Louise Brown

    PGCE student, Stellenbosch University (2010)

    The South African constitution states that all eleven official languages must ‘enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably’. Equity refers to fairness and impartiality, and the English Academy of South Africa has a very valid point that this is not the same as calling for equal use (Venter Handout p. 1).  In reality, English is still the most widely-used language across the nation, and is the language of parliament and general administration. The reason for this is that English is a global language, enabling communication across the country’s borders. Even within South African borders it is also the most probable common language between citizens of different cultures and backgrounds.

    The problem with this situation is, however, that English holds a possible threat to the ten other official languages of the country. Even though educating the country’s youth in English holds obvious benefits, like having more than enough learning resources and also being the global language of academic communication, it also creates the threat to their own mother tongues, and the culture and identities that go with them, diminishing and eventually disappearing altogether. The other problem that it creates is the issue of these learners having to conceptualize everything they are learning in their second language, leading to very low academic results because they, quite simply, do not understand the subject content in a language that they are not proficient in.

    The only way to deal with this situation would be to recognise the advantages and disadvantages of educating in English at school level, because the question is not whether education should be in English, but how these disadvantages are going to be managed and minimised. There is no use educating in the mother tongue only and then having a generation of matriculants who cannot further their studies except in that language. They will then not be able to function academically outside the borders of this country, as English ‘has come to be seen as a language of global communication that helps with access to jobs and advancement’ (van der Walt et al, 17). These children will thus have completed their education with high marks and will have nowhere to go afterwards.

    The first step in managing the disadvantages of educating in English is to recognise the phenomenon of linguistic domains and that every language does indeed have a place in the society where it belongs. A language does not have to fall into disuse simply because it is not used as the primary language of education, which is only one of many linguistic domains. Jeffery and Mesthrie (English Academy website) conceptualise this idea as ‘domain specialization’, where every language – and even each variety of the same language – has a specific place in the mother-tongue speaker’s life. This means that even though the learner is, for example, receiving his education in English, he is still speaking isiZulu at home with different varieties and registers to his friends and family, ensuring that he stays in touch with his cultural identity and that his mother tongue does not fall into disuse.

    The key to managing the other disadvantages of learners receiving their education in English is to help them from the earliest stages of their education to become proficient in English as a second language and then make the switch to English when they are competent enough in the language to do so. That is why I strongly agree with The English Academy of South Africa’s view that learners should receive instruction in their mother tongue and then switch to English later in their GET phase to be able to complete their FET phase in English. Receiving their first years of education in their mother tongue will also ensure that the foundation of their L1 is strong enough to enable the successful acquisition of a L2, in this case English, as according to the Revised National Curriculum Statement, ‘Learners are able to transfer the literacies they have acquired in their home language to their first additional language’ (Venter handout, p. 7). This is what one writer describes as ‘common underlying proficiency’ as opposed to ‘separate underlying proficiency’.

    There are, however, arguments against this proposed solution to the problem.

    Firstly, the quality of both mother-tongue education and education in L2 English is still too far below the necessary standards to even hope that learners will be able to make the switch and achieve good marks at the end of their FET phase. Even if parents agree with the aforementioned programme and believe that it is sound in theory, what they will see in practice is very different – inadequate education in both the L1 and L2 of their children, an unsuccessful switch to English later on and, ultimately, unsatisfactory marks in matric.

    Secondly, many parents are choosing to have their children receive their education in English from the start of their schooling for a number of reasons which include, among others, the social status of English in South Africa, beliefs that it will provide them with more opportunities and the higher quality of English schools as opposed to the so-called black schools.

    Another factor contributing to the complicated nature of this matter is that it is a very emotional affair. Language is such a big part of a person’s identity and culture, that any matter relating to the possible diminishing of one’s own language is bound to invite strong feelings and different opinions. An example of one such opinion is that, although many parents choose to have their children educated in English, other parents may, for whatever reason they see fit, insist on mother-tongue education all the way through to Grade 12 as a part of their children’s constitutional rights. Their argument is that their children should not have to be educated in English as a Home Language when English is not even spoken at their homes. But as Jonathan Schrire states in a letter to the Cape Times: ‘Sooner or later our children are going to hit the indigenous language ‘wall’ and need to learn English. The earlier they start, the easier the process will be for them.’

    The topic requires more consideration before a clearcut solution can be reached. It will also be necessary to define the goals that government is trying to reach more clearly. Is government’s  priority to address the low pass rates of matric students, to promote what Jeffrey and Mesthrie refer to as the ‘appreciation and preservation of indigenous knowledge’ or to offer students a wider range of choice and further learning opportunities after passing their National Senior Certificates? Or is it all three and perhaps even more?

    It is also important to re-establish English as a tool or a resource and not as the threat that it currently symbolises for many people.  Only then can it be used by South African citizens to further themselves in their education and training and place them on the global map.


    Jeffery, Chris and Mesthrie, Rajend.  Domains of Language Use: A Fundamental Concept for Framing Language Policy in South Africa (published on English Academy website).

    Schrirer, Jonathan. ‘English is crucial’, letter published in Cape Times, 20 January 2010.

    Van der Walt, C., Evans, R. & Kilfoil, W. R. Learn 2 Teach. 2009. Pretoria: Van Schaik Publishers.

    Venter, M. PGCE English Method 174. Class Handout.

    Categories: Issue I