South Africa has 11 national languages – but nine of these are not used effectively as a medium of instruction in schools from Grade 4, leaving many learners at a distinct disadvantage when they start reading and writing in an unfamiliar language. To address this challenge, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) will establish a Centre for African Language Teaching, with a special focus on isiXhosa.
“Indigenous languages should be at the centre of education transformation in South Africa,” said Professor Vuyokazi Nomlomo, Dean of UWC’s Faculty of Education. “More than 70% of the population comprises speakers of the nine African languages, and research indicates that pupils and students learn better in their home languages. But while our country’s Language-in-Education Policy promotes multilingual education, there is little implementation on the ground – due in large part to lack of teacher training.”
Prof Nomlomo holds a PhD in Language and Literacy Studies, and is an accomplished professor of language education and teacher education – something she understands well, having worked as a high school teacher in the Eastern Cape.
UWC-CALT, supported by a R10-million grant from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), will contribute to the development of isiXhosa as a language of teaching and learning in primary schools, and is also geared towards developing teacher education for enabling teaching of – and in – isiXhosa at primary school level.
IsiXhosa is the first language of 8.2 million South Africans. But there is limited expertise in the teaching of early literacy in isiXhosa, and other African languages, in teacher education.
“Our curriculum espouses learner-centred education. But at the moment, from Grade 4 onwards, 80% of our children are learning through what sometimes feels like a foreign language: English,” said Dr Robyn Tyler, a language in education researcher at UWC’s Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research (CMDR). “If we want to move beyond reciting pieces of knowledge parrot-fashion and enable real, critical engagement with content, our teachers must include African languages in their teaching.”
UWC’s CALT will strengthen the teaching of isiXhosa literacy in the B.Ed (Foundation Phase) which prepares students to teach from Grade R - 3. It will also contribute significantly to the development of isiXhosa literacy materials to be used in the B.Ed Foundation Phase programmes of all the institutions that will participate in the CALT project.
The CALT will also develop knowledge and practice standards in isiXhosa, and design a framework for the teaching of reading and writing literacy in isiXhosa in the B.Ed (Foundation Phase) curricula of the participating institutions.
Coming Together To Transform Teacher Teaching
UWC-CALT will partner with three universities in the Eastern Cape where isiXhosa is widely spoken and taught as a home language.
“The Faculty of Education at UWC is recognised by the DHET for its teaching and research innovation in early literacy development in isiXhosa,” Prof Nomlomo noted. “But we can’t do it on our own: UWC-CALT will thus form a community of practice to advance research in the teaching of isiXhosa literacy in ITE programmes in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces.”
UWC-CALT will take advantage of the University’s dedication to multilingualism and education, exploring opportunities to collaborate with researchers from UWC’s Department of African Language Studies and CMDR, among others.
“The majority of South Africans are multilingual, and multilingualism is a hallmark of being African. So promoting multilingualism in the classroom means building on pre-existing strengths to enable greater access to learning as well as access to new languages,” said Dr Tyler.
Professor Vivienne Lawack, UWC’s Acting Rector and Vice-Chancellor, sees the grant as an opportunity to address the challenges of both basic education and higher education.
“As a University, we are supportive of the promotion of African languages and multilingualism at UWC and beyond, despite the tough economic times and financial constraints that the Higher Education sector finds itself in,” said Prof Lawack.
“While our country struggles with the challenges of COVID-19, we must not forget that there are other challenges on the horizon. To face those head-on, we will need to educate new generations of leaders - and one way to do that lies in mother tongue education and the ability of our teachers to teach African languages.”