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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


WOLHUTER, Charl C  e  VAN DER WALT, JL (Hannes). Currents and counter-currents in the question of the language of learning and teaching: An international and a South African perspective. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2022, vol.62, n.4, pp.715-742. ISSN 2224-7912.

The aim of this article is twofold. It is firstly to map the international discourse and experience regarding the issue of language of learning and teaching in education. Secondly, the article focuses on the South African question regarding the issue of language of learning and teaching in educational institutions, by employing the international framework constructed in the first section for purposes of illumination, interpretation, and assessment. The language medium in education remains a contentious issue in education, also in the South African context. The comparative method that was used for doing the mapping, namely, to examine and draw potentially valuable insights and perspectives from comparable international situations, is widely used for illuminating societal issues, also in education. Schools were instituted for the first time around 3 000 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt. During the first millennia in the history of these institutions, the dominant language of the political jurisdiction or entity in which the school was located was employed as the language of learning and teaching in schools. This was due to the political objectives of education and schooling as well as the social origins of the learners who attended the schools. Schools originated autochthonously in only a few places; most school systems in the world today can trace their roots back to the early mediaeval European prototype which was subsequently exported to the extra-European world by means of missionary activities and imperial (colonial) endeavours. It is important to keep this development in mind for an understanding of the subsequent course that the language of learning and teaching in schools followed. A departure from the mediaeval practice to use Latin as the language of learning and teaching in schools coincided with the Reformation in Western Europe in the sixteenth century, in particular the formation of nation-states in that part of the world since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The leaders of the Reformation promoted the use of the vernacular for reading and understanding the Bible, and for this reason agitated for the home language to become the language of teaching and learning in the schools. This ideal was never fully realised, however; even in Western Europe the dominant language of each nation was used as the language of teaching and learning. The notion of developing the vernacular as language of learning and teaching did not form part of the imperialist project of instituting schools in the colonies from the fifteenth century in the Americas and Asia, and from the nineteenth century in Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, the official language of the colonial power in question was used as the language of learning and teaching in colonial schools. The empowerment of the vernacular to become the official language of the country, a hallmark of the formation of nation-states and of national education systems in the Global North, received at best scant attention or lip service when the nations of the Global South, especially in Africa (notably in Sub-Saharan Africa) and South Asia gained independence during the 1960s. The situation has since been exacerbated by the rise of English as international lingua franca in the past half century. The impact of this development can be detected in the education systems of the world, including those of the Global North: English has become a de facto universal second or third language in teaching and learning at most levels. English is also increasingly supplanting respectively French and Portuguese as languages of teaching and learning in institutions of education in francophone and lusophone Africa. This, as mentioned, is a direct result of the vernacular not having been developed and empowered to become the language of teaching and learning. The hegemonic position of English is also reinforced by widespread support for this language as medium of teaching and learning among parents. Parents are convinced that mastery of English will be advantageous for their children in the higher education context and later in the international commercial world. A plethora of scholarly investigations seem to indicate that the vernacular should be favoured as the language of learning and teaching in institutions of education. Their findings revolve around respect for human rights, including the right to use the home, mother or first language as medium of teaching and learning; the role of language of teaching and learning in ensuring that the vernacular maintains and even improves its status and currency in society; educational considerations, including the role that the mother language plays in cognitive development and the learning of the first language, the learning of a second language, and subsequently, the learning of English; also the issue of equality and equity in education, and the role and impact of the language of learning and teaching in the maintenance and production of human and social capital. In the second part of the article, the South African situation regarding the issue of language of teaching and learning is described, analysed, interpreted and assessed against the internationalframework outlined in the first part. The analysis and discussion presented reveal that the international considerations are valid for the issue of language of learning and teaching in South Africa as well. They also show that several contextual-ecological features of the South African pedagogical landscape cause the promotion of the vernacular as medium of teaching and learning to be of even greater urgency. These features include the poor output (achievement) levels of, and the concomitant high levels of attrition in the South African education system, the persistent unacceptably high unemployment rate, the high levels of social inequality, and the national priority of making education accessible to all. Recommendations are made as to how the development of the various vernaculars could be developed to become efficient media of teaching and learning. Two of the strategies that could be considered are to promote the use of the vernacular in teacher education, and to use some of the international aid that is being poured into the African continent for the purpose of developing the various vernaculars to grow into effective education media.

Palavras-chave : Colonial Education; Comparative and International Education; English; equality/equity in education; Human Capital; Human Rights; Language; Language of Learning and Teaching; South Africa; Sub-Saharan Africa; unemployment; Vernacular.

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