. our african languages are neglected so english is what we have at our disposal it therefore makes sense that we should’nt sell our future generation out…the excuse that one is teaching in isiZulu or isiXhosa so as to simplify the content of the subject in question should be relegated, let everyone teach in the language of learning and teaching and promote this “english zone” concept for now, because its what we have at our disposal to breed the future generation with the chance to compete.

  6. DLC DLC 8 March 2014

    I have read and thoroughly enjoyed many of your articles. You are indeed an inspiration. As a SA teacher currently living in Japan, one thing I noticed was that Japanese took most of its language of learning from Chinese (and its writing system to boot). It then ‘Japanized’ it so that the original Chinese words took on Japanese pronunciation. This of course is what English has done over the centuries.

    I have not yet had a chance to study this in depth (I have been engaged in other studies), but I have often wondered why the African languages in SA don’t start Africanizing scientific and mathematical terms, rather than just calling them ‘code switching’. For example, the number sentence 1+2=3 (which incidentally is all made up of Latin, Greek with Arabic numerals) is incorporated into Xhosa using Xhosa spelling and pronunciation, e.g: ‘Iwani phalasi ithu ikwali ithri (forgive me if my Xhosa spelling is incorrect). It is no doubt already happening, but is probably frowned upon by some. Of course, the actual concept behind the maths is taught in the mother tongue. If words were brought into the African languages on a more formal basis, it would be easier for the learners, easier for the teachers, and if some learners were then to move on to schools where English were the medium, the jump may not be so big. I have been out of the country for some time, so I apologize if what I am saying is already old news. But I have yet to see anything on this in the mainstream…

  7. Bikoan Thinker Bikoan Thinker 11 March 2014

    In South Africa, language issue is first and foremost a social justice concern that morrally must be addressed. We cannot continue to talk about multilingualism as if those whose languages the majority of South Africans have been speaking, i.e. Afrikaans and English, are multilingual or even multiculturalism. They are not, or at least, the majority of them are not. They are bilingual or even in some cases, monolingual, because some Afrikaans speakers say they don’t speak English and some English speakers say they don’t speak Afrikaans: wounds of Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902.

    The African majority and black people in general are the group(s) that are multilingual and multicultural because they have been forced to learn Afrikaans and English since the establshment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 (to 1994). So because these two former official languages of colonial and apartheid South Africa are not the African’s mother-tongue, the African people are in a deep sense, multilingual and multicultural. You cannot learn a language without learning its culture.

    English and Afrikaans speakers hide under the pretext of multilingualism and multiculturalism because in essense they don’t have to learn any other language. Their languages continue to be the mediums of instruction and communication in official documents including media i.e., newspapers.

    With South Africa celebrating its 20 year of liberation, most African children cannot communicate in their mother-tongues…

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