Mongake and Uleanya are staff members in the department of Education Leadership and Management, University of Johannesburg.
They recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Sowetan Live on 31 July 2023.
In SA, there have been clarion calls for children to be taught in their mother tongue at school. However, there seems to be muted voices expressing doubt about this that are often drowned out in the public discourse.
Away from television screens and radio microphones, there are many parents who still prefer English as the language of teaching and learning.
In fact, there is a general belief that even those who propagate the use of mother tongue as a medium of instruction do not practice what they preach. The feeling is that they are simply using the issue of mother tongue instruction to gain political clout while their own children are learning in English in affluent schools.
Research indicates that English is the most widely used language in the education system of most countries in Africa, including SA. For instance, a research paper presented at African Studies Association Annual Conference in November 2013 showed that at least 26 African countries list English as one of their official languages. Most recently, Rwanda, for long a French-speaking country, has switched to English as an official language. Burundi and Gabon have also followed suit.
In an attempt to address the historical issues of the use of English language as medium of instruction, the SA government has designed a policy of teaching learners in their mother tongue during their formative and early years. The question remains: how well has this policy worked and helped students?
First, it is worth noting that a comprehension of the language of instruction is a significant factor, due to its lasting effects on learners. Academic success depends largely on their ability to read with comprehension. This goes beyond surface level comprehension. Students are expected to analyse complex situations and devise strategies to solve challenges which are mostly presented to them in English.
However, in SA, there is a tendency among educators for whom English is the second language to resort to excessive use of code-switching, especially in rural areas and sometimes township schools. That seems to be the root of the problem among learners in understanding concepts. The effects of heavily relying on code-switching leads to students in universities struggling to communicate, write and comprehend in the language of instruction. As such, it is important for both teachers and learners to be comfortable and understand the language used to communicate in lessons.
Educators mediate between learners learning and the subject content. However, if educators that are second language speakers of English, they also face challenges with the language, the challenges of language in education are much deeper.
Learners coming out of such schools tend to struggle to comprehend the language of instruction when they get to tertiary institution, an environment which does not allow for code-switching because of diverse populations. This places such students in a disadvantaged position as it limits their participation in the learning process.
Research has shown that students who do not fully understand the language of instruction tend to rely on memorising and simply restating information. This can negatively affect them when examined on questions that require critical and analytic approaches. Learners exposed to excessive code-switching are likely to struggle with academic performance if they have not mastered the language of teaching and learning by the time they go to institutions of higher learning.
The question, therefore, is: should these students learn, read and write in their mother tongue? We argue that embracing the use of the mother tongue as medium of instruction may deprive students opportunities in future, such as taking up international scholarships due to a lack of proficiency in the English language.
This is not to say we are against the use of mother tongue. In fact, the National Curriculum Statement as a recognised central policy does not discourage learners from learning their mother tongue. The use of mother tongue should be encouraged and promoted from the home front.
*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.