11 into 1 won't go

South Africa has 11 official languages but parents increasingly want their children taught in English. Simon Dagut asks if this is the best policy.

IF YOU SOMETIMES feel depressed about the future of South Africa, a prescription far more effective than Prozac is to visit a Grade 8 class at Barnato Park High School, in Berea, a district of high-rise flats in inner-city Johannesburg. Sited on what was once the ostentatious home of the randlord Barney Barnato, it contains an excellent senior school, run by skilled and dedicated teachers and filled with happy and enthusiastic teenagers.

Your mood is guaranteed to improve as you enter the school and notice the rows of trophies and commendations displayed in the entrance hall. It will continue to rise as you go into a classroom containing thirty 13 and 14-year-olds, standing politely at their desks, neatly dressed in their school uniforms and grinning from ear to the ear with excitement at the prospect of being interviewed about South Africa’s languages.

The classroom itself deserves a mention: it is sunny and brightly decorated. The pupils’ desks are arranged not in the rows facing the teacher’s larger desk in the way familiar from childhood memory, but in the style associated with Outcomes Based Education (OBE), in groups of six or eight, for all the world like mini-boardroom tables. The children sit when their teacher says they may and it is down to business.

First things first. How many home languages are represented in this class? Almost every hand goes up — Zulu! (No one is pedantic enough to say isiZulu) Setswana! Afrikaans! Sepedi! Sesotho! One boy shouts out Shangaan! He means Xitsonga. Anyone else? Yes, a boy from Zimbabwe who speaks the Shona language and a girl who answers French, but probably also has some proficiency in one of the indigenous languages of francophone Africa. Does anyone in the class speak English at home? Not the teacher, although Lulama Pohlwana’s English is perfect, her home language is Zulu. No one at all, then? No, though perhaps one girl does look a little uncomfortable when the question is asked.

So, how does the class feel about being taught in English? A unanimous roar of approval greets the question. “It’s great! We love it!” Why? The answers range from the aesthetic and vague — “because English is the best language” to the pragmatic and precise — “because you can’t do anything without English. English is the language of the world. You need English for a good job.” This last point is frequently repeated. But what about having to learn subjects like maths and science in a second language? Isn’t that hard? Several pupils deny this firmly. They have been taught in English from Grade 1 and now feel completely confident in it. Others admit that the transition from primary schools where little or no English was heard to Barnato Park was difficult at first — but that was 10 months ago, a long time in a 13-year-old’s life — and they now feel that they are getting on well. Only one girl admits to finding things difficult, but she does so in competent conversational English and the teacher is quick to remind her how much she has improved since the start of the year.

A class of confident and proficient anglophones, then. But how do they feel about African languages? Should white children be required to learn an African language? Most certainly — it is only fair and it will help them to understand us. Would they like to study an African language’s structure and literature formally, as a school subject? No. That would be boring and there is no need — we speak them well already. The ability to speak one or more indigenous languages is a matter of pride with these children. Several of them claim proficiency in four or five. What they perceive as their multilingualism, naturally enough, seems to make them feel accomplished and confident. This linguistic Eden, though, is not without a snake or two.

The girl who looked uncomfortable earlier explains, in startlingly precise English, what is troubling her. Her family has moved about a lot. Her parents were originally Setswana speakers but they have lived in a number of countries. The family has fallen into the habit of speaking English almost all the time and so she really only knows a few words of Setswana. When she first arrived at Barnato Park, she was worried that the other children would take her dependence on English as snobbery. The impression remains that, for the majority of these children, English is like one’s smartest clothes — capable of creating an excellent impression, to be used for best — but not completely comfortable or homely.
Real comfort is epitomised by the language of their unanimously favourite radio station — Yfm. With over a million listeners it is the largest and fastest-growing radio station in Gauteng and one of the largest radio stations in the country as a whole. Yfm targets South Africa’s largest and fastest-growing “demographic” — as the media jargon has it — with repetitive, loud and lively music: hip-hop, house and its local equivalent, kwaito. Hip-hop and house songs are sung (if that is the word) in African-American slang and are at least as often witty and linguistically inventive as they are violent and obscene. The locally produced kwaito music is analogous, but its base language is township slang. The young black presenters command an English that is clear, contemporary and, like the songs, often very witty. Importantly, though, they break into township slang fairly often, particularly when speaking to callers.

This township slang, often called tsotsitaal, is a patois on a Zulu base, though it contains very many loan-words from other African languages, from English and Afrikaans, highly topical references and pure invention. It is, teachers agree, this slang which facilitates communication in multilingual schools and which, it is fair to speculate, contributes largely to pupils’ sense that they command a very large number of languages. Of course, some do, but the use of township slang enables people to communicate whatever their home language may be. One pupil, asked about his languages, was more precise than the rest. He said that he spoke English at school, isiZulu when he went to visit relations near Estcourt and tsotsi at home. His teacher was sceptical: was he sure he spoke real, “deep” isiZulu in KwaZulu-Natal? He insisted that he did. If he is right, he may be a little unusual.

The impression of formally educated adults seems to be that many urban people, particularly young children and teenagers, do not command versions of indigenous languages acceptable to rural people and formally educated speakers of these languages. Of course, in the case of Barnato Park pupils, the inability to use indigenous languages in a formal way is compensated for (socially if not linguistically) by their excellent English. Barnato Park pupils’ command of English is supported, refreshed and enlarged by their teachers, many of whom are native English-speakers, by their linguistically anglophile parents and by their families’ middle-class incomes or willingness to make large sacrifices. This money supports their children’s attendance at a highly stimulating school and tends to gives them plenty of exposure to the treats and temptations of anglophone global consumer culture. These are not, of course, everyone’s circumstances.

For these reasons, although a visit to Barnato Park High School to investigate language use is guaranteed to cheer one up, it does not leave a completely unclouded impression. Is Barnato Park really an ideal or best practicable model for South Africa’s language development? Even if it is, can it, in the dreary idiom of development studies, be “reliably replicated” and “scaled up”? Should a thousand Barnato Parks bloom? Can they?
Most of the current generation of South Africans are, sadly, hostile to indigenous languages, whether they realise it or not. A successful political approach, therefore, will need to have its roots not in the heady enthusiasm of nationalism but in a detailed understanding of the linguistic composition and linguistic preferences of South African society. Our society does not value its multilingualism, its 11 official languages. Many English-speaking people, including myself, when first told that South Africa would have 11 — 11, for heaven’s sake — official languages, thought it rather an amusing excess of political correctness, which would do no more than lightly disguise the dominance of English. Others, less unthinking, may have mildly regretted the decline of other languages, but accept that the rise of English and the destruction of indigenous languages are an inevitable consequence of globalisation. The majority view, however, is perhaps the most sadly misguided of all, combining an over-valuation of English with a dangerous complacency about African languages. As the Barnato Park pupils say, “You can’t do anything without English. You need English for a good job.” True, but if you are to communicate effectively with most of the population, you need at least one other language too.

The Grade 8s at Barnato Park are also almost certainly over-confident about the future of African languages, suggesting as they do that there is no need to worry about the indigenous languages, because “we can speak them anyway”. This is a widely held view. The Sunday Independent reported last year the case of a Cape Town Xhosa-speaking mother, Patricia Njamalo, insisting that her four-year-old daughter be prevented from speaking any language but English at pre-school. She argued that “All you should be teaching them is how to be successful in a white man’s world” because “they already know how to be black.”
But if “being black” means the ability to use indigenous languages confidently and in a wide range of contexts, there is real doubt as to whether that Xhosa-speaking mother is correct. Some of South Africa’s smallest and most neglected languages — Tshivenda, Xitsonga, the varieties of Ndebele, are at real risk of following most of the Khoi-San languages into extinction. Even the larger, more apparently robust indigenous languages risk drifting out of focus for many urban South Africans. If current trends continue, “deep” or “heavy” Zulu, a language of considerable grammatical complexity with a rich oral and written literature, will become as inaccessible as Latin is now to most speakers of French or Italian.

As things stand at the moment, Yfm or, rather, the social forces that have rocketed it to success — rapid and sustained urbanisation, globalisation, South Africa’s youth-heavy population structure, the increasing power and influence of youth culture — will fundamentally alter South Africa’s indigenous languages.

The process will take significantly longer outside Gauteng, but is likely eventually to leave many South Africans unable to access the cultural wealth carried by the traditional forms of indigenous culture. The roughly 90 per cent of the school population who have not been to schools such as Barnato Park (or, in ascending order of exclusivity, though not necessarily quality, a Catholic school, an ex-model C school, a private “Saint”, ethnic or profit-making school) will not be able to understand formal English either. This 90 per cent will certainly not be left inarticulate. Township slang can be used to say anything, but people who depend on it exclusively will not be able to communicate effectively with rural people, gain the skills needed to get a good job, or understand the simplest government or corporate communication, even one issued in all 11 official languages. For the vast majority of rural African people, and those living in less linguistically diverse cities, such as Durban or Bloemfontein, change will come more slowly, not that their current linguistic situation offers them any material advantages. The ability to speak elegant traditional isiXhosa and a few words of English will, equally with township slang, get you nowhere in modern South Africa. To put it bluntly, South Africa is rapidly developing a linguistically adrift urban population to add to its linguistically isolated rural one.

As the National Education Policy Investigation of 1992 pointed out in its report on language issues, this is a recipe for continued and worsened class division. As race eventually becomes a less important divide, command of English will become ever more important as a marker of status and of access to all the desirable trappings that come with being middle class. Perhaps the Grade 8 pupil at Barnato Park who was worried about being taking for a snob is on to something. Most of the solution, of course, lies in education.

But what sort of education? The obvious — and incorrect — answer is one of the few things that unites black and white English-speaking South Africans almost completely: English, English and more English. The head of Barnato Park, Agnes Nugent, tells the following story. Quite frequently, the school holds meetings to keep parents informed. Barnato Park parents have usually taken considerable trouble to get their children into the school and care deeply about it. Parent-teacher meetings are therefore very well attended. At these meetings, Mrs Nugent says, “One parent will stand up and say ‘Why are you not teaching the vernaculars?’ and then six or seven will jump up and say, ‘We’ve had this discussion. If you want your children to study the vernacular or learn their subjects in the vernacular, go somewhere else.’ And everyone will shout this parent down.”

A similar story comes from Jeppe Preparatory. This is an excellent and educationally progressive primary school in Johannesburg’s inner eastern suburbs. It teaches the children of recently arrived Eastern European and Chinese immigrants, an increasing number of the moderately affluent black middle class and a significant remnant of the Portuguese community that used to dominate the area. A typical class may contain 10 home languages, from siSwati to Hungarian by way of Cantonese. This year, the Grade 1 class put on a show based on a Zulu folktale involving the singing of songs in Zulu. The white parents disliked the sight of their little angels singing in a black language. The black parents complained that they had not sent their children to this school in order to have their culture respected. Both demanded the extirpation of all African influences at once.

These parental attitudes are not likely to lead to the best possible educational outcomes for their children. There is remarkable unanimity among language-in-education experts about the best approach to education in multilingual environments. This approach is called “additive bilingualism”. It involves the gradual replacement of the home language as the medium of instruction by the target language — English, in the South African case. This replacement, though, is never complete. Ideally, children entering school would be taught entirely in their home language for four to six years, while learning the target language as a subject. Then, slowly, more and more subjects would come to be taught in the target language. In the final years of school, the only subject to be taught in the home language would probably be that language’s grammar and literature. If one put this suggestion to a group of Barnato Park pupils, they would immediately retort that a scheme so gradual and so complex is unnecessary: they learned English quickly and easily, so why should they be subjected to this tedious drip-feeding? The answer is that children who are fortunate enough to go to schools like Barnato Park are immersed in the target language. Almost everything at the school happens in English, from cheering on the sports teams to buying chips in the tuckshop. Mrs Nugent reports that as they progress up the school, they tend also to use English for their private conversations. In such circumstances young people learn to speak English very quickly. If this conversational competence is reinforced by high-quality formal teaching, Barnato Park-style children are indeed produced — happy, confident, well-equipped.

Even here, though, there are difficulties. Children who are not linguistically competent in their home language struggle even more in English. Except for the most linguistically gifted, English remains slightly uncomfortable, for “best”. This is unlikely ever to amount to more than a very slight disadvantage in the job market. After all, most home language English speakers do not do very well with formal English either. It does, though, place otherwise creative and sensitive people at a greater distance than necessary from the pleasures and resources of literature, especially since people in this situation are unlikely to be able to enjoy literary art or entertainment in an indigenous language.

Much more seriously, there is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that these children’s competence in conversational English is not necessarily accompanied by comprehension of abstract or formally stated ideas. In the jargon of the field, BICS — or basic interpersonal communication skills do not imply CALP — or cognitive academic language proficiency. Teachers report that their own experience supports the findings of researchers. Belinda Williams, head of English teaching at Jeppe Preparatory and a qualified multilingual teacher, recalls that the concept of a “cold front” eluded her non home-language grade 7 pupils longer than it did pupils who spoke English at home, even though almost everyone in the class chatters away in English perfectly well. She solved the problem by asking a pupil with good English and good Zulu to explain the idea in Zulu to her struggling classmates. And so on, for each of the languages spoken in her class. But these cognitive difficulties are easy to overlook when everyone is speaking English quite happily. It takes a highly trained and experienced teacher to detect them and a teacher willing to use some of the techniques of Outcomes Based Education to correct them.

OBE was adopted by the education ministry under Sibusiso Bengu. It has worked very well in New Zealand, but then so many policies do in those sparsely populated and exceptionally well-regulated islands. The new minister, Kader Asmal, is said to be looking at the policy with a somewhat more jaundiced eye than his predecessor, as well he might. OBE requires, among other things, teachers who are themselves good at formulating and assessing abstract “outcomes” and who are willing to arrange their classrooms in the style adopted at Barnato Park and other educationally progressive schools.

This re-arrangement is very far from trivial. It reduces teachers’ authority, transforming them from absolute monarchs, pacing the rows of desks, book or stick in hand, to something more like convenors of discussions — a much more difficult and subtle job. In the South African context, these discussions should be permitted, where necessary, to take place in any language or slang that will aid comprehension of ideas like “cold front”. Only the report back need take place in English. As Williams points out, this requires a confident and culturally liberal teacher, preferably one who has both BICS and CALP in more than one language.

To suppose that there is a large supply of such teachers in South Africa is pure fantasy. There are precious few teachers who can teach effectively in English and Asmal has recently wondered aloud whether some teachers are earning their pay. Williams, in addition to teaching at Jeppe, also trains teachers in Orange Farm. There, she says, it is more a matter of enabling teachers to construct a basic spelling lesson than training them in the art of multilingual OBE.

Remarks such as these cannot be swept under the carpet as ministerial tactlessness or white racist stereotyping. The reports of all the large-scale research projects undertaken by no less an authority than the President’s Education Initiative, set up by Nelson Mandela, have been published this year in a volume entitled Getting Learning Right and they each support this view. The evil legacy of Verwoerd’s Bantu education lives on. Most township schools are still dominated by teachers who rely on rote, on pointless class recitations from English textbooks which nobody in the room, including the teacher, understands. In these situations, people leave school speaking township slang, rudimentary English and barely able to read an Omo advert, let alone a newspaper in any language.

Given this reality, and universal parental pressure, it is not surprising that there has been a discernible drift in education policy thinking away from the goal of additive bilingualism to a rueful acceptance that “the more realistic option is a straight-for-English approach”. This is supported by attempts to discover the “minimum requirements for successful training in English in South African schools”, as Getting Learning Right puts it. A blunter way of making the same point would be to say that most South African teachers need retraining so that they can at least speak, read and write English competently.

The sad truth is that this is a country where a black township teacher says that she “will not be pushed like a wheelbarrow” into improving her approach, and where a white teacher writes that he gets annoyed when black pupils “back chat and click in their languages” in his classroom. The Gauteng education department will not pay teachers to attend the multilingualism courses offered by non-governmental organisations. Parents continue to demand English only from Grade 1 in schools where no one speaks it properly.

Thami Mazwai, chairman of the (non-governmental) African Renaissance Commission and one of the most prominent Africanist public intellectuals, and Mongane Wally Serote, poet and MP, have recently argued for much wider use of African languages. As Mazwai puts it, “It is only in Africa where black parents say to their children ‘talk English’. Our children have to be taught maths and science in English but for as long as you teach those subjects in English, you are teaching that child that his language, his culture is not good enough.”

But our June 16 commemoration of the 1976 Soweto uprising reminds us each year what can happen when a language is forced onto unwilling people. What South Africa needs, therefore, is to find an educational approach which supports the widest possible use of indigenous languages in ways that pupils, parents and teachers will accept. If attitudes do not change, our very limited national capacity to communicate across race and class divides will decline even further.