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Mother-tongue instruction or straight-for-English? The primary education policy dilemma


Publication date: April 2020

Affiliations: DBE, University of Stellenbosch


Language-in-education policy has a powerful influence on social and economic relations, with complex dimensions in multilingual and unequal societies such as South Africa. There are practical considerations around how best to use language to achieve better educational (and consequently economic) outcomes for those in historically disadvantaged language groups within available means (financial, human and linguistic resources), but the approach taken will also have implications for identity and power. This was clearly demonstrated historically throughout the various stages of the development of Afrikaans. This paper presents the Mother-tongue instruction or straight-for-English education policy dilemma. The historical discussion on the development of Afrikaans, including the political events, policies and organisations that were part of its development, and the implications of this for African languages provides the background. This is followed by a discussion on the curriculum and language in education policy and practice response through an analysis of ten South African language in education policies from 1994 to date. The paper then considers why the language policy dilemma persists though the discussion of economic returns to language, namely a high economic return to English mastery with no returns for African languages and concludes with proposing three alternative policy solutions within a multilingual education context. The first policy option is maintaining the status quo, teaching in the various African mother tongues for the first three years while also introducing English and then transitioning to English from Grade 4. This would continue to use African languages as a bridge to English, with economic returns retained only for English. The second option is the unification of Nguni and Sotho languages respectively, with these taught as regional languages for the first six years of schooling followed by a transition to English. What would happen to the remaining languages, Tshivenda and Xitsonga still requires careful consideration. However, the regional use of these languages may increase their use within the formal economy, creating an enabling environment for their economic value. The third option is in line with the most recent language in education policy development, providing mother tongue education for the first six years within the existing language in education policies, making English compulsory as a First Additional Language while also specifically introducing an African First Additional Language through all phases of schooling including tertiary education. This third option provides a comprehensive approach to enabling African language use not only as a bridge to English but as a language of society, education and formal work while still recognising the role of English. Over time this may create a strong rationale for economically rewarding African languages in the same way English is rewarded. What is clear from the development of Afrikaans highlighted early in the paper, is that successful implementation of language policies is complex and requires political, technical and social collaboration from a range of stakeholders. Regardless of the policy option selected, this will require the deliberate and careful development of indigenous South African languages foregrounded in education resourcing, prioritization and directly addressing the question of economic returns for African languages.


Keywords: Language policy, language inequality, language practice, language in education