Maverick Citizen


Clinging to monolingual education undermines SA’s rich linguistic diversity

Clinging to monolingual education undermines SA’s rich linguistic diversity
In formal education, the journey of multilingualism often encounters hurdles and hesitations, despite its evident benefits, the writer argues. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

As South Africa strives to achieve its educational goals and aspirations, it is imperative that the country confronts the barriers to multilingual education head-on.

South Africa is blessed with a rich array of tongues and dialects weaving through the narratives of its people. From the rolling cadences of Sepedi to the lyrical rhythms of isiXhosa, each language carries with it a unique cultural heritage and identity.

The country’s linguistic diversity is a source of pride and complexity. It reflects centuries of intertwined histories, traditions and migrations, giving rise to a kaleidoscope of languages and dialects spoken across the nation.

Yet, within the realm of formal education, the journey of multilingualism often encounters hurdles and hesitations, despite the evident benefits it offers.

As someone who navigates five languages with varying proficiency, I am intimately acquainted with the profound impact of linguistic diversity on personal and educational development.

My journey began with isiNdebele, my mother tongue, which not only shaped my earliest interactions with the world but also formed a deep bond with my mother. Together, we explored the pages of isiNdebele and isiZulu literature, traversing the moral landscapes painted by authors like Ndabezinhle Sibanda Sigogo, Cyril Lincoln Sibusiso Nyembezi and Barbara Makhalisa.

These shared moments nurtured not only language skills but also cultural understanding and familial connection. While the streets of eMakhandeni, my childhood neighbourhood, became the classroom for my immersion in ChiShona. Here, I found myself conversing in ChiShona with friends who had recently relocated from Harare and were unfamiliar with isiNdebele.

Formal education further enriched my linguistic repertoire under the guidance of dedicated educators such as Mrs Bonomali, Dr Malusi Ngwenya, Mrs Chigweshe, and Professor Faith Mkwesha. Through their mentorship, I was exposed to a diverse array of literary works spanning from the adolescent adventures of Nancy Drew as well as the Hardy Boys, to the African pacesetters to timeless classics such as Hamlet, So Long a Letter, Twelfth Night, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Devil on the Cross and Pride and Prejudice

Each encounter with a new language or literary tradition expanded my horizons and deepened my appreciation for linguistic diversity.

Professional endeavours also propelled my linguistic journey, as I honed my proficiency in languages like isiSwati and kiSwahili to better connect with colleagues and communities. These narratives of multilingualism in my life extend beyond mere functional utility; they encapsulate the beauty of human interaction and communication.

Yet, amid these enriching experiences, a stark reality emerged – English stood as the privileged language of academia and professional discourse. This phenomenon is not unique to my own experience; rather, it reflects broader systemic biases within educational frameworks.

Policies, logistics and misconceptions

Despite research indicating the cognitive and sociocultural benefits of multilingual pedagogy, hesitancy persists in its integration into educational systems. This reluctance stems from various factors, including entrenched educational policies, logistical challenges and misconceptions about the efficacy of multilingual education.

However, clinging to monolingual paradigms undermines the linguistic diversity inherent in South Africa and perpetuates inequalities within the education system.

On International Mother Language Day (21 February), it is important to emphasise that embracing multilingual pedagogy is not merely a matter of linguistic inclusivity; it is a decolonial stance that aligns with the objectives of Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education. It is, therefore, fitting that the 2024 theme is “Multilingual education – a pillar of learning and intergenerational learning”.

By valuing and affirming pupils’ linguistic identities, educators can create more equitable and empowering learning environments. Research suggests that incorporating students’ native languages into the curriculum enhances cognitive development, academic achievement and overall engagement.

The reluctance to adopt multilingual pedagogy can be attributed to political, economic and practical concerns. Politically, there may be concerns about the perceived dominance of certain languages over others, particularly in the context of South Africa’s complex history of colonialism and apartheid.

Language has often been a sensitive and contentious issue, with tensions arising from debates about which languages should be prioritised in education. The fear of exacerbating linguistic inequalities or sparking cultural tensions may lead policymakers to hesitate in implementing multilingual pedagogy.

Economically, there may be concerns about the costs associated with implementing multilingual education programmes. Developing and maintaining resources such as textbooks, teaching materials and initial teacher programmes in multiple languages can be expensive. In a country with limited financial resources and competing educational priorities, the financial feasibility of multilingual pedagogy may be called into question.

Practically, there may be logistical challenges involved in implementing multilingual education effectively. These can include finding qualified teachers proficient in multiple languages, ensuring equitable access to educational resources in different languages and navigating the complexities of curriculum development and assessment in a multilingual context.

The sheer complexity of managing diverse linguistic needs within the education system may deter decision-makers from embracing multilingual pedagogy.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Multilingual classrooms boost learning

Additionally, there may be concerns about the perceived efficiency of multilingual education in achieving educational outcomes. Some stakeholders may worry that teaching in multiple languages could dilute the quality of instruction or hinder students’ academic progress. These concerns may stem from misconceptions about the cognitive benefits of multilingualism, as well as from a lack of evidence-based research on the effectiveness of multilingual pedagogy in improving learning outcomes.

Despite the perceived challenges surrounding the implementation of multilingual pedagogy in teaching, learning and assessment, this approach has persevered in its unofficial application. Instances abound where educators, faced with the task of explaining complex concepts, resort to using the pupils’ native languages.

For instance, in Lephalale, educators are employing Sotho to describe difficult mathematical concepts, while in a primary school in Bloemhof, Afrikaans is being used to describe scientific processes.

The clandestine use of pupils’ native languages in such contexts can be perplexing to comprehend. This practice intentionally disregards the valuable cultural and linguistic resources that pupils inherently possess and could contribute to the classroom environment. By neglecting to acknowledge and incorporate these assets, educators miss out on opportunities to enrich the learning experience and foster a more inclusive and supportive atmosphere for all pupils.

Read more in Daily Maverick: New language policies at schools get a tongue-lashing over costs, feasibility and the fate of Afrikaans

As South Africa strives to achieve its educational goals and aspirations, it is imperative that the country confronts the barriers to multilingual education head-on. This requires a concerted effort to dismantle linguistic hierarchies, invest in teacher training and resources, and promote the value of linguistic diversity within the broader society.

Despite these challenges, there is an urgent need to reconceptualise the role of pupils’ multilingual abilities within the educational landscape.

Even within the confines of monolingual instruction, integrating pupils’ mother tongues can enhance understanding and engagement with the curriculum. Language is not merely a tool for communication, but a gateway to cultural heritage and cognitive development. DM

Professor Nhlanhla Mpofu is the chair for Curriculum Studies and an Associate Professor in Language Education at Stellenbosch University.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Webster says:

    Advocating for multilingual education as a policy in South Africa is complete nonsense and another example of the sheer absurdity of decolonisation and Africanisation. English trumps other languages as a medium of education, not only because it is the international lingua franca of politics, diplomacy, science, technology and commerce but also because it is a language of unparalleled flexibility and adaptability with a corpus a millionfold more extensive than the paltry corpuses of all African languages combined. For a country like SA, which can barely even manage the provision of materials in a primary language, doing so for multiple languages is neither affordable, feasible nor rational. This desperate desire to equate the relevance and value of African languages with that of an international language such as English is deluded because, simply put, they are neither on par with English nor equal to the task. No amount of decolonisation and Africanisation is ever going to make African languages relevant or significant as much as their proponents might wish. If the author of this article wishes to use African languages as a medium of tertiary education then she should stop trying to impose the use of such languages on an Afrikaans medium university like Stellenbosch and found a new university that does so. The author is clearly a hypocrite, she advocates for the increased use of indigenous languages all at the expense of Afrikaans at an Afrikaans medium university.

  • gabrielagoldberg1 says:

    you have clearly not understood what she said, and it is all in English! oh dear

  • Alfreda Frantzen says:

    The argument is well presented. However, I doubt whether your average man on the street will have a clue what it all means. An example of ivory tower…

  • Angelo . says:

    How naive. This idea is fed by wishful thinking (or a Marxist agenda).
    Instead of pushing resources to help youth be employable this idea would “enrich” what exactly? Because it will trap a generation in poverty.
    The Flynn Effect (generational increase in IQ) has not taken hold in many regions partly because they are clinging to nostalgic Nationalism (or tribalism) leaving entire generations locked out of the global economy.
    Teach your children your mother tongue, don’t expect them to thank you for “enriching” them culturally while they don’t have a job.

  • Written by a Zimbabwean, pronouncing on Sout Africa. Beggars belief. And most all of the black languages mentioned, isiNdabele, isiZulu, eSawazi are based on the SAME root. So do not count as individual languages. The hubris is tangible. From a country no completely ruined in education by locally produced Zimsec.

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