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.


Athambile Masola

Athambile Masola

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

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