Regardt Visagie

    PGCE student, Stellenbosch University (2010)

    Before commencing a discussion on the specific role English plays in South African schools, it might prove fruitful to briefly contemplate the linguistic landscape of the nation as a whole. South Africa hosts a melting pot of languages, most of which are endowed with official status by the South African Constitution. The Constitution recognizes a total of eleven official languages, all of which must ‘enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably’ (SA Constitution, subsection 6, no. 4). This constitutional assertion often generates the impression that all official languages in South Africa also enjoy equal usage. Although this might be the case if ‘usage’ includes situations where languages are used as informal or private forms of communication, the reality is that in most formal contexts such as professional environments or sectors of commerce, the majority of languages fall into disuse, except for English. A similar situation to that in South Africa replicates itself on a global scale. Of all the major languages that are spoken in the world, none but English has truly international reach. This is because English has established itself as a ‘language of global communication that helps with access to jobs and advancement’ (Learn 2 teach, 17). English dominates in those spheres of public and professional life, both locally and internationally, that are indispensable for citizens of modern society. It is the functional value of English and the essential economic potential it offers that has made it presently such a major linguistic force and a continual object of desire.

    Viewed against the backdrop sketched above, the role of schools in South Africa should be evident. It is the obligatory role of schools to produce learners that have sufficient command of English to function meaningfully within a society that is linguistically organized in and through the English language. Schools therefore play a functional role in that they have to produce functioning individuals. Further on in the discussion I hope to show that this ‘evident’ role assigned to schools might in fact not be so apparent. However, first I would like to reinforce the functional value of schools by introducing a theory of society as expounded by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. My reasons for employing Luhmann’s rendering of systems theory are twofold: on the one hand, it represents to my mind an accurate perspective on modern society in general, and on the other, it provides the conceptual tools to analyze the functional role schools and communication play in particular.

    Luhmann’s social systems theory provides us with an encompassing vision of society in which people participate in modern society, or what he refers to as a ‘functionally differentiated society’, entirely through means of communication. Today’s globalized society is founded upon a wide variety of communication systems, each with its unique way of functioning – hence Luhmann’s description of modern society as functionally differentiated (Moeller, 2006:4). The economic system, for example, functions on the basis of the distribution of money, whilst the political system functions on the basis of the distribution of power. By purchasing goods at your local supermarket you participate in the economic system and by registering your vote on a ballot you partake in the political system. In the technical language of systems theory one would say you are communicating economically or communicating politically. It is important to note that one has to adopt the already-in-place code of that specific system, by using money or voting, in order to communicate in it (2006:6). Apart from the specific code in which these systems communicate, they also communicate via a specific set of semantics. Although semantics is defined somewhat broadly within the context of Luhmann’s theory, it refers to the way in which society produces meaning or how it makes sense of things by producing discourse (2006:224). To further elucidate the notion of semantics I would like to relate it to the term ‘domain’, a term that had its origin in sociolinguistic circles. John Fishman coined the term domain in 1972 to refer to different contexts that characteristically necessitate the use of different languages or language types in a heterogeneous (linguistically and otherwise) society (Mesthrie, Jeffery 2007). Domains may include physical settings like the home, the classroom, a shop, and the media etc, but include more typically the ‘general activity’ (2007) that is traditionally associated with a particular setting. A courtroom, for example, represents a domain in which Latin phrases associated with legal concepts are used frequently alongside English. Legal environments also call for a very ‘ceremonial’ and somewhat ‘condemnatory’ variety of language. Similar to the way in which domains influence the particular language or variety of language being used, the different systems in Luhmann’s society would determine the specific semantics being used. Domains or systems ought not to be conceptualized in terms of spatial dimensions as having a fixed structure with definite boundaries (Cilliers, 1998:4). They rather act as conceptual tools to render the linguistic functionality of society intelligible. Domains and systems often overlap and since they are interdependent they often influence one another reciprocally. Although in theory no permanent or rigid hierarchies are identified in society, certain patterns do establish themselves over time. Two obvious examples of powerful systems would be the mass media and the economic system.

    The economic system is especially influential and has certain implications for how other systems function. One such system would be the educational system. Because these systems are ‘coupled’, the educational system has to adapt and feed the need of the dominating economic system. The semantics in which the economic system operates would in turn require of the educational system that it communicates by using the same semantics (2006:18). As was mentioned earlier, although in somewhat less technical language, English, both locally as well as globally, constitutes this set of semantics, and more specifically a very formal variant of English. Schools in South Africa cannot escape the reality that they form part of a functionalist society which demands that they produce English-speaking learners. It is important to note that within society as envisaged by Luhmann, humans have very limited agency (2006:79). Society and its different subsystems are autonomous and functionally so. If citizens cannot adopt the required semantics of a particular system, society would simply shut them out, setting them on a slippery slope to intellectual poverty and ultimately to socio-economic poverty.

    The latter is the state of affairs in South Africa and, sadly, it is due to external factors. This is the case because another systemic reality presents itself in South Africa. There are systems, domestic and private, that might not have such a significant outworking on the functioning of schools, but affect the greatest sections of the South African population. These are the cultures and communities that speak languages other than English. The government places a high premium on maintaining and nurturing the identity of these cultures and their associated languages. This has to be absolute priority, especially in a country such as South Africa that has a tragic and sensitive history pertaining to cultural intolerance. The importance of the appreciation of the multilingual reality in South Africa is reflected in the Constitution’s instruction that the state must take real measures to ‘elevate the status and advance the use’ of indigenous languages (SA Constitution, subsection 6, no.2).

    Even so, the status and usage of indigenous languages are diminishing rapidly. A great number of learners trade their mother tongue for English as early as Grade R when they enter the General Education and Training (GET) band. This is due to the growing national awareness of the status of English as a gateway to economic advancement. Apart from the discouraging effect that this has on the growth of indigenous cultures, the choice to immerse learners completely in a language that is foreign to them at such an early stage has a negative effect on personal development as well. There seem to be consensus amongst academics that the best way to introduce and develop a second language is by doing so in conjunction with the development of the learner’s home language. A child’s cognitive abilities are developed in parallel to his linguistic abilities at a very juvenile phase of development. If an additional language has to be learnt is has to be done so after a secure platform of linguistic capacity has already been established. In a lot of respects the Education Department of South Africa carries knowledge of this and has made provision, at least in theory, for the development of additional languages. The Additive Approach to Multilingualism policy as set out in The Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) requires that learners learn their home language and at least one additional language. The aim is that ‘learners become competent in their additional language, while their home language is maintained and developed’. Acquiring a third language (a Second Additional Language), which is usually an African Language, is even encouraged in order to promote cross-cultural dialogue. Both the Revised National Curriculum Statement as well as the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) state that all official languages can be offered on a Home Language level, First Additional Language level, and Second Additional Language level. According to these official statements, if the outcomes of learning a First Additional Language are met, a learner would be able to utilize this language as a medium of instruction. A learner would have acquired the basic skills of communication such as listening and reading, but will also be able to produce language through writing and speaking. These abilities form the elementary requirements that are compulsory for attaining Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) (Learn 2 Teach, 15). CALP differs from Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) in that the latter are sufficient for mere social interactions of a private or informal sort. CALP embodies the level of proficiency that is required if one were to use language in an academic context. In many ways CALP is also the prerequisite for functioning in society’s professional and economic spheres.

    Categorizing languages in terms of Home Language and First Additional Language in South Africa is a misnomer in many circumstances. Numerous learners take English as their Home Language even though it may in actual fact be their First Additional or even their Second Additional Language. For speakers of Northern Sotho, for example, Afrikaans is learnt as a First Additional Language and English as a Second Additional Language even though some of these learners receive instruction in English. This often causes the learners to neglect their mother tongue before it has reached the desired level of proficiency that is needed if an additional language is to be successfully acquired. The development of English as an additional language suffers as a result.

    Some learners do opt to receive instruction in their mother tongue and take English as an additional language. This option proves successful in many Afrikaans-medium schools. In these cases Afrikaans is formally developed right through the Further Education and Training (FET) band, and more importantly this is done so together with English. These learners normally don’t experience severe problems when the switch to English as a medium of instruction is made at tertiary level. In the majority of South African schools, however, this luxury isn’t on offer. Many so-called black schools do present English as a First Additional Language, whilst instructing in the home language of the learners, but because of indifferent bureaucratic support and a lack of resources, human and otherwise, they do not reach the desired outcomes (Young, 1995:107).

    The role of English in South Africa is indeed precarious. In this discussion I have attempted to show that two confronting linguistic realities present themselves in South Africa. On the one hand, English represents an indispensable language of economic betterment, and on the other, precisely because of its indispensability, it threatens to consume South Africa’s less essential indigenous languages. I have also tried to show that in so many cases an attempt to bridge this disjunction ends in failure. Many black non-English speaking learners who prefer to receive instruction in their mother tongue are left linguistically incompetent to enter the global market which operates chiefly in English.  Other black non-English speaking learners enter schools in which English is the medium of instruction with the hope of attaining a better future. But without the critical development of their mother tongue their development of English fails even more so. From the perspective of Luhmann’s social systems theory, theoretical attempts to transcend this tension by formulating a language policy in South Africa by regulating use of languages in terms of ‘domains’ seem to miss the point. According to the Preamble of the English Academy of Southern Africa the term ‘domain’ is ‘helpful in recognizing that certain languages can predominate in certain specific areas of use’, without the existence of other domains (such as domestic domains where indigenous cultures still flourish) ‘being denied or resented.’ This statement is also an attempt to bypass the tension inherent to the constitutional assertion that all official languages should enjoy equal status, but this seemingly effortless and passive instruction, however, does not seem feasible if one takes into account the central economic system that is actively and increasingly becoming a totalizing system that consumes and shapes society after itself. Although the role of English might resemble a double-edged sword and even though it needs to be handled with care, it is critical that it is indeed being handled. Active intervention from the Government and the Department of Education is crucial if the indigenous languages are to survive.

    Sources cited

    English in a Multilingual Situation, The English Academy of Southern Africa.

    The South African Constitution, subsection 6, Languages.

    Revised National Curriculum Statement Grades R-9 (Schools).

    National Curriculum Statement for English First Additional Language.

    Cilliers, P. 1998. Complexity and Postmodernism. London: Routledge.

    Mesthrie, R. Jeffery, C. 2007. Domains of Language Use: a Fundamental Concept for Framing Language Policy in South Africa.

    Moeller, H. 2006. Luhmann Explained. From Souls to Systems. Peru, Illinois: Carus Publishing Company.

    Van der Walt, C. Evans, R. Kilfoil, W.R. Learn 2 Teach. Pretoria: Van Schaik Publishing.

    Young, D. 1995. Preparing Teacher Trainees to Teach in Multilingual Classes. Johannesburg: Heinemann.

    Categories: Issue I