Language has always been a contentious issue in education in South Africa. From the drive for mother-tongue education to the ever pressing need to be able to use international languages such as English. To be able to understand the language and education situation in South Africa today it is necessary to look at the historical background of languages in schools and tertiary institutions in this country. In addition this page also briefly looks at current national policies regarding language in education and the current language situation in South Africa.

Historical background
Language spread initially from settings where language was acquired through usage. The first people in Southern Africa was the San and Khoe followed by the Bantu speaking people moving from to the south from west Africa. Little is known about the ways in which language was transferred by these peoples. What can be deduced is cross influence between these languages. Most written evidence of language in education comes from the arrival of Europeans in the Cape - in particular the Dutch settlement in 1652. Mainly Dutch (Afrikaans after 1925) and English were used in schools - this implied ongoing mother-tongue education for white and some of the so-called 'coloured' people. African languages only got a degree of recognition in policies during the Apartheid era in South Africa where mother-tongue education was proposed for at least the first couple of years. The Bantu Education Act (1953) stipulated that black learners should receive mother-tongue teaching in lower and higher primary grades with transition to English and Afrikaans thereafter.

The first schools in South Africa were usually attached to Christian missionaries throughout the country. For years this has been a problematic issue as this so-called 'importation of European ideas' has been regarded as colonisation of people in terms of religion, language, culture and thought. Yet the missionaries played a significant role in recording the languages of South Africa. Orthographies were established and grammars written down - sometimes with no regard for culturally similar ethnic groups. In this sense 'languages' were created by recording regional dialects differently. This happened mainly due to the fact that missionaries came from various countries and missions in Europe and not necessarily had the opportunity to communicate with each other. Translations of the Bible also served as a driving force in the written development of African languages, see the dates of the translations below (only complete translations are noted, with the exception of isiNdebele):

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It is important also to note that European languages such as English also spread amongst the local South African people through missionaries.

Department of Education: Language Policy
(Also see The constitution & legislation)

The National Education Policy Act (Act 27 of 1996) empowers the Minister of Education to determine a national policy for language in education. Subsequently the Language-in-Education Policy was adopted in 1997. This policy operates within the following paradigm (paragraph 1):

1.In terms of the new Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, the government, and thus the Department of Education, recognises that our cultural diversity is a valuable national asset and hence is tasked, amongst other things, to promote multilingualism, the development of the official languages, and respect for all languages used in the country, including South African Sign Language and the languages referred to in the South African Constitution.

2.The inherited language-in-education policy in South Africa has been fraught with tensions, contradictions and sensitivities, and underpinned by racial and linguistic discrimination. A number of these discriminatory policies have affected either the access of the learners to the education system or their success within it.

3.The new language in education policy is conceived of as an integral and necessary aspect of the new governmentís strategy of building a non-racial nation in South Africa. It is meant to facilitate communication across the barriers of colour, language and region, while at the same time creating an environment in which respect for languages other than oneís own would be encouraged.

4.This approach is in line with the fact that both societal and individual multilingualism are the global norm today, especially on the African continent. As such, it assumes that the learning of more than one language should be general practice and principle in our society. That is to say, being multilingual should be a defining characteristic of being South African. It is constructed also to counter any particularistic ethnic chauvinism or separatism through mutual understanding.

5.A wide spectrum of opinions exists as to the locally viable approaches towards multilingual education, ranging from arguments in favour of the cognitive benefits and cost-effectiveness of teaching through one medium (home language) and learning additional language(s) as subjects, to those drawing on comparative international experience demonstrating that, under appropriate conditions, most learners benefit cognitively and emotionally from the type of structured bilingual education found in dual-medium (also known as two way immersion) programmes. Whichever route is followed, the underlying principle is to maintain home language(s) while providing access to and the effective acquisition of additional language(s). Hence, the Departmentís position that an additive approach to bilingualism is to be seen as the normal orientation of our language-in-education policy. With regard to the delivery system, policy will progressively be guided by the results of comparative research, both locally and internationally.

6.The right to choose the language of learning and teaching is vested in the individual. This right has, however, to be exercised within the overall framework of the obligation on the education system to promote multilingualism.

According to the Language-in-Education Policy the main aims of the Ministry of Educationís policy for language in education are (paragraph 5):

1. to promote full participation in society and the economy through equitable and meaningful access to education;
2. to pursue the language policy most supportive of general conceptual growth amongst learners, and hence to establish additive multilingualism as an approach to language in education;
3. to promote and develop all the official languages;
4. to support the teaching and learning of all other languages required by learners or used by communities in South Africa, including languages used for religious purposes, languages which are important for international trade and communication, and South African Sign Language, as well as Alternative and Augmentative Communication;
5. to counter disadvantages resulting from different kinds of mismatches between home languages and languages of learning and teaching;
6. to develop programmes for the redress of previously disadvantaged languages.

The Language-in-Education Policy also makes the following statements:

1.the duty of the state and the right of the learners in terms of the Constitution, including
2.the need to achieve equity,
3.the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices,
4.practicability, and
5.the advice of the governing bodies and principals of the public schools concerned.

The objective of the South African Schools Act (Act 84 of 1996) is to provide a strong foundation for the protection and advancement of the country's diverse cultures and languages. Section 6 of this act empowers school governing bodies to determine the language policy of schools within guidelines set nationally and on provincial level.

According to the Department of Educationís language policy school pupils have a right to be taught in a language of their choice and they should inform the school which language they wish to be taught in when applying for admission. Schools should take these preferences into account and work towards multilingualism.

Only official languages may be used for instruction. From Grade 3 onwards, all pupils will have to study the language they are taught in, and at least one other approved language. Furthermore language may not be used as a barrier to admission. Governing bodies must stipulate how their schools will promote multilingualism. Failing a language will result in failing a grade.

Current language situation in schools

Despite the government's commitment for multilingualism and the promotion of language rights in all spheres of public life, the education sector does not totally reflect the multilingual nature of South Africa. More can definitely be done towards the promotion of mainly the African languages in South African schools.

In terms of learning areas (subjects) all eleven official languages can be taken as a 'home language', 'first additional language' and 'second additional language' [with the initial school curriculum, called Curriculum 2005, the learning area was called Language, Literacy and Communication ]. Despite the names for the learning areas very often learners take languages on a 'home language' level whilst the specific language might only be their second or third language. This is especially true in multilingual communities and in former white schools (sometimes called former model C schools) that have taken in a number of African language speaking pupils. This is quite a contentious issue as parents want their children to rather study in English than in their own home languages. Possible reasons that may be reason of this situation are:

External Information

Useful links
South African government
South African Department of Education
Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA)

Legislation and policies
National Education Policy Act No. 27 of 1996
Language In Education Policy
Language Policy Framework for South African Higher Education
Higher Education Act: Language Policy for Higher Education
National Language Policy Framework Final Draft

Academic articles
Language-in-Education in South Africa: the process
The South African language policy-in-education: realistic or an ideological import?
The promise of Multilingualism and Education in South Africa
Language Policy in the primary schools of the Western Cape
English With or Without G(u)ilt: A Position Paper on Language in Education Policy for South Africa
Language rights versus educational realities ó a South African perspective
Language policy and mother-tongue education in South Africa: The case for a market-oriented approach
Decentralisation and Language policy in South African Education: inevitable degrees of social exclusion evidence from sociolinguistic research in Gauteng

Additional related sources
CUVELIER, P., DU PLESSIS, T., TECK, L. eds. 2003. Multilingualism, Education and Social Integration. Pretoria : Van Schaik. 210p.
LAUFER, M. 2000. The multilingual challenge. Cape Town : Via Afrika. 100p.

© J. Olivier (2009)