Language in Education Policy: briefing by Department

Basic Education

05 September 2006
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


5 September 2006

Prof S Mayatula (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Language Policy in Education presentation

The Department of Education's
Language in Education Policy since 1998 is based on the principle of the right of children to be educated in their mother tongue whilst having access to a global language such as English. The policy to make available home-language education for Grades One to Six counters the dominant view amongst teachers and parents that English is the key to a better life and the sooner children are taught in English, the better.

The Committee agreed that advocacy was needed to convince parents, school governing bodies and teachers of the advantages of home-language education. The Department would be requested to present a plan of action that states how to make this policy implementable

Ms Palesa Tyobeka, Department of Education (DoE): Deputy-Director-General
for General Education and Training, presented on ‘Language Policy in Education’ which she noted was based on the Language Colloquium hosted in Cape Town in July 2006 (see document). She looked at the background plan as addressed by the Language in Education Policy (LiEP) in 1998 which was premised on the principle of maintaining home languages while providing access to additional languages.

She outlined the key principles for the implementation of the policy and the philosophy behind it. The application for admission to a school would include a choice of preferred language of teaching. School governing bodies had to declare how multi-linguism would be promoted. Detail was provided on languages as subjects. The attitude of schools towards the policy was explained. English was perceived as the most optimal language choice in terms of future career prospects and served as the dominant Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT). The mother tongue would tend to be used up to grade four after which teaching would revert to the LOLT. Aspects of the policy tended to surface more readily in schools with a diverse learnership. Affluent schools were more inclined to have formally adopted language policies. Indigenous languages were being used more frequently to enhance comprehension.

Various challenges to implementation were explained. The belief that education in a home language was inferior persisted. Indigenous languages were perceived as having limited applicability. More practical support had to be provided to schools to assist in implementation. Minimal support for indigenous languages prevailed at the High School level. A clear link existed between effective application of
Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT) and academic achievement. The Department sought to encourage mother tongue education whilst facilitating access to a global language such as English. The policy’s implementation would be strengthened and its core principles inculcated at the school level to reduce the level of inequality in education. The status quo in schools had to change for the better.  

After the presentation, the Chair noted that the problem was a matter of attitude, and the general attitude which is "you need to speak English and if you speak in your mother tongue it will slow the development of your English”. The decision to change this mind-set did not lie with the Committee but with the schools and the schools were not convinced. How are we going to change that mind-set?

The DDG responded that the Chair had hit ‘the nail on the head’. Currently people are allowed to choose the language in which they want their children taught. The Department of Education can support home-language education but the choice lies with the parent. Research studies monitoring home-language schools and comparing their results to other schools show better cognitive and academic achievement for the children attending the first type of school. We have to convey to people that our own languages are as good as English. The problem was that there were not enough people studying indigenous languages. Some universities were actually closing some of their African language departments because of a lack of students.

Mr A Gaum (ANC) said that there was a big misconception among the public about the government's approach. People think that the government does not see the value of mother-tongue education. He made this remark as a follow-up to a news article in which a Stellenbosch professor expressed his concern about Afrikaans education. He agreed with the Chair that it is very important to advocate this policy to the public plus come up with a plan on making it implementable. In the Western Cape there is mother-tongue based education for the first six to seven years. Should the government convince people that mother-tongue education only for the first three years is not good enough? He added that English could be phased in early, but only as a second language.

Mr B Mthembu (ANC) remarked that many provinces would like to start home language education. However, there were not enough teachers able to teach in the mother tongue.  One of the reasons for this was that one is not encouraged to become an indigenous language teacher. To fight that, the African languages should be the LOLT, as the University of Johannesburg is doing in Soweto.

Mr W Spies (FF+) noted that language is one of the core focuses of the Freedom Front Plus. He was happy that the Department was a believer in home-language education. However, he expressed his concern about the communities who already provide mother-tongue education to their children. Why did the Mikro Primary School have to go to court to ensure that right?

Mr R Ntuli (ANC) said that he found it hard to understand that people think that an African child can learn better in English. A child will function better when it is taught in its own language. The ideal situation was home language learning. However, parental resistance was understandable because English is important in our society. We cannot impose this policy on people. Parents will not allow it. Plus we need to have the human infrastructure for this policy such as having enough teachers.

In her response, the DDG stressed how important the advocacy of the policy is. The DoE is a supporter of home language education for the first six years. However, that would be hard to implement when the current policy was not even met. Children play and develop in their own language and then all of a sudden they are forced to learn in a different language. She had met teachers who stated that it is the parents’ job to teach the home language to their children.

Concerning Mr Mthembu's point, she said that it is important to have more home language teachers. The DoE is revitalising the studying of indigenous languages. In Zululand the language of education is already being changed. Studying in one's home language was a right for all children. Yet, that right is very selective currently: some kids get it, some do not.
The Western Cape is one of the better resourced provinces. This year 500 assistant-teacher positions had been created. Those people assist children with understanding the different topics.

In answer to Mr Ntuli’s remarks, she said that DoE had asked Treasury for extra money for the training of indigenous language teachers. The money was expected to come through at the beginning of next year and would be used for training teachers who teach in indigenous languages and teachers who teach English. Its purpose was to increase the academic levels of the children, not to degrade English to a second learning language.

She continued that many children did not have access to books or television. They did not have any information to learn from. Last year the DoE had given story books to 5 300 schools. This year another 6 000 schools would get those books. This year 30 mobile libraries had been supplied to schools. This would help children to learn.

The Chair answered the question about the Mikro School example saying that in essence the Department's action was not to mock Mikro, but Mikro had to cater for certain languages if the parents of learners asked for this. If people come and for instance want to learn in Sesotho, we need to encourage that. 

Ms C Dudley (ACDP) asked what the most convincing research available was at the moment and if it was summarised and put into an easily available format so that it is accessible for parents and teachers who need to make decisions about this?

Mr G Boinamo (DA) asked if the DoE was forcing home-language education down the throat of parents since most of them and their children did not want it.

Mr I Vadi (ANC) said that it cannot be imposed on people, but all efforts and money have to be put into convincing people about this policy otherwise nothing would change. He asked how the DoE was planning on getting children whose home language is English to learn an African language. The lesser resourced schools would not make a policy change for this, because of a lack of money to pay a teacher. He noted that the big differences between provinces had to be accepted. The provincial Departments of Education should be forced to come up with a language policy for their specific province.

Ms S Sigcau (UDM) emphasised the importance of training the school governing bodies. In the rural areas from where she herself comes, these bodies are  elected but when you ask them something about school policy they do not know anything, because they have not been  trained. We are supposed to train them. 

Mr B Mosala (ANC) said that in heterogeneous communities, different languages groups are clustered together. In pre-primary schools there is only a teacher who caters for one language group. That is not fair towards the others. The resources of these schools are based on numbers, not on what has to be taught to them. Another thing is many people think English is THE language. We must ensure children know their own language. A teacher should know the indigenous language before making an application.

Mr L Greyling (ID) referred to a complaint he had heard in KwaZulu-Natal. Teachers sometimes switched to the pupils' native language to make themselves more clearly understood but all the exams were in English. He asked if the English exam papers could be translated as well

Mr Gaum commented that not enough was being done. ‘We have to put our money where our mouth is”. The focus should be on Grade One to Six thereby extending mother-tongue education to more grades. Concerning schools such as the Mikro Primary School, he would love to see Xhosa and Afrikaans children attending one school. The problem with dual-medium education is that one out of the two languages ends up getting more attention. How do you ensure that both languages get exactly the same amount of attention?

The DDG replied that communication with the parents had to be improved, so that they know what kind of research supports the government’s policy. It is presumed that most parents prefer English. However after the language colloquium held in Cape Town, many parents had come to her and showed support for the policy. It made them realise that their child is not stupid, but having language problems. The DoE needs to make the parents understand the home-language policy. The policy could not be only an intention. It had to be implementable. For instance, do we have the resources to extend the policy until the sixth grade?

On the matter of English children learning an African language, she said that the policy catered for that by stating that all kids need to have learned a second language for at least three years by the time they reach the ninth grade. It was very vague. That is how far the government’s policy goes concerning this topic. We want to alter that and say "this must happen at that point in time".

The DDG hoped that she would soon be able to share the National Framework for Teacher Education with the Committee. It regulates that teachers should speak at least one indigenous language when they graduate. That means no training after they graduate, but during their study.

She noted that school governing bodies are being trained. She agreed that a lot of them have not been able to deliver and that the DoE was working on that. Although there was a lot of room for improvement, they were focusing on that. For example, coming up with simulation programmes, to make them understand certain situations.

Concerning dual-medium schools, the DDG stated that the government should leave some room for schools to come up with their own policy. It was remarkable to see what schools come up with on their own to cater for various needs. Very mixed schools have more problems than un-mixed ones.

She noted that some key exam questions are already been translated. The translated questions give more clarity to the students. The answer has to be in English though.
Parallel medium schools have more problems than others as it was basically two schools in one. Some schools even had two assemblies. The DDG said this concerned her very much.
As an example of how schools struggle she said that she has been to a school in the Western Cape where both teachers and pupils were Afrikaans and where the LOLT had been changed to English.
The Chair noted the importance of home-language teaching and said that people had to be told that their children would know more when they are taught in their own language.

Mr Boinamo wanted to know if this language policy was for both public and private schools.

The DDG replied that the policy applied to all schools. She noted that the DoE had come up with a guideline that said that when minimum of 20 children wanted to be taught in a certain language that that school had to cater for them. But we have to make sure that we can deliver on that and that the resources are in place. If not, then it is meaningless coming up with a policy like that.

Mr Gaum remarked to the Chair that it would be a good idea if the DoE was asked to appear before the Committee with a plan of action that states when and where such will be implemented.

Everybody, including the Chair, agreed with his proposal.

The meeting was adjourned.

Appendix 1: Address by the Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor, MP, at the language colloquium, Cape Town
Prof Moleleki, Chairperson of the Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB)
Mr E Sambo, Acting Chief Executive Officer of PANSALB
Mr Adama Samessekou, President of the Academy of Languages, Mali
Distinguished guests

Let me welcome you all here today. This mini-seminar is intended as an opportunity to reflect on current practice and to begin to define a practical approach to the practice of language in education policy, an approach that supports quality of learning and teaching and reflects the best lessons of education research.

Our language policy seeks to achieve a number of important imperatives.

First, it encourages use of the mother tongue as a clear departure from past practice. Study in the mother tongue should introduce a diversity of learning opportunities that have been unavailable in South Africa in the past. The policy recognises that past policy and practice has disadvantaged millions of children and it also promotes the effective learning and teaching of the previously neglected indigenous languages of South Africa.

The policy adopted in 1997 has not been implemented convincingly up to this point. Resources have not been made available in amounts that would give effect to the policy. There has also been a poor response to fears that parents have about a perceived imposition of old style apartheid education. Further, the policy has not enjoyed a prominence similar to that given to other policy shifts in education.

As always it is important to repeat that the policy does not, as some have claimed, deny children the opportunity to acquire English or any other second language. Rather it is empowering through the assertion that language-learning opportunities must be made available in all the official languages of South Africa.

Second, all young people should be able to speak and write in a language other than their mother tongue.

Third, young people need to have the ability to communicate in a third indigenous language.

But most importantly, the success of our policy depends on how we manage in an efficient and beneficial manner in all provinces, the effective utilisation of mother-tongue education and the acquisition of competence in the chosen lingua franca.

We have agreed that our language in education policy and practice should be shaped in a manner that promotes the achievement of these three important imperatives:

* increased use of and competence in the mother tongue, as a medium of instruction, at least in primary school
* improved ability in a second language, such as English, to support further study and respond to the legitimate desires of parents and learners
* the development of communicative ability in at least one African language, for all South African children.

The major obstacles we face in promoting mother-tongue learning are that the many of parents still prefer their children to be taught through the medium of the English language.

The obstacle that this preference creates is compounded by the fact that not enough teachers have been adequately prepared to teach in English.

This language preference is clearly expressed in the recently published Human Sciences Research Council (HRSC) survey of South African social attitudes. Most South Africans prefer the use of English as the language of instruction from grade one (with the exceptions of the Western Cape and the Northern Cape). And the commitment to English grows stronger from grade six to grade twelve.

The conclusion reached was the following: “English is the language of perceived potential upward educational mobility among almost all black Africans; Afrikaans maintains some strengths at all levels and African languages, even at the lowest levels in the system, are considered as having a subsidiary role that diminishes yet further as the black child climbs through the system” (p. 203).

How then does one reconcile such a view with our present policies? What can educational policy makers do to prevent the neglect of African languages in the education system? How do we achieve linguistic equality and also fully prepare learners for economic competition in a global society?

The benefits that language diversity confers on any society far outstrip any advantages that mono-lingualism may offer. All recent research confirms this view.

It is also now conventional wisdom that a strong mother-tongue foundation provides the best platform on which to base the learning of a second language; it makes it easier and faster.

There is also mounting evidence that a correlation exists between mother-tongue loss and the educational difficulties experienced by many learners using another language for learning.

We have another dimension to confront in regard to language in our schools. The advent of democracy has brought about greater population mobility than ever before.

A consequence of this is the linguistic, ‘racial’, and religious diversity within schools.

Let me take one example. In one school in Pretoria, learners come from 14 nations and speak 16 different languages. At home only two out five of this school’s children speak English to their parents and siblings. Yet the school uses English as medium of instruction, teaches English First Language to all the children, and Afrikaans as the second language. This indicates that though the composition of the pupil body has changed significantly over the last ten years, little has changed in coming to terms with linguistic diversity.

This sort of diversity has been commonplace in many other countries around the world, but educational policies and practices vary widely between countries and even within countries.

At times we as political actors have found ourselves caught between research and social reality. It is vital that as education practitioners we should implement our policies in a coherent and educationally sound manner.

I hope that today the people invited to this meeting will assist us in evaluating initiatives, in learning from practice elsewhere, and support our determination to give effect to the promise offered by recent policy. A diverse mix of invitees has been brought together. The choice was based on our belief that the persons in this room are the most helpful collective in the domain of the interface between language and learning.

I hope the discussions will be constructive. South Africa has to move beyond the old philosophies and positions on the use of languages, in all our schools, in all our provinces. How do we best promote our languages and cultures? What are the choices we want our educators, school managers and officials to make in ensuring that the very essence of our “language in education policy” finds its way to our learners through best practice and effective models?

These are the issues we hope to clarify through your contributions and support.


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