Multilingual Education in South Africa for Academic Success, Preservation and Identity

Dec 27 / Rebecca Hope

Multilingual education for the current South African context is supported by three primary reasons despite alternative pro-monolingual viewpoints. Multilingualism - or the simultaneous use of multiple languages - is the means of communication for most South Africans. An education system designed to incorporate multilingual ideologies, pedagogies, and practices leads to higher student academic success rates, preserves languages and cultures, and contributes to a sense of identity. These three factors determine the economic, social, and cultural future of the South African people.

Contrary to beliefs which advocate for English as the dominant language of instruction in education, implementing multilingual or mother tongue education has proven to increase students of other languages’ ability to become proficient in an additional language such as English. More importantly, it provides a solution to problems of poor grades, a loss of language and culture, and a confused sense of identity. Through a well-planned and supported implementation of ideologies and practices such as translanguaging, multilingual or mother tongue education poses a solution.

South Africa’s reluctance to fully adopt a multilingual approach in education can be attributed to three factors: its history, globalisation, and disorganisation. A linguistic history of imperialism in South Africa combined with a push toward English as necessary to participate in the global economy largely explains why English is used as a language of instruction across South African educational institutions today. Black university students have shown resistance towards studying in their mother tongues due to the economic benefits that English holds (Abdulatief et al 2021). Furthermore, although the voices of black parents who advocate for their children to study in English (for the same economic benefits as university students) represent a minority, they overpower that of other South African parents. South Africa’s disjointed language policies, curriculums, and teaching practices also contribute to the slow development of multilingual education.

An interesting and dynamic cultural and linguistic landscape presents itself in South Africa within both a local and global context. With eleven official languages (Tshotsho 2013) and many variations of those languages, only 8.1 percent of South Africans claim English as their home language (Galal 2021). Most South African students have an African language/s as their mother tongue (Heugh 2002). There are many cultural and linguistic overlaps where it is common for South Africans to speak over three languages (Hartmann & Zerbian 2009). The linguistic repertoires of South Africans differ greatly in urban and rural communities. In urban areas, English tends to become the common language used, whereas in rural areas, African home languages are predominantly spoken. In urban areas like the Western Cape, “only 54% of schools are not mixed, and in Gauteng this figure drops to 52%” whereas percentages of schools which are not mixed is very high in other provinces (95% in the Northern Province, 92% in the Eastern Cape, and 86% in KwaZulu-Natal) which represent rural areas (Heugh 2002). Within a global cultural context, many South Africans feel compelled to become proficient in English for economic reasons where English has increasingly become a dominant language required in the global workplace and the knowledge of English is “perceived to be essential for economic empowerment” (de Wet 2002). 

Despite policy efforts towards implementing multilingual or mother tongue education in South Africa, English has remained the dominant language of instruction used across all levels of education which has affected most South African students negatively. Although language policies have shifted over the years to support multilingualism, the pace of developing multilingual curriculums, pedagogies, and teacher training is slow (Mayaba et al 2018). There is a disconnect between language policies and curriculums (Heugh 2002). A monolingual educational approach is still largely underway in primary schools, high schools, and tertiary educational institutions (Abdulatief et al 2021). This has proven to be a failed remedy to the problem of low pass rates and academic success in South Africa (Heugh 2002). Achieving over forty percent for final school examinations has not been possible for the majority of South African students whose mother tongue is not English but have no other option but to use English as a language of instruction at school (Heugh 2002). The language of instruction choice for South Africans with African home languages has been English or English (Serfontein 2013). This approach is problematic as it only deals with one part in a complex system (Rooy 2010). Equal access to education through a language/s of students’ choice does not currently exist in South Africa (Serfontein 2013) which has resulted in low academic pass rates. Student movements such as “#RMF (#RhodesMustFall) and #FMF (#FeesMustFall) calling for ‘Free Decolonized Education’” (Abdulatief et al 2021) have emerged from this inequality.

South Africa’s colonial history has greatly affected the current reality of language in education. Before 1994, English and Afrikaans were the only two official languages while the majority of the population spoke African languages at home (Tshotsho 2013). This linguistic imperialism was one of the practices of power exercised by the apartheid government. Bantu Education was a system designed by the apartheid government to create unequal segregation (Heugh 2002). Ironically, the first phase of Bantu Education allowed for children to have a sufficient amount of exposure to their home language which resulted in higher competencies and improved academic results. In the second phase of Bantu Education, there was a decline in academic success due to a premature switch to students’ second language as a language of instruction (Heugh 2002). Even the linguistic codification of African languages conducted prior to apartheid by missionary groups in the nineteenth century took on a form of linguistic imperialism where colonials dictated how African languages were recorded (Heugh 2002). The superior status of English and Afrikaans in South African education has deep and one-sided roots. Switching to progressive language approaches such as multilingual education has not been sufficiently supported in terms of teacher training, funding, facilities and learning materials to complement the language policy (Tshotsho 2013). This explains South Africa’s current reality where English is still the dominant language of instruction in educational institutions and the shift towards multilingual education is moving at a slow pace (Abdulatief et al 2021).

Global and local pressure to use English as a language of instruction in education is resulting in a loss of culture and identity. Globalisation has led to a mainstream culture which deems English as the dominant language (Cummins 2001) with economic prospects linked to the acquisition of the language. Many world languages and cultures are in danger of an epistemological extinction if serious regard for their diversity is not applied (Bühmann 2008). A global need to preserve biocultural heritage is expressed through the Education for All (EFA) language-in-education policies (Bühmann 2008).  Preserving South Africans’ indiginous culture is challenged when the languages attached to those cultures are not implemented as languages of instruction in education. South African children are expected to “renounce allegiance to home languages” (Cummins 2001) at school. This places an immense amount of pressure on parents to carry out language policies at home in order to maintain the culture, preserve the language and reinforce the children’s cultural identity (Cummins 2001). Monolingual English-dominant education has resulted in a lack of documented multilingual or mother tongue experiences and histories of South African students which could aid in the preservation of African languages and cultures (Rooy 2010). In a global cross-cultural context where a global culture is being imposed on children, it is important to protect their linguistic and cultural rights (Cummins 2001).

Multilingual educational methods uphold students’ language rights and promote the preservation of language and culture where African languages can be utilised as knowledge resources. Every South African student has the right to express him/herself and “to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue” (McLeod 2018). In a country which has fought for its freedom from colonial rule, the freedom to communicate and study in one’s home language should be granted to all South African students. By documenting and intellectualising African languages, students are able to access epistemological resources which can deepen their cultural and language experience, insights and knowledge (Thamaga-Chitja & Mbatha 2012). This alleviates pressure from and supports parents in passing over indigenous linguistic and cultural heritage which contributes to a sense of identity and belonging. 

Mythical perceptions around multilingual or mother tongue education contribute to a reluctance to mobilise the adoption of a multilingual approach. The concept of being multilingual is oftentimes perceived as lacking a “mother tongue” (Tupas 2015). However, this assumption is incorrect. Even though multilingual students speak many languages, they still have a more dominant language which acts as the mother tongue (Tupas 2015). Multilingual education is also misunderstood as being more expensive to carry out than monolingual education (Bühmann 2008). From a macro perspective, the premature implementation of English as a language of instruction for non-native English speakers has proven to be a failed strategy for most South African students which has taken a significant toll on the country’s economy (Heugh 2002). A minority of black parents who are either dissatisfied with the local schools that implement African languages as languages of instruction, or who are concerned with the future economic opportunities of their children (Heugh 2002) are being regarded as representations of the majority of black parents in South Africa. This misrepresentation contributes to the perceptions of multilingual education as insignificant which negatively affects language transformation towards multilingualism in educational institutions in South Africa (Abdulatief et al 2021).

Mother tongue development is crucial in order for all students to succeed academically and develop proficiency in a second language (Schroeder 2021). At least six years of formal education in a child’s first language is required in order to see optimal overall academic results (Heugh et al 2019). This time and guidance - provided that there is quality teaching instruction and resources - allows children to process their first language. Learning a second language alongside their first language (without switching to the second language as the language of instruction) allows students to compare the two languages in an interdependent way and deepen their semantic knowledge (Heugh 2002). An example of this can be seen in the Foyer Program in Belgium where children’s skills are developed in three languages successfully (Heugh 2002). Multilingual students that learn in this way develop more cognitive flexibility. Because they have developed a foundational understanding of concepts in their first language, “surface structures” (Heugh 2002) can be acquired in their second language.

Thus, their multilingualism can be used as a cognitive resource for deeper understanding of concepts (Heigh 2002). An activation of these cognitive benefits needs to take place in the academic environment (Rooy 2010). Advanced literacy skills are also better developed. This entails differentiating between main ideas and supporting details, identifying cause and effect, interpreting opinion versus fact, and understanding sequences of concepts (Heugh 2002). Statistics indicate that there is a much higher pass rate for bilingual education provided that enough resources accompany the learning (Heugh 2002). South Africans’ “right to a reasonable prospect of success through education” (Mkhize & Balfour 2017) can thus be fulfilled through multilingual or mother tongue education where sufficient mother tongue resources are made available.  Although some students do not choose to tap into this right, the value of upholding such rights for the majority of the population still stands (Thamaga-Chitja & Mbatha 2012). 

A perspective shift away from the traditional view to a more fluid vision of language is required in order for multilingual education to be effective in South Africa. Education systems have traditionally understood languages as demarcated objects with clear and static boundaries (Cenoz 2013). Students have had to adhere to these language boundaries throughout their education. Furthermore, the hierarchical aspect of languages results in one language being more dominant than others. In South Africa, English has been the dominant language used in education systems (Abdulatief et al 2021). In this way, language power has rested in the hands of education systems who dictate the language/s of instruction that students should adhere to. Contrary to traditional approaches to language in education, the translanguaging perspective returns the power of language to the speaker by allowing students to access their individual linguistic repertoires, use these repertoires, and be supported by external learning material and teaching instruction in their mother tongue, be it monolingual or multilingual (Motlhaka & Makalela 2016). “Fluid language practices of multilingual individuals” defines translanguaging (Wolff 2018). Although translanguaging already takes place naturally in everyday life for multilinguals, it has been rejected as a pedagogy in schools (Makalela 2016).

Translanguaging pedagogies are fundamental practices of multilingual education. The goal of such pedagogies is to develop language awareness (Heigh 2002). For example, the dialogic pedagogy adopts an authentic teaching style whereby the teacher creates a space where students can contribute to knowledge creation in the language of their choice (Motlhaka & Makalela 2016). Pedagogically, this would entail creating an instructional environment in which all students' linguistic and cultural experiences are accepted and appreciated (Heugh 2002). It is common for students to use their first language as a scaffolding device for articulating in their second language  (Motlhaka & Makalela 2016). In this way, cognitive and metacognitive abilities are developed and students are given the opportunity to strengthen their voice in different languages. The dialogic pedagogy is a good starting point and can be used as a framework for academic literacy in multilingual contexts. Where there has been a lack of translingual pedagogies for programmatic scaling, this type of pedagogical innovation acts as a guide for multilingual education programmes  (Motlhaka & Makalela 2016). These translingual methods build confidence, motivation and language awareness in students  (Motlhaka & Makalela 2016).

Instructional approaches such as code meshing and code mixing are practical learning strategies which translanguaging pedagogies adopt. Code meshing refers to blending, merging, and meshing dialects (Milson-Whyte 2014) where there is a seamless blend of dialects. Code-switching is “the use of more than one language or language variety concurrently in conversation” defining a language performance as hybrid (Milson-Whyte 2014). Code mixing explains “any admixture of linguistic elements of two or more language systems in the same utterance at various levels: phonological, lexical, grammatical and orthographical” (Ho 2007). The devices are used for elucidation and interpretation in communicative strategy to build unity and rapport in dynamic multilingual conversation (Tay 1989). 

Multilingual education strengthens a sense of identity in South African students. Enforcing English as a language of instruction in schools where children have other African languages as their mother tongue breaks students’ sense of identity, confidence and self-esteem. For most children in South Africa, their mother tongue is rejected upon entry to school. Language and identity are very closely related - “to reject a child’s language in the school is to reject the child” (Heugh 2002). This breakdown of confidence causes children to be more reluctant to participate in class activities (Heugh 2002). Children require affirmation from their teachers. This is offered in multilingual pedagogies such as dialogic instruction where the teacher invites all children to cocreate meaning using their different languages (Motlhaka & Makalela 2016). South African students’ identities can be enriched through these collaborative meaning-making approaches in education (Thamaga-Chitja & Mbatha 2012). Worldwide, bilingual education has proven to produce more confident learners (Bühmann 2008). Multilingual education provides a good indication of a viable solution for the South African context where identities can be affirmed (Motlhaka & Makalela 2016). 

Multilingual education fosters academic success which has economic and social implications. High failure rates reflect the current state of South African students' academic progress. The poor academic results of the majority of the South African population point to the monolingual education system in South Africa as reinforcing socio-economic inequality (Heugh 2002). South Africa’s monolingual education system where children are forced to use English as a language of instruction before they have built a sufficient foundation in their own language is an important contributor to the problem. Learning achievement studies in 2000 and 2008 of year eight students in the decentralised Ethiopian education system show that “students with stronger mother-tongue education performed better in all subjects, including English” (Ouane 2010). Despite challenges with the implementation of the multilingual education programme such as the distribution of textbooks and teacher guides, measurable skill-based curricular outcomes, and teacher training, the late-exit programmes were more effective than the early-exit programmes (Schroeder 2021). In addition to the length of time spent studying in a learner’s home language, multilingual education which uses a translanguaging approach in classrooms “frames the learners’ cognition of content and ability to construct meaningful texts in familiar cultural and sociolinguistic contexts” (Banda 2018).

A robust well-planned implementation of multilingual education is required for the current situation in South Africa. Language policies, curriculums and teaching practices should work together to support the dynamic identities of multilingual students (Heugh 2002). Educational resources such as books are to be developed and translated into African languages (Tshotsho 2013). The production of learning resources and material in African languages contributes to the preservation of language and culture. In this way, African languages also become available as resources which can be tapped in to in order to reinforce the identities of its language users. This movement requires significant funding (Tshotsho 2013), planning, and mechanisms (Thamaga-Chitja & Mbatha 2012) in order to be effective. More specifically, the operation needs to be supported financially by the government (Bühmann 2008) who plays an important role in education in South Africa.

Multilingual or mother tongue education offers solutions to various socio-economic problems in South Africa’s current context. It is a logical and effective solution to the South African context where most students across all levels of education are struggling to pass. A shift away from the monolingual English-dominant approach toward a multilingual or mother tongue one should not be understood as a messy attempt to accommodate South Africa’s dynamic language and cultural identities. Instead, it should be seen as an educational approach which has proven to be successful in improving academic performance and strengthening a sense of identity (Thamaga-Chitja & Mbatha 2012). Furthermore, multilingual or mother tongue education fosters the preservation of languages and cultures through the development and utilisation of resources and learning materials. As translanguaging pedagogies suggest, students whose mother tongue is an African language/s are able to develop their proficiency in English when English is learnt as an additional language alongside their mother tongue as opposed to English being used as a language of instruction prematurely. Thus, in order for South African students to be more equipped to partake in a global economy in terms of their proficiency and confidence in English, multilingual or mother tongue education is necessary. Multilingual education requires planning, funding, and a unified agenda between policies, curriculums and pedagogies across all levels and roleplayers of the education system (Bühmann 2008). Should this approach be adopted by all parties involved in education in South Africa, the socio-economic future of the nation could look very different to its current struggling state.  

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