Government should consider teaching subjects in indigenous languages or strengthening the learning of English if it wants to improve results in basic education‚ Wits University education expert Professor Mary Metcalfe has said.
Metcalfe spoke to TimesLIVE after delivering the annual JB Marks Memorial Lecture at the University of Johannesburg on Tuesday night.
During her interactive session with students‚ unionists and academics‚ she laid bare the serious challenges that the South African education system is facing.
One of the problems faced in education was the fact that children were not taught in their mother tongue‚ which affected their ability to understand concepts.
Using a vast trove of data‚ Metcalfe showed the gathering how‚ from Grade 3 to 4‚ pupils from provinces with large rural communities began to drop in performance because at that level subjects are taught in English.
Metcalfe said the government was ambitious on policy change and struggled to implement it.
“We also run away from the big question of language all the time. A child can only learn in a language that they understand. If a child is learning in a language which is foreign to that community and the only place they are exposed to it is at school [it is a challenge]. Think about that. I can’t learn in Chinese. There are children that only hear English in their community at school. The rest of the time they are laughing and exploring [in their indigenous language]‚” Metcalfe said.
“In order to get the concept taught‚ the teacher has to oversimplify. If you are using the language that everybody is comfortable with‚ you have more time and you do not have to oversimplify. There is an overemphasis of English in our system. We should either concentrate on teaching English so that people are confident in the language or we should teach in African languages.”
The memorial lecture was hosted by the JB Marks Education Trust Fund and the National Union of Mineworkers.
Refilwe Motloane‚ a professional development officer at the trust‚ also expanded on the importance of language.
“We were in the Eastern Cape and teachers wanted to enquire how proceedings would go about on the day. We responded in English and they physically moved backwards‚” said Motloane.
“At that point there was a language barrier. We couldn’t communicate with the teachers. If we can’t communicate with the teachers in English‚ how do we then communicate with the learner?” said Motloane.
She added: “In Setswana we have borrowed words from English and Afrikaans. We can use those when we don’t have an indigenous term for the concept being taught. We should teach all the subjects in indigenous languages.”
During the lecture there was also a lengthy discussion on the role of class in education‚ funding from national government and the high dropout rate in schools.
Questions were also raised around why the quality of education differed from one province to the other if it comes from the same government.
Motloane highlighted this after the lecture.
“We need to be equal. Whatever you give a child living in Sandton‚ the same you must give a child in the Eastern Cape … Until we change that and we become equal‚ we will always have problems‚” she said.