I teach English. People often have a quizzical look when I respond to the question: “Which subjects do you teach?” (I won’t belabour the race issue that underpins the subtext of the quizzical look seeing as there aren’t many black English teachers in the southern suburbs of Cape Town). I often try to explain to people that I do not think of myself as an English teacher but rather a language teacher as I speak isiXhosa, isiZulu en ‘n bietjie klaskamer Afrikaans (some of my students have even taught me how to say greetings in Arabic). While reading Professor Jonathan Jansen’s extract about the role of English in education, I realised that there was room for misunderstanding his views. As an English teacher I should be happy that he encourages the overwhelming use of English as a means to an end: some kind of national unity, “common engagement”. Thankfully, I’ll never be out of a job.
It always seems pointless having the language debate in South Africa. People always find a reason to disagree and become offended. Furthermore, everyone seems to have some research-informed argument rejecting or supporting any given language policy. Whenever we talk about language in relation to education, people are invested in the language question thanks to the events of June 1976. In a country with 11 official languages, it becomes more complicated where people find the idea of acknowledging all 11 languages impractical and unnecessary. But the most important argument against forced language use is always a personal matter.
When we look at language-learning purely as a means to an end (black people must learn English in order to get a job one day and move up the echelons of success) then we lose the idea that language learning is not simply about economic success. By learning a language (whether it is a dominant or a minority language) one places themselves in a vulnerable position because you are going to look like an idiot until you’ve mastered the language. Beyond that, you stand the chance of immersing yourself in another way of understanding the world through another language. And that is the beauty of learning another language that is lost when we talk about learning English for the sake of social mobility.
If we focused on learning languages within the education sector alone, it’s too easy to propose English alone (in the name of “common engagement”). Given the context of education in South Africa, implementing a language policy means acknowledging that the current policy has never actually been implemented (and even the recent one which states that African languages will be taught from grade one is just rhetoric). There are different practices depending on the class bracket of the schools. Jansen’s policy is directed towards schools where English is being introduced in grade four without an incremental approach to language learning. This is a pedagogical issue rather than simply introducing English in grade one. As Jansen points out, it’s both political and it’s about the teachers who are teaching in the foundation phase.
The knee-jerk reaction to views such as the one expressed by Jansen also brings into question African languages. By focusing on English, the hegemony of English is reinforced and African languages are sacrificed. We can’t run away from this reality: in teaching English, something’s got to give. I write this as someone who has benefitted from a Eurocentric education, which left my isiXhosa by the wayside. The first time I learned in isiXhosa was in my third year of university. Anyone who hasn’t been through this jarring experience should think carefully about what it means to learn an African language, whether or not it is their mother tongue. I also write this as an English teacher who has had to consider what the contradiction means: why am I not teaching isiXhosa? That’s a conversation for another day.
If “common engagement” (another conversation for another day) and economic mobility are the only reasons for an English-dominant education system then I think we’re not thinking deeply enough about our education system as well as the level at which “common engagement” can happen. Granted, when I speak to my Sesotho friends, we use English, but this is within an understanding that we both speak African languages and we are both learning each other’s language informally. This is not a result of a national policy but rather a way for us to step into each other’s worlds and learn a new language because it’s fun and it’s valuable to have an arsenal of languages in a country where most people speak more than one language, often it isn’t English.
But when I speak to my monolingual English-speaking white friend, I’m making the shift in order for the conversation to happen. The problem is the Englishness in this context. If I hadn’t been educated in a former white, middle-class school a conversation would be very difficult. We need to have a broader vision for the importance of learning languages, especially English, lest we fall into a colonial discourse where Englishness is seen as coming to the rescue all over again.
*The title comes from Tsitsi Dangerembga’s novel Nervous Conditions