Over the past decade, not only in South Africa but around the world, a great deal of research has focused on multilingual education. In contrast to multilingual education, the growth of English as a world language and lingua franca is also a topic of influence within education.
A strong tendency towards English imperialism in our education system is noticeable in multilingual South African schools. Sixty-eight percent of learners are enrolled in schools where English is the language of learning and teaching [LOLT], while only seven percent are English mother-tongue speakers.
A growing demand for an English LOLT, which is not learners' mother tongue, is one of the factors believed by many to contribute towards poor academic achievement in South Africa, and it can be considered a form of 21st century English linguistic imperialism.
After decades of colonialism, the whole purpose of the new South African Language in Education Policy [LIEP] inaugurated in 1997, was to replace discriminatory colonial and apartheid language policies and promote multilingualism, indigenous languages and mother-tongue education.
The LIEP has regrettably not been realised in schools. English as the predominant LOLT is currently dominating multilingual South African classrooms, and mother tongues are even further devalued.
English linguistic imperialism is altering South African classroom dynamics. Teachers can no longer use "English-only" teaching strategies in multilingual classrooms and still expect success. The multicultural and multilingual nature of South African classrooms demands the decolonisation of imperialist linguistic teaching strategies. The implementation of dynamic bilingual or multilingual teaching strategies such as "translanguaging", a teaching strategy built on the importance of mother-tongue education, should be considered.
Teachers and school language policies need to be willing to change and accept teaching strategies that are different from current "English-only" practices.
Translanguaging has shown to be invaluable around the world in decolonising imperialistic language practices, promoting mother-tongue education and creating multilingual awareness in classrooms.
Translanguaging is a dynamic and flexible approach that helps learners make sense of their multilingual environment by centring around flexible bi-/multilingual practices and teaching strategies, and not on languages themselves. Translanguaging promotes the idea of using any or all language(s) available to a learner, as their linguistic repertoire, to help develop and grow their concept-building in more than one language.
However, teachers and school language policies need to be willing to change and accept teaching strategies that are different from current "English-only" practices. Unfortunately, the willingness of teachers and schools is still up for debate. Teachers and school policies currently reject teaching strategies such as translanguaging for "pragmatic" reasons, and because it allows learners to use "all" their languages flexibly within the classroom.
Current school policies ignore the fundamental difference between mono- and multilingual learners and consequently do not allow for multilingual discourse within the classroom. Many South Africans believe that the faster a child can learn English through an approach that is not polluted or influenced by other languages, the more success a child will have in language learning and future endeavours. English is therefore seen as a ticket to economic prosperity.
Unfortunately, this is a misguided and ignorant way of thinking. Mother-tongue education, an internationally accepted principle, is the ticket to economic prosperity. A child's mother tongue lays the foundation for further language learning.
Internationally renowned professor Jim Cummins' interdependence theory emphasises the interrelated nature of languages and how a learner's mother-tongue development will influence their second-language acquisition. If this principle of language interdependence is not understood, English will continue to dominate our schools, and poor academic achievement can be expected.
I believe that South African schools and their learners can also greatly benefit from translanguaging, since our classrooms also frequently represent a diverse number of languages.
In 2016, I received a Fulbright scholar-in-residence scholarship to the U.S., where I had the opportunity to lecture at Dordt College and do research on the topic of translanguaging. This scholarship offers young South African lecturers an opportunity to teach at a U.S. institution.
The Fulbright scholarship also resulted in me meeting Professor Ofelia Garcia, one of the greatest researchers in the field of translanguaging, at the City University of New York (CUNY). During my visit to CUNY I watched, listened and learnt about the ways that the translanguaging theory can be implemented when the learners in the classroom do not speak the language of the school at home.
New York teachers spoke up at a conference about the success that they have had in multilingual classrooms. Some of those teachers explained that due to an influx of refugee and immigrant learners, the multilingual nature of their classrooms frequently extends to having 10 or even more languages involved in the classroom.
During my visit teachers also demonstrated how translanguaging strategies have assisted Spanish-speaking learners who have experienced interrupted schooling. Those learners benefitted from translanguaging, as some of them had never spoken English before they continued their schooling in the U.S.
I believe that South African schools and their learners can also greatly benefit from translanguaging, since our classrooms also frequently represent a diverse number of languages. Sixty-one percent of our learners can benefit from leveraging their mother tongue in the classroom in order to assist learning.
Translanguaging can, therefore, serve as a way of decolonising our imperialist English-language practices, lead to social justice — and ultimately, helping us to achieve the multilingual ideal of our Constitution.