(I am currently researching and developing a position on mother-tongue education in South Africa for the Shuttleworth Foundation. This is the first in a series of posts on this topic.)
The Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED) Language Transformation Plan will promote six years of mother-tongue-based bilingual education, where practicable. Currently only grades 1-3 receive mother-tongue bilingual education. A pilot project is underway with 16 schools in the province where certain subjects are being taught in isiXhosa. The WCED claims positive results thus far: isiXhosa learners are far more lively in class, their academic performance is improving, and learner and educator self-esteem is growing.
I met with Prof Zubeida Desai, Dean of Education at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), who has been directly involved in a similar project, called Loitasa. Her views are as follows:
- There is no doubt that mother-tongue bilingual education is a good thing. It allows learners to develop cognitive skills because they can focus on the subject being taught without having to struggle with language issues.
- In Norway, learners are taught in Norwegian, but learn English as a subject. Most Norwegian learners speak relatively good English. The same goes for Holland.The key is that English is taught in an engaging way and for communication purposes.
- In SA, we have learners who are taught in English from grades 4-12 and yet many leave school as very poor English speakers.
Essentially, Zubeida believes that English is crucial for living and working in the world today. Mother-tongue education should not be about doing away with English. Rather, for learners, it should allow learning in a language that is familiar, while at the same time learning English as a subject in an effective and engaging manner.