One language is not enough
South African teachers should be using more than one language in their classrooms, and those who are not able to do so, should be provided with a teacher assistant specialist in another of South Africa’s languages. This controversial suggestion was made by Professor Robert Balfour, Dean of the Faculty of Education, in his Inaugural Lecture at North West University in Potchefstroom.
For Professor Balfour, his inaugural address provided the opportunity to synthesise his thinking and to reflect on the work already completed, as well as the work still to be done. He has a broad vision of his discipline, and draws on the scriptural print seen in many Afrikaans households, where the broad road leads to perdition and the narrow road to salvation.
“For an academic pilgrim, the broad road has more appeal,” he explains. “The arduous journey of academic scholarship through ever more narrow paths towards an ever narrowing specialisation lead ultimately to a very small light at the end of an extremely long tunnel.”
Professor Balfour maintains that scholars who choose the ‘wide road’ experience the delights of:
• the gardens of good and evil (the house of speculation, rather than the house of reason);
• the temptations of quick gratification (popular scholarship and public fame),
• the gambling houses (false assumptions and incredulous ideology, rather than careful
• observation and deductive thinking);
• those nymphs and damsels associated with colourful trends and fashions (remember when Marxism was the rage of the 70s?);
• and finally, those bordellos of disciplines like cultural studies, in which one is attended to by scantily dressed theories like Cosmopolitanism (Appiah 2006) and New Historicism (Brannigan 1998), plurlingualism (Beacco and Bryam 2003) and multilanguaging (Reyes 2001).
It is this broad church that guides Professor Balfour’s thinking when it comes to his own interest in bilingualism and multilingualism. He is passionate about the role of bilingualism in South Africa and concerned about its role in formal learning and teaching in South Africa.
For Professor Balfour, the age at which language skills are developed is vital. We know that children are particularly open to absorbing a great variety of observations quickly and that this capacity is accelerated in the early years of childhood and plateaus after puberty.
So what does this mean for South Africa? In the bilingual classroom or society, the ideal is to encourage the use of languages while avoiding the subtractive bilingualism which occurs when one language overshadows the other.
“In every South African classroom the teaching methods used to develop language leads, unintentionally, to compound and subtractive bilingualism,” he says. “In the typical middle class multilingual classroom in South Africa children may possess more than two or three languages. However, the teacher uses only one language, typically English or Afrikaans, while the learners interact with each other in one language, and with other children, in English.
Professor Balfour says the methods developed for the teaching of language are out of touch with the actual contexts for teaching languages in a multilingual South Africa. The consequence is that educators do not take advantage of the opportunities for mental development that are available to bilingual children, and thus the asset of bilingualism becomes a loss.
“In a developing context, this must surely be a factor in the continued underperformance of South African children when compared to children in developed countries,” he says.
The education system in South Africa has not been able to offer formal and sustained learning opportunities for the majority of the population in more than one language, despite there being a wealth of languages and literatures available. Research has shown that the optimal age for language learning is between 1-11 years but in South Africa new languages are typically introduced after that period. The result is that few members of the population can express or understand complex meaning in more than one language.
“Learners have either had to make the transition from mother tongue education too early, or had to acquire languages (English and Afrikaans) inadequately as a consequence of insufficiently educated teachers, inadequate resources for language development, and too few opportunities to use the target language,” he explains.
“Language development for higher education has thus been a patchwork characterised by unequal proficiency and inequitable distribution of opportunity. Unequal in this sense: what indigenous languages that were offered to children were offered for only a short period (for example, the 1980s a child could learn Setswana or Sesotho in primary school, but then switch to all English or all Afrikaans classes after the age of 11.
Children who know more than one language consistently demonstrate a better grasp of grammatical competence, vocabulary acquisition and syntax awareness. Research has also shown that children who are bilingual may be more skilled at making the link between reading and understanding, and may be better at listening and understanding a range of accents and pronunciations, which is also key to the development of reading skills.
Why is this important?
“The research on the advantages of bilingualism from an early age is compelling. For the child who speaks one language, knowing that one language system well, from an early age, helps that child to learn another language with relative ease at a later age. For bilingual children, knowing two languages well from an early age, and using those languages for literacy and numeracy learning develops awareness of languages as systems of thinking, in same the way that numbers are systems of counting, capable of yielding infinite variety and insight,” he says.