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Does Naledi Pandor get any sleep?

Gerrit Brand

Tydens die onlangse debat tussen die Departement van Onderwys en sekere taalinstansies soos die Meertaligheidsaksiegroep (i-MAG) en die Nasionale Taalliggaam vir Afrikaans oor onderrigtale in die skole is in die pers onder meer oor hierdie artikel wat aan 'n Engelse dagblad voorgelÍ is, berig. Die artikel self het egter nie in die pers verskyn nie. Vir die rekord word dit hiermee aan belangstellendes beskikbaar gestel:

Minister of Education Naledi Pandor recently said in parliament: "Our approach ... is to strengthen the teaching of English as a second language in all levels of schooling. The aim of this approach is to enable pupils to use English as a language of teaching and learning beyond the first three years of schooling."

This statement would be laughable, were it not so infuriating and, indeed, criminal. Pandor knows full well that the policy she is endorsing is one designed to keep the doors of learning closed to the vast majority of our learners. It is a policy that our government has in practice been following for 10 years, which even Pandor's forerunner Kader Asmal implicitly admitted was fundamentally flawed when he explained that the upward adjustment of students' matric results was justified by the fact they they wrote exams in their second language.

Pandor cynically twists the truth when she states "that home language, if correctly used, can be a powerful vehicle for developing foundational concepts for future learning". Contrary to what Pandor suggests, it is a proven fact that the longer the home language is maintained as a language of learning and teaching - ideally throughout the school years - the better.

A comprehensive longitudinal study among Spanish speakers in the United States found that "the student's mother tongue is the most effective language of instruction", and that "rapid transition to classes taught only in the students' second language does not allow for satisfactory development of the students' linguistic and cognitive abilities". Yet Pandor, like her predecessor, deliberately opts for a policy of "rapid transition".

The Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) states, on the basis of empirical research in several African countries, that "the advantages of teaching children in their maternal language go beyond academic success to include cultural, emotional, cognitive and socio-psychological benefits". Pandor apparently finds it acceptable that, at present, these advantages are only enjoyed by English and Afrikaans speaking learners - in fact, she intends to ensure that it remains thus.

ADEA also states that "classroom use of a language which is not the language already spoken by the child, results in cognitive and pedagogical difficulties". So whence the intention "to use English as a language of teaching and learning beyond the first three years of schooling"?

In her speech Pandor offers the weakest possible excuse for her department's irrational language policy: "We have to balance the educational imperatives of using indigenous languages as media of instruction in the foundation phase and the political and economic imperatives of developing competence in English."

First of all, as I have explained, the "educational imperatives" apply to the use of home languages (whether "indigenous" or not) far beyond the "foundation phase", and make it clear that a policy of rapid transition to English after the foundation phase is bound to fail.

Secondly, to suggest that the need for home language education should be balanced against the need for "developing competence in English" is presposterous. There is no contradiction or tension between the two, and therefore no need for "balance" at all. A Nigerian study on the use of Yoruba and English respectively as medium of instruction for the first six years of schooling found that "students who were taught in Yoruba for the first six years of primary school were no less skilled in English than those who were taught in English throughout the last three years of primary school". In South Africa, the highest level of proficiency in English among non-English speakers is found among Afrikaans speakers, both white and black, who are for the most part taught through the medium of Afrikaans.

Finally, to suggest that the basic human right of access to proper education should be balanced against "political and economic imperatives" is no less than callous.

What possible "politcal" imperative could count against additive multilingualism? After all, nation building in a multilingual society will only succeed if all major languages are granted "parity of esteem" and "equitable treatment", as our Constitution demands. Democratisation requires transparency, participation, and the right to speak - how on earth can that be advanced by disempowering the languages of the disadvantaged majority? Is Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thi'ongo's "decolonisation of the mind" no longer a political imperative?

Or should we understand "political imperatives" to mean state control over discourse, and entrenching the privileges of the Anglo-African elite at the expense of the exploitable and expendable masses?

And economic imperatives? Does our economy not require skilled workers, and therefore proper education? Will we ever advance science and technology if we rob the majority of access to such knowledge through their home languages? Can we afford - even in purely financial terms - to maintain a low matric pass rate and a high failure rate at university? Is it not true, as Neville Alexander says, that "an English-only, or even an English-mainly, policy necessarily condemns most people, and thus the country as a whole, to a permanent state of mediocrity, since people are unable to be spontaneous, creative and self-confident if they cannot use their first language"? Is empowerment of the poor no longer an economic imperative?

Or should we understand "economic imperatives" to mean following blindly the logic of capital, in the process sacrificing the poor on the altar of Mammon - because it pays?

What makes it all worse is that Naledi Pandor knows better. I wonder if she manages to get any sleep at night - I certainly don't once I get thinking about the future of education in our country ....

(Dr. Gerrit Brand is a researcher in the Department of Philosophy at Stellenbosch University, co-worker of the Taalsekretariaat and secretary of the Multilingualism Action Group)

LitNet: 02 September 2004

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