Nelson Mandela is a man with a deep commitment to defending human rights. He also speaks English as a Second Language. His first language is Xhosa.
A recent article from the Times Alive in South Africa reports that language classes for both Xhosa and Zulu are being cut in South African state schools. The main language of instruction in South African schools is English. Prega Govender reports that until this school year, students were required to take classes in two additional languages, but this year, that requirement has been changed. Now students are only required to take one additional language.
Most schools in the area are opting for Afrikaans as the additional language of choice for students in that region. The article reports that in one case, the Xhosa language teacher has been re-deployed to teach Afrikaans this year. The decision seems to be driven by numbers:
“Last year, 68455 matrics countrywide wrote Afrikaans as their first additional language, whereas only 10943 wrote Zulu and a mere 1547 wrote Xhosa.”
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am strongly opposed to the removal of language programs from a curriculum. There are a number of reasons for this:
Benefits of learning additional languages for cognitive ability
Research shows that the benefits of learning additional languages extend beyond language and cultural skills. Learning additional languages also has a positive effect on a person’s general cognitive ability (Kimbrough Oller, D and Eilers R.E., 2002). Specific research has also found that students who study other languages also score better on math tests (Bournot-Trites, M. and K. Reeder, 2001; de Courcy, M. and M. Burston, 2000; Turnbull, M., S. Lapkin and D. Hart, 2001 and Turnbull, M., D. Hart and S. Lapkin, 2003). The benefits of learning additional languages are clear and have been documented time and time again through research. We know that the more languages a young person is exposed to, the more capacity he or she will have to develop lifelong multilingual skills.
When languages are removed from a curriculum, it sends a message that the language is unimportant
It could be argued that students in South Africa will still enjoy these cognitive and linguistic benefits, since they will be studying Afrikaans as an additional language. That may be true, but making the decision to remove Xhosa and Zulu from the curriculum sends a strong message that these languages do not matter in formal education in that region.
While I do not profess to understand the complexity of minority languages or the politics of South Africa, I have studied the concepts of formal and informal education extensively.
Young students who speak Xhosa and Zulu as first languages at home have now lost the opportunity to learn their native language in an organized, formal environment, as a shared experience with peers. Though they may continue to learn the language in the informal context of the home, we know that informal learning is considered the least legitimate and is less respected than formal learning.
By removing these languages from the curriculum, those who have the responsibility and authority to set policies and make decisions send a strong message that these languages lack sufficient legitimacy to be included in the standard curriculum of formal education in the region.
Language abilities are linked to leadership skills
In previous research I have discussed how some significant world leaders, such as Ghandi, leveraged multiple languages to extend their leadership reach. Nelson Mandela’s first language is Xhosa. While not a perfect human being, he has arguably been one of the world’s most influential leaders over the past several decades. What message does it send to teachers, parents, students and indeed, everyone living in the region, that this leader’s first language, which was formerly offered as part of the standard state school curriculum, has now been cut for students in the younger grades?
While the article reports that students may still take the language in later grades, cutting it from the curriculum for children in grades one to three sends a strong message that it is not as important as math, science or even Afrikaans. Those subjects are considered part of the critical foundation of the young learner’s formal education experience. But Zulu and Xhosa… these are superfluous options that can be added later.
I worry when languages are cut from curricula. I worry when students and parents get the message that language learning is not important. I worry even more when they get the message that their first language is not important, as is the case for Xhosa and Zulu for many young people in South Africa. Formally recognizing the importance and significance of learning first languages in a plurilingual society such as South Africa is critical.
As educators worldwide we must do everything in our power to prepare the young people of today to lead the world tomorrow. Learning additional languages will help them do that.
Bournot-Trites, M. and K. Reeder. (2001). “Interdependence Revisited: Mathematics Achievement in an Intensified French Immersion Program.”
de Courcy, M. and M. Burston. (2000). “Learning Mathematics Through French in Australia.”
Eaton, S. E. (2010). Leading though Language Learning and Teaching: The Case of Gandhi. Retrieved from ERIC: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED508664.pdf
Eaton, S. E. (2010). Formal, non-formal and informal education: The case of literacy, essential skills and language learning in Canada. Calgary.
Kimbrough Oller, D and Eilers R.E. (2002). “Balancing Interpretations Regarding Effects of Bilingualism: Empirical Outcomes and Theoretical Possibilities.”
Turnbull, M., S. Lapkin and D. Hart. (2001). “Grade Three Immersion Students’ Performance in Literacy and Mathematics: Province-wide Results from Ontario (1998–99).”
Turnbull, M., D. Hart and S. Lapkin. (2003). “Grade 6 French Immersion Students’ Performance on Large-scale Reading, Writing, and Mathematics Tests: Building Explanations.”
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.