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Children should learn in many languages

- Wits University

International Mother Tongue Day: Insisting that children use one language at a time is primary cause for inability to reason cognitively, research shows.

South Africa’s middleclass children are suffering from a national identity crisis because they are being taught in English while their mother tongue is being ignored.

Except for Afrikaans, which is taught throughout secondary school, children with other African languages as their home language only study their mother tongue language up until grade three, after which they continue their schooling career in English.

According to Professor Leketi Makalela, Head of the Division of Languages, Literacies and Literatures in the Wits School of Education, the insistence to teach children using one language at a time is the primary cause for why whole generations of South African children are not able to reason cognitively.

“Three years of learning an academic language can never be sufficient by any standard,” says Makalela. “We know that it takes six years for children to master the syntax of their home language.”

There is a connection between cognitive development and language and to teach a child in his mother tongue for three years and then change to English causes a lot of confusion. “There is no linguistic justification for this policy, except that it is inherited,” he adds.

Makalela obtained his PhD in English Studies, Literacy and Linguistics and he is the Editor-in-Chief of the ISI-listed Linguistics and Applied Language Studies Journal.

He believes that language is a tool that a person uses to access the world, and literacy is – and provides – the ability for a person ‘to know’ and ‘to be’. His research focuses on how we can use multilingualism as a resource, rather than it being a barrier.

“Our classrooms are very conservative and our teachers believe that there is only space for one language at a time in the classroom, but outside the classrooms children learn in a very fluid and versatile manner and communicate in a number of languages,” he explains.

By creating a division between a child’s home language and a second language, teachers are effectively halting a child’s ability to learn to reason.

“Grade nines at the moment learn by memorising, not reasoning and that is why they fall short at university. Universities require them to reason,” he adds.

Makalela believes that children should be taught in multiple languages and learn to reason with both their home language and English by doing subjects such as science and maths through to matric level. Makalela did edumetric tests at 15 schools to establish children’s reading abilities. He found their literacy performance was at least three years below their expected proficiencies.

“They were supposed to be able to understand at least 75% of what a person says,” he says. “They understood only 25%.”

Makalela believes the situation can be corrected by following the example of Canada, where children are taught in both English and French at the same time.

“The teaching of more than one language at a time does not create mental confusion in a child, as many teachers believe. It is possible to have more than one language in the classroom and for teachers to allow the use of more than one language more generally.”