Antia challenges basic education stance

18 February 2016

Saarah Survé, Stellenbosch Department of Journalism

Stellenbosch University – Professor Bassey Antia from the University of the Western Cape (UWC)  has set out to challenge the Department of Basic Education’s (DoBE) statement that it is not viable to use African languages for matric exams.

Antia said that when learners are not tested in their home languages, it affects their matric results. Speakers of African languages, in particular, score the lowest.

“The exam paper itself should not be a challenge, the content of the paper should,” said Antia.

In his study of matric exams, the professor found that students would flip their exam papers over to read the Afrikaans side, when they did not understand the term in English, and vice-versa.

“Terms in one language can be more descriptive than in another language,” said Antia.

“There is knowledge embedded in terms,” said Antia. For example, there are two words for canine in Afrikaans; oogtand and slagtand. The former shows the tooth has a relation to the eye, and the latter that the tooth is used for tearing. So, knowledge of Afrikaans will enable better understanding of the word canine.

“Knowing several languages can afford different entry points to understanding,” said Antia.

For example, the word computer, when translated into English from other languages, means “machine with a brain” or “ability to calculate.”

“Processing information in testing can be influenced by languages in which the test is presented and/or languages known by the examinees,” said Antia. “When a bilingual student reads an exam paper, essentially what happens is that the individual’s two languages are acting or contesting at the same time. You cannot just switch off one language. This is called parallel activation,” Antia explained.

“We need to accommodate students to content and process,” said Antia. “This involves taking away language as a barrier. One part of that would be translating the text in an exam paper into a student’s home language. Another part would be to change the time of a paper, if students are more likely to perform better in the morning,” he said.

Antia suggested providing learning materials in the student’s home language, even if they are being lectured in another language.

Boipelo Mokgothu, a University of Johannesburg journalism graduate and native Tswana-speaker, and Velani Mboweni, a University of Cape Town Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) graduate and native Zulu-speaker commented on the lack of African languages in the educational context.

Mokgothu said that she had never come across a school that used an African language as a teaching medium and that she had only encountered English and Afrikaans schools.

“I have never heard of a school that teaches maths, life sciences and natural sciences in Tswana. I think that would be very difficult,” said Mokgothu.

“Even schools in Soweto, where I come from, will have Tswana as a subject, but all of the other subjects would be in English,” said Mokgothu.

“Given the choice, I would not have wanted to study in Tswana. It would have been too difficult and meant that I would have had to go to a non-English school, which doesn’t make sense in the world we live in,” said Mokgothu.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t have taken Tswana as an additional language, even if I could, because I was comfortable in Afrikaans,” she said.

Mboweni, who took isiZulu as his first additional language, said that he would have liked to study some subjects “concurrently with English”, because it would have enabled him to learn in his own language, but still “remain internationally competitive.”

Mboweni said that he was forced to choose English, because he wanted to study PPE at UCT. He would have been excluded from the international literature if he had not gone to an English high school.

Antia is from Nigeria and lectures at UWC’s Department of Linguistics. He speaks six languages and can order a cup of coffee in eight. Antia hopes to approach the DoBE with his findings in the middle of this year.

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