Letter: Teach pupils in their home language

Decolonising education has been much in the news of late.

I would like to focus on the use of English in schools. I was an English teacher in the then Ciskei for 10 years until 1996 and since then in King William’s Town.

English has a dominant role in most schools and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. English is the universal language of commerce and science, the language of power.

It is therefore indispensable and a thorn in the side of post-liberation philosophy. To reduce the colonial influence of English is imperative and imperative then to regulate how it is taught from primary level up.

Language is vital for all cognitive functions – we think in language, in our home language initially. For a child from a non-English-speaking home the fact that English is the language of instruction immediately places her/him at a huge disadvantage in the classroom and, importantly, across the entire curriculum.

The 10 years in Ciskei brought about an awareness of the scale of the problem. Some English-speaking colleagues were heard to remark how slow, compared to white children, Xhosa children were.

I was surprised I had to explain the process: for example, a Xhosa child would hear a question in class (in English), translate it into Xhosa, understand it, formulate the answer (in Xhosa), then translate that into English before raising a hand to answer. This is a time-consuming process.

Meanwhile, an English-speaking child, not shackled by translation (and/or nuances of vocabulary), has already verbalised an answer. This gave rise to the false impression that Xhosa children were more stupid than English-speaking children.

I found the best way to disabuse my colleagues of this racist attitude was simply to ask, “How well do you speak Xhosa?”

There are solutions to this ongoing problem.

Basically all children should be taught from primary level in their home language. A fine example of this model is the small primary school outside Grahamstown at the Benedictine monastery.

Every subject is taught to township children in Xhosa. English is given as a subject alongside all the others.

The children progress rapidly, produce good results and the private schools hover like vultures offering bursaries to boost their transformation profiles with quality black pupils. This illustrates that home language instruction is possible and effective.

Logistically the implementation of home language instruction is a nightmare. Ideally the Education Department should have begun working towards this from 1994.

However, nothing innovative has been achieved other than massive mistakes such as OBE.

The teacher training colleges should be re-opened. In every province primary teachers should be trained or retrained to teach in the local home language.

Across the curriculum home language textbooks must be developed and filtered up to Grade 12.

If this does not happen we will continue to produce generation after generation of angry and frustrated young people, and our universities will burn.

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