Nelson Mandela’s first language being cut from South African schools

January 24, 2012

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.

References

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.”

Related posts

Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning: What Are the Differences?

Formal, non-formal and informal learning: The case of literacy and language learning in Canada

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Want to change the world? Learn a language (Part 1 of 2)

April 29, 2010

In the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), the fictional English teacher, Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, tells his class of adolescent boys, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” It’s a notion that I’ve shared with my second language students on many occasions. I tell them that by learning a second language (or a third or a fourth or a fifth), they learn new ways of understanding not only themselves, but the world around us.

The challenges of learning another language are immense. There’s vocabulary to be acquired, grammar to master and verb conjugations to memorize. All of this information and more must be internalized, synthesized and then reproduced spontaneously as interactive speech. It’s an enormous feat. And it’s an enormous feat that millions have undertaken.

But to what end? We like to tell our students that their job prospects are better if they learn other languages. But are they really? I live in an affluent area of Canada, where young men (and women, though far fewer of them), can leave high school early and go north to work on oil rigs or in the towns that support the oil business. They can make cash, and lots of it, quickly. It’s hard work, under intense conditions. Yet thousands of them do it. Try telling them that if they learn a second language their job prospects are going to be better. They’ll scoff, turn around and drive away in a shiny new truck, that’s been fully paid for in cash.

So, the job prospect line doesn’t really fly very well where I live.

Travelling to other countries? There are plenty of tourist areas in the world where the locals have thrown themselves into learning the language of the tourists precisely to make them feel more welcome. People can travel to resorts all over the world and be served by locals who speak their language. In fact, I’ve heard people say, “Why should I learn their language when they’ll learn mine?”

So, the travelling argument seems a bit hollow, too.

What’s the real reason we believe so strongly that learning another language is important? It’s what that fictional character, Keating said, “because words and ideas can change the world.” When we commit ourselves to learning another language, we challenge ourselves to dig deep into ourselves to tap into our own power to communicate with others, to reach out, to connect.

When we take the plunge and test our communicative skills in another language, we reach inside and overcome our fears of making mistakes, fear of being rejected by others, fear of not being good enough, fear of not fitting in. We try anyway. We connect, however imperfectly, and that leads to wanting to understand more, learn more and discover more.

As we learn other languages we also learn about other cultures, other people, other faiths, other ways of living and being and looking at the world. We find our own sense of who we are profoundly enriched and deepened in ways we could not have otherwise imagined.

It’s hard to explain this to someone who doesn’t believe there’s any value in learning other languages. There are those who will never be convinced. Rather than trying to implore them with hollow arguments that are hard to back up, instead, we can offer concrete examples of individuals who changed the world by learning other languages. Here are some examples:

Albert Einstein. He was born in Switzerland and spoke German as his first language. (Anecdotally, I am told that he did not speak at all until he was five years old.) He learned English as a Second Language.

Nelson Mandela. His first language was Xhosa, an African dialect. He learned English as a Second Language.

Mohandas Gandhi. His first language was Gujarati. He went on to learn 10 additional languages.

Rigoberta Menchu. Her first language was Quechua, an indigenous language of her native Guatemala. As I understand it, she learned Spanish in order to give her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize which she was awarded in 1992.

Critics would argue that all of these public figures learned a language of the dominant population and would go on to discuss issues of power and oppression. My aim here is not to enter into such a discussion, but merely to point out that the work that these individuals did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages.

That is a bold statement and I stand behind it. Let me repeat it: the work these influential people did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages. Why? Because learning other languages gave them opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations, connect with others and do the work that they were so deeply passionate about a larger scale. They moved beyond the parochial into the global. They transcended personal, political, scientific and historical boundaries. With their words and ideas they changed the world.

When we learn other languages, we change who we are. We grow to understand and appreciate the world around us in new and meaningful ways. As we change, so the world changes. That’s the real reason we believe in the power of learning other languages. Because when we do, we learn to reach out to others, connect deeply and express our passion for life and our life’s work in profoundly transformative ways.

Related posts:

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Share this post: Want to change the world? Learn a language (Part 1 of 2) http://wp.me/pNAh3-3g

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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