Language issues continue to mar schools
Language issues have left tongues wagging in Cape Town this week with schoolchildren exposing bizarre punishments for pupils using languages such as Xhosa.
It emerged that demerits and detentions have been dished out at Sans Souci High School in Claremont, and that pupils at Holy Cross High School in Maitland have been paying R10 fines for speaking in their mother tongues.
University of the Witwatersrand educational psychologist Joseph Seabi said the integration of pupils into former model C schools had led to linguistically diverse classrooms in South Africa.
A backlog in the redeployment of "appropriately qualified African language-speaking educators to schools" meant teachers often struggled to understand pupils.
"One way of ensuring that educators understand what the learners are saying is through enforcement of English as not only the language of learning and teaching, but also a social language that is spoken during school breaks," said Seabi.
"This has resulted in many learners learning in a 'foreign' language as they have little exposure to English outside school.
"Research indicates that second-language learners who attend former model C schools receive lower grades, are judged by their teachers to have lower academic ability and score below their classmates on standardised tests."
Wits language expert Leketi Makalela said it was understandable for teachers to use methods such as detention or fines in "super diverse" schools. But languages did not compete in a child's mind, and a capacity for bilingualism helped with higher-order thinking.
"The languages upstairs, they live together. There's no room for Zulu somewhere and a room for English. The boundaries in the cognitive space have been blurred," said Makalela.
"You want the teacher to mediate and help that space in the heads of the children, but if the teacher cannot reach them there is no way you can expect them to synthesise, to appreciate taxonomies to activate higher-order thinking."
While the Western Cape education department is investigating Holy Cross, there has apparently been no backlash from pupils, teachers or parents.
This year R400 in fines has been collected and the money has been used for administrative and maintenance costs.
Principal Michael Fouche said 12 languages were spoken by pupils and fines were used to maintain discipline and uniformity.
According to the school's governing body, no parents or pupils have complained.
English and creative arts teacher Sister Flora Matavire said she often used "code switching", using a pupil's home language, to explain a new concept. In her drama classes children may express themselves in their own languages.
Matavire said she did not fine pupils in the playground when they spoke respectfully.
"But if it is the context of class I want everybody to understand because it is important.
"I am teaching English, and everybody else is learning English. So we need to understand one another," the sister said.
Glynis Wilson, an Afrikaans speaker who matriculated from the school in 2006, said she was fined for saying "haai, nie man" (oh no man!) during class.
"The teacher explained to me that because we have [people from] different cultures in our classroom it's not acceptable to do something like that, because obviously someone else is not going to understand what I'm saying. That was the last time I did it," said Wilson.
Some parents are happy with the system and believe it will improve the children's English.