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In South Africa, science should be taught in only one language – how about English?

The language of learning is a politically fraught matter in South Africa, harking back to the tragic 1976 Soweto uprising. Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Mother tongue education has long been a political hot potato in South Africa. This started with the 1976 Soweto uprisings when school children staged protests after Afrikaans became the medium of instruction.

Today, the country’s policies promote multilingualism. But its schools are battling with a lack of African language teachers. Many teachers are not multilingual. All the high-stakes examinations are also taken in only English or Afrikaans. This means that most of South Africa’s 11 official languages take a backseat to English and Afrikaans when it comes to formal school learning and teaching.

Language rights are enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution and there’s an ongoing debate about how best to promote multilingualism in schools. But is this debate relevant when it comes to teaching science? My answer is “no”. Instead, science should be taught only in one language from Grade 4 onwards.

What research tells us

This is a conclusion reached from more than three decades as a school physics teacher, a science teacher educator and through sustained research about language for the effective learning of school science.

In the last five years, this research has been conducted as part of the Language and Learning of Physical Science in South Africa project at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Marang Centre for Mathematics and Science Education.

It has involved about 3500 physical science learners from 35 high schools across Johannesburg and teaching students from the University of the Witwatersrand. A total of 70 active physical science teachers have also participated. Data has been collected through word tests and structured interviews.

Science is certainly a practical subject, but it also has its own language. Teachers must explain what they are doing when setting up an experiment, for instance, and use everyday language to clarify complex concepts.

In South African schools, a language’s appropriateness for learning and teaching is judged mainly by whether it is the learners’ mother tongue, no matter what subject is being taught. Teachers assume that if a learner is proficient in a language, they’ll be able to cope with the subject matter.

So, in science, students who speak and are taught in English are presumed to have an advantage. If that was the case, all first language English speakers who are taught in English would excel in science – but this is simply not true.

That’s because science classrooms have an entirely different language. A learner who is fluent in English will know what “decay” means in an English lesson or a biology text. In physics, the word means something totally different.

Our findings over the past five years have been nearly identical to those in other transnational studies and my earlier work. Teaching students and learners battle with the unique language of the science classroom irrespective of gender, cultural or linguistic backgrounds.

Proficiency in the language of the science classroom is key, though it’s certainly not the only factor that will stop students from performing well in the subject. Our research suggests that if all students are at the same level of proficiency in a single language when they start learning science, it removes a serious barrier to performance.

Why English?

Many of South Africa’s children are still learning in a second or even third language. The shortage of qualified African language teachers referred to earlier is a situation that seems unlikely to improve any time soon. While debates about multilingualism continue, we cannot sit idle. So why not level the playing field by using just one language for all learning beyond Grade 3?

As to which language this should be: there is evidence to suggest that many South African parents want their children to be taught and become proficient in English. English is considered useful for future studies at tertiary institutions anywhere in the world and also is the most widely spoken of the 11 official languages globally.

Once a language has been chosen, the education department can focus aggressively on ensuring that learners are proficient in it, in much the same way that schools foster computer literacy. Learners will then be able to learn and perform in science according to their individual capabilities to handle science concepts without language as an added handicap.

A similar policy has been pursued elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. In Lusophone countries, Portuguese is the language of instruction; Francophone countries often use French as the medium of instruction and Anglophone countries favour English in the classroom.

These languages hark back to colonial times, which may make people uncomfortable. But on a practical level they are similar to English – far more widely spoken globally than any local languages.

Multilingualism still relevant

This is not to say that all other official languages as recognised in the Constitution are irrelevant or that multilingualism shouldn’t have any place in schools. Multilingualism fosters social cohesion and languages are a crucial part of people’s individual cultures.

When it comes to learning school science, however, the single language policy is a sustainable one. One language for all school learning will focus learner efforts to attain good proficiency levels in it.

The single language policy therefore has the potential to enhance learning outcomes and to speedily produce the science skills that South Africa needs.

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