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Let's Launch An Inclusive Effort To Develop A New Consensus About Language And Education

Demonising those who consider language or culture a part of their identity literally makes no sense.

27/01/2018 06:38 SAST | Updated 27/01/2018 06:38 SAST
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COMMENT

Mr Lesufi, the MEC for education in Gauteng, makes a number of statements about education and the language policy (HuffPost, Jan 19) that warrant a response.

He begins by arguing in favour of multilingual, multicultural and multiracial schools, which are supposed to represent the full diversity of the country. What this means in practice is not spelt out, though it seems that he had certain multilingual teaching methods in mind.

These generally use a common language, such as English, alongside several other languages used by the learners. Such methods are indeed useful in multilingual classrooms, the norm in many schools in urban Gauteng. It is also easy to understand why such methods would appeal to a department that wants to eradicate racial inequalities in education.

However, please consider the following:

First, the introduction of a common language to integrate linguistically diverse schools has been going on for some decades now. That is, many schools have become English. The consequence of Anglicisation, with few exceptions, has been the displacement of local languages like isiXhosa, Afrikaans and others. It is possible, of course, to reintroduce the lost mother tongues after the fact by means of a multilingual teaching method – a good second prize.

However, as with outcomes-based education, multilingual education methods will require a major improvement of educational skills and capacities. It likewise harbours great potential for unintended consequences – like breaking mother-tongue education; something that will take a long long time to fix. Beware of good ideas.

Second, multilingual teaching methods may well be indispensable in some situations, but there are no compelling reasons why it should be uniformly enforced in all contexts. It is not the only method around, and there is overwhelming evidence for the effectiveness of traditional mother-tongue education (whether single, double or parallel medium).

If the notion that language represents a racist identity is the logic behind the language policy of the Gauteng department of education, then it is unconstitutional.

Unesco explicitly rejects the notion that mother-tongue education is too expensive, that former colonial languages like English are superior to indigenous ones, or that learning in one's mother tongue prevents one from learning other languages. They strongly encourage African governments to embrace mother-tongue education up to the highest level.

The second element of Mr Lesufi's piece is an argument against single-medium Afrikaans schools, beginning with a surprisingly liberal argument about individual rights.

First, he argues that racism is based on the notion that one is "a member of a collective" defined by "race, culture and even language". By this logic, schools like Hoërskool Overvaal and others make themselves guilty of a racist form of identity by the mere fact of wanting to use Afrikaans-medium instruction.

One cannot help but wonder whether the same logic would apply to the tshiVenda school in Mamelodi or the isiZulu schools in rural KwaZulu-Natal? What about the plentiful mixed-race Afrikaans schools, or all the black or largely white English-only schools? Are stick-fights at traditional weddings racist by nature, or does the logic of "racist identity" apply only by virtue of the colour of one's skin?

If the notion that language represents a racist identity is the logic behind the language policy of the Gauteng department of education, then it is unconstitutional. The Constitution explicitly provides for the rights of "cultural, linguistic and religious communities". It even provides for a permanent commission to protect and promote the rights of these "communities" (or "collectives", using Mr Lesufi's term). It also provides for single-medium mother-tongue education.

In the real world, South Africans rely on language, culture, traditions, religion or political philosophy, party, and identification with the nation to fashion multiple and overlapping identities. One can identify as an Afrikaner, Afrikaans, a Khoisan, a Zulu traditionalist, or a Presbyterian – and simultaneously be a proud ANC- or DA-voting South African. Demonising those who consider language or culture a part of their identity literally makes no sense.

The stereotypes that have been deployed in the campaign against Afrikaans in Gauteng over the past year or so do an injustice to the language and its speakers.

Second, having equated racism with identity based on, among others, language, Mr Lesufi concludes that "language policies" are "nothing more than crude forms of racism". The "advocates of language policies" supposedly use language as a means to the vilest of racist ends, namely admissions based on race.

There is no place for racism in our society, and where schools are deliberately using language as a tool for racist exclusion, censure would be in order. However, one needs more than perceptions or negative stereotypes of Afrikaans schools to argue that this is in fact what is happening.

The resistance to English generally has much to do with the rapid shift over the past few decades from single-medium Afrikaans schools to bilingual schools, and from there to single-medium English schools. Barring excellent language management, it is well established linguistically that a dominant language, like English, easily supplants a weaker language in a multilingual context.

Parents of all races and backgrounds have therefore become anxious about maintaining Afrikaans schools. In many communities, all schools have Anglicised, often leading to grassroots frustration and anger about education – the kind of anger that can influence elections.

Not everybody will sympathise with the perspectives above. They are also not meant to cover all situations at all Afrikaans schools. However, a language policy is not simply an expression of crude racism. Mostly, it is about parents wanting to ensure that their children get mother-tongue education.

Anybody with insight into the struggle era will find it easy to empathise with the negative gut response that many people experience about Afrikaans. We are wounded in many ways, and it will take more than just one generation to overcome the pain that we feel. Yet the stereotypes that have been deployed in the campaign against Afrikaans in Gauteng over the past year or so do an injustice to the language and its speakers.

I am in full agreement with Mr Lesufi that we need to promote multilingualism in South Africa. True multilingualism, in which each citizen and government services are able to use multiple languages, is the only way in which we will achieve full economic participation and a true democracy.

Afrikaans was also a language of the struggle, as MK veterans from Robben Island and many communities will testify. The majority of Afrikaans schools are largely coloured. There are even some black Afrikaans schools, and hardly any Afrikaans schools are exclusively white. Even Hoërskool Overvaal has black learners – happy ones who feel welcome at the school, judging by the way that they have been defending it. Black learners at other schools have also expressed their heartfelt support for the language.

Some schools may continue to look too "monochrome" for those in power. Yet demonising them with stereotypes, crushing them with mass action and forcing them to accept English is anything but progressive. Surely there are more creative, mutually respectful ways of handling cases like this? Mobilising the full diversity of Afrikaans comes to mind as a solution, among others.

I am in full agreement with Mr Lesufi that we need to promote multilingualism in South Africa. True multilingualism, in which each citizen and government services are able to use multiple languages, is the only way in which we will achieve full economic participation and a true democracy. Multilingual teaching methods are just one of several tools at our disposal to achieve this. Proper mother-tongue education is another.

We should also not confuse mother-tongue education with monolingualism. Monolingualism is much more likely to be the consequence of an educational language policy that favours English over all the indigenous languages. It is one of the reasons why so many black children are becoming monolingual English speakers.

By far the most Afrikaans speakers reject racism. They want to be part of South African society and part of the solutions for the many problems that we face.

Please talk to us. Let us take the discussion about schools and mother-tongue education out of the courts and the streets. Let us launch an inclusive effort to develop a new consensus about language and education.

I call on Mr Lesufi to do all in his power to make this possible.

Conrad Steenkamp is the CEO of the Afrikaans Language Council (Afrikaanse Taalraad).