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Bilingual education works in South African schools. Here's how:

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The majority of South African schools teach all subjects exclusively in English from the fourth year of schooling. The devastating effect this has on learning for children who speak African languages ​​at home is captured convincingly in the documentary film Think or Swim. These results include a lack of conceptual understanding and little identity with the content.

South Africa has 12 official languages, including South African Sign Language. The Constitution allows any of these languages ​​to be used as a medium of instruction in schools. However, from grade 3 onwards, only English is used, and some schools use Afrikaans.

Only 9% of the population speaks English as their native language, and the majority of these speakers are white. This means that school children who had an advantage during the apartheid era still have an advantage today. The Bualiit Language and Literacy Group, of which we are a member, therefore describes the language policies in place in South African schools as racist.

Therefore, the announcement by Minister of Basic Education Angie Moshekga to parliament on March 9, 2022 is very encouraging that an African indigenous language will be used as the language of instruction from grade 3 onwards. Implementation details are not yet provided.

The agency’s decision is based on a pilot project in the Eastern Cape using native language-based bilingual education as a model. The pilot began using Sesotho and Isikosa as the language of instruction for his fourth grade in 2012, and in 2020, mathematics, physical sciences, and history exam questions will be in Sesotho and Isikosa, as well as English. But now available. In 2019, her 6th grade learners who participated in Bilingual His Pilot scored an average of 28 percent higher in natural sciences and technology than English-only learners.

The Ministry of Basic Education’s announcement was controversial, with commentators debating whether the means of teaching African languages ​​would work.

But the bilingual aspect of the Ministry of Basic Education’s project is getting lost in the debate. And the fact that the majority of South African teachers already teach bilingually is not acknowledged. They do this illegally in the form of verbal “code swaps” between the African languages ​​used by children and English as the official language of learning and teaching. Decades of research on code switching have shown it to be effective in South African classrooms.

However, code switching is not supported by bilingual materials or reviews and is often frowned upon by department officials. This is due to concerns about English being endangered and the colonial belief that African languages ​​are irrelevant for use in education.

A new move by the Department of Basic Education is an opportunity to recognize, strengthen, and importantly resource these bilingual practices.

Bilingual education for whom?

In South Africa, bilingual education has historically been associated with the education of white children. During apartheid, Afrikaans and English were her two official languages, and the goal was for all white South Africans to be bilingual in these languages.

Bilingual education was implemented in various ways. It was common to use one language as an educational medium and teach the other language as a subject. Some schools used both Afrikaans and English as languages ​​of instruction for different classes in the same grade.

In “dual medium” schools, teachers taught using both English and Afrikaans, and learners were allowed to choose their evaluation language. Dual Medium Bilingual School continues to have great success producing bilingual speakers of English and Afrikaans.

Until now, children have not been offered a large-scale bilingual education using one of Africa’s nine official languages ​​and English as two languages.

Language policy and multilingual education

Schools need help developing language policies that support bilingual or multilingual education. In a richly multilingual and diverse society, there is no one size fits all school.

For example, many schools in the Eastern Cape, where the isiXhosa language predominates, could implement a bilingual model using isiXhosa and English. Bilingual teachers can teach using both languages, as they do informally today, and use textbooks written in both.

Schools with learners from multiple language backgrounds in more diverse urban settings like Soweto require a different approach using language translation. Language translation involves the fluid use of multiple languages ​​for communication. For example, children can be grouped according to their primary language when solving math problems or translating poetry. Alternatively, you can work in a mixed language group to develop multilingual scientific definitions. The goal is to support her learning deep in content subjects and to develop her proficiency in all languages ​​used in the classroom (including English).

Multilingual materials and assessment

A major challenge of learning in South Africa is the lack of availability of materials in languages ​​other than English and Afrikaans from grade 3 onwards. Similar to classroom methodologies, there are a wide range of approaches to learning materials that can support bilingual or multilingual teaching. For example, Rwanda has successfully developed bilingual textbooks.

The same textbook may be available in multiple languages. Two languages ​​can be used side by side in one textbook (all texts are available in her two languages). Alternatively, a more flexible approach can be used when different aspects of the text are available in different languages, such as glossaries.

An example of this is iSayensi Yethu (our science) developed in English and isiXhosa. Subject-specific dictionaries are also excellent learning resources. For example, one developed at the University of Cape Town and another by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa.

With the exception of the isiXhosa exam, which was piloted in the Eastern Cape Province in 2020, the final exam for leaving school is administered in English and Afrikaans only. English and African bilingual assessments have been tried and proven successful in the Western Cape. and in Zimbabwe. Again, a diverse approach is preferable.

teacher training

Successful implementation depends on teacher preparation for bilingual education. The pioneering bilingual university teacher education programs at Fort Hare University and Nelson Mandela University in South Africa have started this effort and can be expanded to other universities. Practical teachers need appropriate teaching materials and in-service education based on existing bilingual practice.

A bilingual education is possible for all children in South Africa. With its multifaceted approach to implementation, as outlined here, the bilingual model contributes to the goal of decolonizing the country’s school system.