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Government to introduce mother-tongue bilingual education from Grade 4 next year

Government to introduce mother-tongue bilingual education from Grade 4 next year
Teaching assistant Cassidy Williams volunteers at Seekoegat VGK Primary School in Prince Albert on 5 May 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Edrea du Toit)

In a major shift in education policy that has been hailed as ‘transformative’ by education experts, from next year South African schools will incrementally offer mother tongue-based bilingual education from Grade 4.

This was announced by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) Minister Angie Motshekga while addressing education stakeholders on the development of the mother tongue-based bilingual education (MTbBE) programme at the Motheo Technical and Vocational Education Training College in Bloemfontein on Tuesday, 21 May.

The decision to roll out the programme follows a pilot project conducted in more than 80 schools around Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape from 2010, which has been seen as a success by authorities.

The official languages of South Africa are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Sign Language.

“It’s been a long journey,” Motshekga said.

After 30 years of democratic government, she said, there was a need to reflect on the road that has been travelled by the sector dating from her contribution in crafting education objects in the Ready To Govern document in 1994.

International tests relating to pupil performance had indicated that the country needed to confront the past – and this is what she had communicated to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: From bad to worse: New study shows 81% of Grade 4 pupils in SA can’t read in any language

“The language issue is a political issue,” Motshekga said. The government was not attacking any language – including Afrikaans – as has been alleged about the Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill.

“We are not going to destroy it (Afrikaans).” There was a need to clarify the “untruths… that we want to attack certain languages like Afrikaans”.

Read in Daily Maverick: National Assembly passes controversial basic education bill amid threats of legal action

“Our kids are going to learn in their mother tongue. We’re not going to undermine any language. We have to take small steps.”

This was a renewed effort to ensure parity of esteem for all official languages of South Africa, advocating for their use not only as subjects but as languages of learning, teaching and assessment for mathematics, science and technology beyond Grade 3 by 2025.

“For practical purposes and systemic planning, January 2025 will mark the year we begin to fulfil this constitutional obligation incrementally.”

This means this cohort of pupils will write their first maths, science and technology National Qualifications Framework Level 1 General Education Certificate in 2030, and their National Senior Certificate in 2033. And these exams will be in their home languages.

“This is a critical change in the course of history for the children of our country born since the dawn of our democracy. Never again shall the children of this country have to learn the language of instruction first, then register the content in mathematics, science and technology, and only then strive to understand the content itself in languages that are not their mother tongue.”

According to the Language in Education Policy of 1997, Motshekga said cognitive dissonance in pupils’ learning experiences will no longer be allowed to continue.

“African languages with official status in the Constitution deserve their place in the sun, like all official languages of the Republic of South Africa. Non-official languages also deserve protection, respect and development. We should not wait any longer. The time to rededicate ourselves to the dream of freedom in education must go to the next level.”

As a country, she said the aim for social cohesion at the highest level, and multilingualism, is the ultimate vehicle for attaining one nation.

“We have chosen to start with MTbBE in keeping with our Language in Education Policy of incremental multilingualism. Therefore, mother tongue-based bilingual teaching, learning and assessment is a mechanism to ensure an effective response to human resources and provision of learning and teaching support material.”

Schools are currently providing data on e-forms to ensure a scientific response to the real language profile of each school in 2025.

Artificial intelligence will be used to ensure the success of the MTbBE roll-out.

Motshekga said South African Sign Language, as the 12th official language, must benefit pupils using it when explained to them in their official home languages first.

Assessment in the mother tongue-based bilingual approach would be a new feature for Grade 4s in maths, science and technology starting in 2025.

“We expect our learning outcomes to gain more profound quality as we make teaching, learning and assessment meaningful, ensuring that our learners learn meaningfully and read for meaning.”

She said they have partnered with higher education to ensure the continuity of MTbBE in that sector.

“Remember, in terms of the National Education Policy Act 1997, we are a single and uniform education system. The Constitution enjoins us to ensure, at all material times, the recognition of the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people and that the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages,” she said.

How it is going to work

Dr Mark Chetty, the director for assessments at the DBE, in part, said:

  • Pupils in schools implementing MTbBE will write a standardised national assessment in 2025, which will replace end-of-the-year exams;
  • The initial scope will be testing Grade 4 maths and natural science or technology content and skills in African languages;
  • It will count as 20% of the promotion mark; and
  • It will marked by teachers and captured on SA-SAMS (South Africa’s school management record or database).

The weighting of bilingual assessment in different grades will be:

  • Grade 4: 80% of the assessment will be conducted in the mother tongue and 20% in English;
  • Grade 5: the bilingual assessment weighting shifts to 70:30;
  • Grade 6: 60:40 weighting; and
  • Grade 7: 50:50 weighting.

The DBE has begun a process of auditing and will ensure the sector is ready to adequately support those schools.

The department’s language unit has sent out audit forms to establish the exact breakdown per province. This will be aggregated within the province and consolidated by the department.

Daily Maverick understands that this will affect the majority of schools that offer an African language as home language and English as First Additional Language (FAL). These will be the first cohort of eligible schools.

The process effect

DBE deputy-director for transformation programmes Dr Naledi Mbude-Mehana said there are lessons to be learnt from how Afrikaans was protected as a language. “We have a lot to learn from that process.”

When Afrikaans was developed, she said, there was an outcry and was denigrated particularly by the Dutch speakers.

“If you can wake up those people now, they will be shocked that it is a language of higher education. So you will get people who don’t believe that if you teach in Afrikaans, you will still speak English.”

She said the DBE needed to set an example in the transformation of society, including the private sector when conducting interviews to use all languages.

“We need to give that guidance and that is where we are starting. That is why now we make sure multilingualism is the norm, as the Constitution says. We’re starting a movement in the whole system. That is why we meet higher education and we tell them that you’ve done very little to transform… It is you who has kept things with only two languages. 

“Nobody wants to be accused of systematic racism… when we speak about these issues we must not be afraid to address the elephant in the room and the elephant in the room is our own minds because we are going to come up with all these things as if they’ve not been sorted. We know with the Afrikaans children that having mother tongue education is the best thing and this is why they must protect it.”

She cited Stellenbosch University’s (SU) decision to offer Afrikaans and that there were calls to have English as well.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elements masquerading as language activists are damaging the reputation of Stellenbosch University

“When Stellenbosch wants to offer Afrikaans we fight that everybody must have English. That is not the solution. Actually, we are the ones who are supposed to be fighting for African languages. And not English because all of you have different languages therefore you must have English.”

Experts’ view

University of Cape Town (UCT) school of education senior lecturer Dr Xolisa Guzula said it is high time that MTbBE is implemented.

“It means teaching learners using two languages from Grade 4 onwards, after three years of being taught in their home language. In essence, it is about keeping the mother tongue as a medium of instruction while adding English as a second medium of instruction,” Guzula said.

This, she said, is so much better than subjecting pupils to English medium education when they cannot speak, read and write English at that level.

“This has been what we have been waiting for since the Language in Education Policy of 1997, which promotes bi/multilingual education, was passed,” she said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The sudden transition to English in Grade 4 is a gross injustice for African-language speaking children

She said the education department has waited for over 27 years to give African language-speaking pupils access to what English and Afrikaans children have – their home language.

There are bilingual schools in South Africa serving English and Afrikaans pupils, called either dual-medium or parallel-medium schools.

“MTbBE is similar to dual-medium schooling in that two languages are used as mediums of instruction, textbooks are produced in two languages and teachers speak both English and the home language, though we have seen it applied successfully by teachers who do not speak the mother tongues, as long as they have a multilingual orientation. Research worldwide has shown that bi-multilingual education has more positive affordances than monolingual education.”

In the South African context, she said, there have been successes in the Isayensi Yethu: A Bilingual Learning Materials Project that Dr Robyn Tyler at the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities at the University of the Western Cape has been working on.

In this project, the bilingual science textbook, iSayensi Yethu, is being trialled in a primary school in Khayelitsha.

“The results indicate that the presence of the textbook sparked a broader bilingual approach to teaching and learning which increased children’s interest in the subject of science. Feedback from the teachers, principal, parents and learners has been very positive. The project has also supported other findings that when children are assessed bilingually in their most familiar language as well as English, they fare much better. In this case, children who wrote a bilingual science test attained 86% pass rate, while those who wrote in English only had 51%.”

There was also a Language for Learning Project comprising a team of researchers, including herself, Tyler and Professor Margie Probyn from University of the Western Cape, Professor Monica Hendricks from Rhodes University, Dr Simthembile Xeketwana from SU and Dr Soraya Abdulatief and Professor Carolyn McKinney from UCT. 

They had been working in 10 selected high schools in the Western Cape mentoring teachers to teach maths and science bilingually in Grade 8 and 9, and improving the teaching of English as FAL has shown that when teachers are supported with bilingual materials and training, and receive classroom mentorship and demonstrations of using two languages for speaking, reading and writing, pupils participate more and show more interest in their learning.

“This has improved teachers’ pedagogy and changed their teacher-centred approaches to balanced teacher-centred and learner-centred pedagogy. It has given freedom to learners to speak and be heard.”

She said the Eastern Cape pilot for bilingual education is viewed as a prototype for implementation of MTbBE because of its success.

“It has been reported that the 2023 cohort which write matric and had a high pass rate in the Eastern Cape included learners who had been exposed to MTbBE from the pilot, as well as the learners who had matric preliminary examinations in September made available in isiXhosa and Sesotho.”

The Nal’ibali National Reading for Enjoyment Campaign, which they started in 2012, had produced multilingual reading materials for pupils in 11 languages.

“This project was the first of its kind to produce materials in 11 languages and make them available to families and community reading clubs to promote reading and writing in more than one language.”

The government, she said, needs to implement the 1997 Language in Education Policy by mandating MTbBE in schools that have been getting pupils to transition from home language instruction in Grade 3 to English as the sole medium of instruction in Grade 4.

“By mandating MTbBE, you are giving access to many African language speaking learners to their mother tongue and English simultaneously, giving them privileges that have been enjoyed by English- and Afrikaans-speaking learners to this day.”

The government also needed investment in the development of bilingual textbooks such as isiXhosa-English and Xitsonga-English maths textbooks.

“Producing bilingual textbooks will mitigate against the claims about expensive costs of materials.”

University of Fort Hare senior researcher Dr Siyabulela Fobosi said MTbBE in South Africa is a crucial yet complex initiative.

“It is a valuable approach for enhancing educational outcomes and preserving linguistic diversity. MTbBE allows learners to grasp foundational concepts in their native languages, enhancing comprehension and cognitive development.”

Given South Africa’s multilingual society, Fobosi said implementing MTbBE can help bridge gaps in understanding and foster inclusivity.

“However, the success of MTbBE hinges on adequate resources, teacher training and curriculum development in multiple languages. While it holds the potential for enriching education, careful planning and investment are needed to overcome practical challenges. In 2025, the DBE aims to incrementally roll out MTbBE until the end of primary school (Grade 7) in all nine provinces.”

Significant challenges included a lack of resources and materials in all official languages. “Many schools struggle with insufficient textbooks, learning aids and trained teachers proficient in indigenous languages. Additionally, the transition to English or Afrikaans in higher grades often poses difficulties for students who are not adequately prepared. This transition can lead to a drop in academic performance and increased dropout rates.”

A multifaceted approach was necessary to address these challenges. “The government should prioritise funding to develop educational materials in all official languages and invest in the training of teachers for bilingual education.”

Society could play a role by fostering a positive attitude towards multilingual education and encouraging community school involvement.

“Education stakeholders, including NGOs and the private sector, can support initiatives promoting linguistic diversity and providing school resources. Collaborative efforts can lead to the development of comprehensive policies supporting MTbBE, ensuring sustainable implementation and long-term benefits for learners,” he said. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Skerminkel the Third says:

    Wow, so it took 30 years for government to learn what educators have been saying since forever!
    Hope they can make it work.

  • Shaun Pastor says:

    According to data from Old Mutual, the average cost to send a graduate to university in South Africa is R55 900 in 2023, which is expected to accelerate to R95 700 by 2030 – and reach R177 200 by 2038.
    The fees apply to first-year studies for 2023 and only act as an approximation and exclude other fees such as textbooks, travel and residency.
    Public primary school fees are currently about R24 408 a year, while private primary schools cost about R71 496 on average a year. Sending your child to a government high school will cost around R36 072 a year, while a private high school is likely to cost you around R105 084 a year.
    Of the 8/10 Grade 4 learners that CANNOT read and write you now want to charge even more to get this ship sailing.
    Wow. Instead of fixing the holes in the sinking ship you suggest everyone get into 1 lifeboat and see if you can make it to a shore somewhere. FIX THE PROBLEM FIRST. Read this report on Briefly.

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