The Power of Languages

How would you run an education system in a country with 11 official languages? Talking about language policy in South Africa can quickly turn into a spirited discussion, with some arguing that the current system never fully cast-off is racist apartheid policies, others arguing that English should be the only language used and still more arguing that the current system is the best. To understand these arguments, and the work I am doing in South Africa, let me provide you with a very brief overview of the education system today – as it relates to language.

Presently, when a child enters school they are instructed in one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. This language, however, is not necessarily the language the child uses in the home, or home language. It is often impossible to accommodate all the languages spoken by students, especially in urban areas, so typically the most common language in the region or English is chosen as the language. The latter is an increasingly popular option as parents consider English a global language that will make their kids more competitive when they reach the job market.

In Grade 2 students begin learning a second language. One of the two languages a child learns must be either English or Afrikaans. (Afrikaans is derived from the Dutch spoken by settlers in the 18th century.) This is because in Grade 4 classroom instruction switches to either English or Afrikaans. It is at this point that some South Africans begin to have problems with the education system. Some see the language switch as unfair, putting children whose home language is not English or Afrikaans at a disadvantage, which continues for their entire academic career. In order to complete secondary school, high school in South Africa, a student must pass seven subject exams which are only administered in English or Afrikaans, students who speak other home languages are disadvantaged for their whole educational career. Some are concerned that English will become dominate as parents try to give their children an advantage in school and that slowly the other languages will begin to disappear, and with them their culture will also disappear. Others contend that Afrikaans’ status in the school system is due to concessions made post-apartheid to the former ruling class. They argue that either Afrikaans should be eliminated as a choice, or all national languages should be allowed.

Arguments about the unfairness of South Africa’s language policy likely would not be as common if the quality of education students received was better. As it stands, many children do not learn enough in the classroom to be literate in either their home language or a second language. In the 2016 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), South African students ranked near the bottom. More than 25% of South African students who achieve six years of school cannot read according to TIMSS.

So what is being done about the situation? A lot! But it is not easy for a huge government agency to change overnight. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also stepping up to the challenge of improving literacy in the country, and I am lucky enough to be working on an evaluation for one such organization, Nal’ibali.

Nal’ibali, “here’s the story” in isiXhosa, is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign whose mission is to spark children’s potential through storytelling and reading. Reading-for-enjoyment is not very common in South Africa. This is in part because of a lack of access to books. A 2016 survey by the South African Book Development Council found 58% of South Africans do not have a single book in their home. However, reading-for-enjoyment is important for children, it can provide a child with numerous benefits, including improved performance in school.

A isiXhosa/English book children can cut out of the Nal’ibali supplement

One of the ways Nal’ibali promotes reading is through reading supplements, which are the size of newspapers and contain eight pages of stories and reading activities for children and their parents. The supplement is bilingual, all stories and activities are published in English and one of seven other official languages (Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana, and Xitsonga). The supplements are bilingual because Nal’ibali wants children to be able to read in both their home language and the language of instruction at schools. Supplements are given to reading clubs, and included in several national newspapers on a bi-weekly basis. You can check out some examples here.


Nal’ibali has asked JET Education Services (JET), where I am interning, to conduct an evaluation on the effectiveness of the supplements. Basically, Nal’ibali wants to know what is working and what is not working with the supplements. I am part of the team completing the evaluation and for the past month until July 13th, when we present our findings to Nal’ibali, this evaluation will be the main focus of my work.

This past week we finished our fieldwork portion of the evaluation (and I wrote a 20 page report to Nal’ibali)! This is a big step, as fieldwork has been going on since February. There were three components to the fieldwork:

  1. Surveys (2,261) with supplement users
  2. Qualitative interviews (13) with individuals who help distribute the supplements
  3. Focus groups (5) with supplement users

I was only able to assist with the coordination of the focus groups, but the task gave me a good understanding of how much effort went into completing the fieldwork. The focus groups were conducted in three different languages across three provinces. Three of the focus groups were with adults and two were with kids, so we had a different set of questions for the two age groups. I won’t bore you with the work details of organizing it all, just know that people are much politer to strangers on the phone here than in the U.S.!

The next step for us will be to analyze the data collected during the fieldwork. This is going to take some time as the survey questions alone total nearly 300 questions! I will update you in my next post with some of our findings.
On an unrelated note, if you read my last post about the water shortage in Cape Town and are interested to learn how things are going, you can check out the city’s website for a tracker of the dam water levels. These numbers are often published on the front page of newspapers. Everyone here, understandably, wants the drought to end. Not only to end the water conservation restrictions, but also to encourage tourists to return. International news has sensationalized the shortage, but I promise it really isn’t that bad! You just have to sacrifice your long showers, which makes you appreciate them all the more once you leave Cape Town!

Cape Town may not have much potable water but it does have great ocean views

2 thoughts on “The Power of Languages

  1. What a great idea to distribute it with the national newspapers.. I would have loved it as a kid.. i actually looked at a few pdfs of the supplement .. i love the illustrations.. gonna share this with folks back home. Thanks for writing about this and especially for sharing that link!

    Liked by 1 person

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