• Helping SA students overcome the language and literacy barrier


    Helping SA students overcome the language and literacy barrier

    Aghogho Akpome

    Mature student at the University of Johannesburg


    Being from Nigeria, a country rumoured to have hundreds of indigenous languages and endemic inter-ethnic rivalries, I am fascinated by the apparent ease with which the average South African negotiates this country’s multi-lingual setting. As a postgraduate student, writing consultant and tutor of an academic literacy module at a leading university, I have also very keenly followed the debates on the dire challenges faced by students at all levels in South African schools and universities with regard to language proficiency and literacy. These concerns came once again to the fore at the recent international conference of the English Academy of Southern Africa in Cape Town. The theme of the conference was “literature, literacy and language”, and although my own paper (and current research focus) is in literature, most delegates, like me, were evidently more concerned about issues relating to the generally dismal performances of the majority of students in language and literacy.

    My purpose in this article is not to rehash the gloomy statistics of low literacy and high failure and drop-out rates. Rather, I wish to observe that in the clamour that characterizes the intense academic, ideological and political debates on these issues, there seems to be very little being said for the vast majority of students whose future prospects seem to be compromised by their crippling inability to acquire quality education – and for absolutely no fault of theirs. I wish hereby to make an impassioned call on all sections of South African society, particularly academics and policy-makers, to be reminded of their sense of commitment to today’s children and the nation’s future leaders, and to engage with politics and ideology with pragmatism in order for the country’s future to be guaranteed.

    I do not wish to oversimplify a complex situation, but it would not be incorrect to say that the major difficulties faced by most South African university students today can be traced to the limited English language / literacy teaching that they received in their foundational years. Stark statistics and research show that the concerted and sustained efforts by the system to provide remedial interventions in various forms (academic development programmes, peer-support and writing centres, for example) have produced only limited and sometimes discouraging results. The situation is compounded as assessment criteria and entry requirements seem to be compromised in an apparent bid to mitigate failure rates. Personally, I was shocked to discover in a particular instance recently that over 30% of marks are awarded for “mind-mapping and planning” in what is supposed to be an essay writing task. Furthermore, it is no longer surprising to find students at universities who practically failed basic language and literary subjects in matric.

    Without trying to sound apocalyptic, I must say that I find the situation extremely worrisome and potentially explosive. My overarching concern is that in the not-too-distant future we are likely to have many graduates who may not be able compete with their peers from elsewhere in the world. And as big businesses are being increasingly run from Boston, Beijing and Berlin, many of our graduates may have a very hard time landing the plum and limited jobs that will be on offer. If and when the local workforce becomes dominated by privileged minorities and foreign nationals, we may be faced with very volatile social conditions, especially in the light of this country’s peculiar history. It is therefore imperative for academics and language policy-makers to take radical, yet pragmatic, steps to arrest the situation.

    During the Cape Town conference referred to earlier, the ideological and political nature of the debate on language and literacy in South African schools and universities came to the fore. The point was made that the insistence on English as the dominant language of instruction promotes neo-imperialist hegemony. The attempt to deflect this concern by arguing that language is intrinsically apolitical and ideologically neutral did not seem to succeed. But the point was also made (by participants engaged in an on-going research project) that students who struggle with English do not seem to demonstrate any enhanced proficiency with their mother tongues either. Furthermore, it was noted that a good number of those privileged citizens who overtly champion the ‘need’ for exclusive instruction in the mother tongue at foundation phase tend to send their own children to English-medium schools.

    My position is that these arguments are all valid and should continue to be engaged in sustained and robust debate. But, more poignantly, I wish to suggest that the present material socio-economic conditions in this country and internationally dictate that South African pupils and students should not be denied comprehensive language and literacy skills in English at any stage of schooling even if they also have to learn in their home languages simultaneously. I find it problematical that some pupils (perhaps the majority) are made to learn almost exclusively in the mother tongue in their formative years and then have to switch to academic English when they are getting older (sometimes only when they get to varsity) and when it becomes much more difficult for anyone to learn and master a new language. The attempt to fill the yawning gaps of a poor foundation in English through crash remedial interventions at universities can yield only very limited results because of the inherent nature of language acquisition. And the attempt to characterize the academic weaknesses of such underprepared students as cognitive deficiency is at best denialist and at worst an insult on their personhood, because even stark illiterates know how to think!

    The promotion of indigenous African languages as mediums of instruction at all levels of education as well as for national and transnational trade and diplomacy is an entirely worthwhile venture which must continue, and which is supported passionately by many postcolonial researchers like me. But until such a time that our local languages have become more adequately equipped, it is impractical, unwise and suicidal to sentimentally and prematurely deny our children full access to those dominant languages in which the affairs of contemporary life are conducted, even if these languages come with historical and ideological baggage.


    Categories: Volume 3