Setting the Scene
A recent announcement by the Department of Basic Education stated that the study of indigenous languages will become compulsory in Grade 1 from 2016, onward. Whilst there is excitement in such am announcement, there is also a degree of alarm that cannot be dismissed. In fact, there are a number of alarms that need to be considered.
Whilst it is true that a third language capability can indeed break down communication barriers between South African cultures, the singular push for an indigenous language is not going to guarantee a sustainable workplace. English still remains the world’s commercial and academic language. Thus an emphasis on English mastery in schools can prepare young minds better for the workplace than can the singular emphasis on a third language. One also has to ask to what extent must those, who already us an indigenous language as a first language, need to be exposed to English and, perhaps, “Colonial Afrikaans”.
A position such as this is sure to trigger a torrent of diatribe that this country’s sustainability can ill afford. It is a fact that foundation phases education delivered in the child’s mother tongue better prepares the child for later education phases. When confronted with complex concepts, one tends to fall back to one’s default language because one can express oneself better in the default language and in a secondary or tertiary language. And herein lies the value of teaching all South African learners three languages – one indigenous language, English and Afrikaans.
When this author spent considerable time abroad, working on a major international project, the value of three-language mastery became blatantly obvious. The project team comprised South Africans out of many different language groups. It was remarkable to observe how team members simply switched from one language to another (say English to basic Zulu) to get points across. More remarkable was the strong sense of belonging – not alienation – that the group exhibited over other teams on the project. In that sense, then, the teaching of a third language does hold some merit in the long run.
However, English remains the main business language and one must have a mastery thereof to excel anywhere in the workplace or the business world. Not only must English be mastered in the business world, it must be mastered to ensure success in the academic world.
Academic texts are written predominantly in English so that the text can be used by as wide an audience as possible. One of the great lessons from the Apartheid era was to show that academia who refuses to consider English as the primary didactic language, do their students a great disservice – especially when they are confronted with an English text. Those students who were not constantly exposed to English as a didactic language found that their research results – however ground-breaking – became known to only a handful in a country that was isolated from the rest of the world.
Certainly, if our leaders boast that South Africa is a Knowledge Economy, then they should not dismiss the impact that weak mastery of English has on this very same Knowledge Economy that is so boasted about? Tertiary institutions are daily confronted with students that need to go into a bridging course where English must be re-taught before the student can enter into a formal first year academic program. We also see how high-potential students fail in their exams simply because they are not able to grasp Grade 8 level English in exam papers! That is right! Some courses have their exam drawn up at a Grade 8 English level in the hope that the student will grasp the essence of a question. Nowadays, there are universities that make the study of English as a first-year level compulsory to all their qualifications.
Still a Numbers Game
Another alarm to consider is that of numeracy skills. The majority of school levels – even when their matriculation certificate says that the passed mathematics with a mark between 50% and 60% cannot do basic workplace oriented calculations.
Students who want to embark commercial studies, technical studies or engineering studies need to master good, old-fashioned arithmetic. Basic skills to make use of add, subtract, divide and multiply operations are glaringly absent when students are confronted with calculations. They know how to punch a number of a calculator but they do not understand the basic reasoning behind that action. Students become bewildered when confronted with mixed operands such as:
Growth Institute prepares students for examinations in commercial and technical studies. The latter (N1, N2 and N3 Theory) shows an ever-widening gap between the mathematical aptitude required for the program and what students are equipped to do in Grade 12. In the commercial programs (basic accounting, some economics, some tax calculations and some payroll calculations) students are struggling with the basics that they should have mastered in the foundation phases of the school curricula. To ensure that students succeed in the technical or the commercial studies streams, a special bridging intervention has been designed and put in place.
Like so many other bridging programs, we repeatedly underscore the fact that a lack in numeracy or English skills contribute to the country not being able to make a dent in the scarce skills landscape. The country needs these scarce skills to remain competitively relevant. Yet, a refusal or a slack pace to equip students with numeracy and English literacy skills pushes the country further into the outer planets of competitiveness.
It is time that the political reality and the sustainability reality meet one another so that a new national paradigm can emerge.