Languages aren't racist, people are

Linguicism can be linguistically argued to be racism, but the reality is that pupils will learn best in the language they understand best, write Russell Kaschula, Zakeera Docrat and Monwabisi Ralarala.

There is clearly a disjuncture between the intentions of section 6 of the Constitution, which says that “the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use ... ” of the African languages, and what is happening on the ground.

The recent Constitutional Court judgment concerning the University of the Free State saw the acceptance of the university’s English-only language policy without explaining how multilingualism will be implemented. It is as if multilingualism is an afterthought. The conflation of linguicism with racism without unpacking the language complexities that faced us during the recent Hoërskool Overvaal language debacle is another case in point.

Linguicism can be linguistically argued to be racism, but the reality is that pupils will learn best in the language they understand best – their mother tongue. According to the 2011 national census, English is the mother tongue of only 9.6% of South Africans.

The neocolonial efforts to homogenise and standardise the teaching system as an English one is linguistic imperialism or linguicism: it will only benefit the English mother tongue speaker, and it is destined to encourage exclusion and inequality.

With the exception of the Economic Freedom Fighters, no one has mentioned the role that mother tongue education should play in our classrooms. The knee-jerk reaction against Afrikaans simply means a win for the English-only brigade and neocolonialism.

If our society is serious about development, this cannot be done through a colonial language, at least for those who still suffer from the shackles of apartheid and who have little or no access to English.

That does not mean we should not learn English as a language, that it should not be properly taught as a subject and that we should not be proficient in it, but it surely does not mean that we should be taught English, especially if our proficiency is debatable.

A one-size-fits-all language policy with English as the medium of instruction will not work as everyone does not have equal access to this language. One only becomes proficient in a language when the right conditions exist, such as proper teaching of the language and daily exposure to it. Arguably, in educational spaces, real learning can be achieved by embracing languages, particularly marginalised African languages, and mediating perceptions of reality by linking language to identity.

This emerging linguicism, or English monolingualism, is based on the constitutional principle of “reasonable practicability”, which does not afford everyone the right to receive education in the official language(s) of choice in public institutions.

In the University of the Free State case, the majority judgment of the Constitutional Court did not address the language question in relation to the country’s multilingual landscape. Justice Johan Froneman, in his dissenting judgment, rightfully pointed out that there was no reference made to the state’s obligation to advance the country’s other official languages. The Constitutional Court furthermore failed to hear the views of mother tongue African language speakers, as well as those students and lecturers directly affected by the decision to accept an English-only policy.

Froneman reasoned that public opinion on the matter would have clarified what retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke referred to as collateral irony in the Ermelo language policy case. Collateral irony being where African language speaking parents and pupils prefer being taught in English instead of their mother tongue.

Further clarification in this regard would be why one language with a colonial history – English – was chosen, but Afrikaans was rejected. In our opinion, what is needed is a proper and linguistically sound understanding of multilingualism as a resource – educationally, legally and societally.

Only one in three pupils eventually reach Grade 12, largely because they cannot cope with the medium of instruction – English.

There is no doubt that the language of power in South Africa is English and it is used to control every facet of life in this country. One’s education, from early childhood development to tertiary education, is largely controlled though the medium of English, with the exception of the first three grades of school. In this multilingual society, where large portions of the population have unequal access to English, this is problematic and one has to question who is actually an English speaker. A rudimentary knowledge of English disempowers a person in the same way that Afrikaans was used to disempower pupils in 1976.

The curricula of schools and universities should not be defined by imperialist and colonialist ideology, but by African values and philosophy, where the African voice underpinned by African languages is vocal, not a silent voice that accepts English monolingualism at the expense of multilingualism.

New models should evolve in which language is not used to exclude any pupil. This requires bilingual and multilingual pedagogic models to be used in the classroom alongside English. Even monolingual teachers and lecturers can be taught to use such models in the classroom.

There is an inability to grasp the fact that cognition takes place in a language that one understands best, normally the mother tongue, and it is still possible to acquire good English skills while learning it as a subject.

The Cofimvaba project in the Eastern Cape, where high school maths and science are taught in isiXhosa, and the subsequent improvement in pass rates, is a clear example of the success of being educated in one’s mother tongue.

It is what is taught and how it is taught that is important – the language of tuition does not determine whether an institution is racist or tribalist.

Kaschula is professor of African Language Studies; Docrat is a doctoral student in African Language Studies; at Rhodes and Ralarala is associate professor in language practice at CPUT