education language

Equal Opportunity: On the question of Language

“The education struggle was firstly a matter of trying to bridge the language gap and then trying to bridge the content gap,” writes Khaya S Sithole , Chartered Accountant & Speaker. Orignally from Empangeni (KZN), Khaya now lives in Johannesburg. He is also a motivator of rural communities and youth to pursue accounting as a profession

17 years ago, I took a plunge. I moved from Gawozi High School to Eshowe High School. The first – an absolutely perfect example of the imperfections of rural education. The second—a signpost of model C education. In the rural school there were zero resources, no library, broken windows and we had to share a desk with 3 people – because our allocation was one textbook for every 4 students. There was an element of consistency in our education – every subject was essentially delivered in isiZulu – with the Afrikaans class being the most challenging of them all.

In grade 8, I failed a test for the first time – 32% for Afrikaans – and I was still the highest in the grade of 300 students. Our teacher – bless his soul – had a unique role of simply translating the Afrikaans lesson into isiZulu so we could have an idea of what was going on. If he taught in Afrikaans then no-one would understand anyway so we all stopped trying. Then there was the rest of the subject cohort which had to be delivered in English.

Whose Reference Points?

At this stage, we were essentially evaluated not on the basis of understanding Science but on the grasp of the English first and then the ability to link that English to the Science lessons. If you struggled with the English you were unlikely to be comfortable with the mechanics of quantum particles, phylum protozoa, coelenterata and unpacking the thorax of the garden snake – but we tried. Lord knows we tried. The education struggle was firstly a matter of trying to bridge the language gap and then trying to bridge the content gap.

The tragedy of the modern-day education system is that all the reference points are written in English so we all have to have an understanding of this language. In an exam, there is a process of patience that is required when you first encounter foreign material in a foreign language, then translate it in your mind to your own language to facilitate understanding, and then translating that understanding back to the English language before you can attempt to produce an answer.

If this was a society of equal opportunities – that Maths maverick from Lephalale would not be required to undergo this process just so he can exhibit his understanding of trigonometry. But this isn’t a society of equals so this burden of language synthesis lives on. There are extraordinary benefits associated with the ability to learn, read, write and be evaluated in your own language. This unleashes nuances and creativity that is missing in an inherited language. And such creativity translates into better performance for the affected students. And that is the ideal world.

But in this South Africa of ours there is a strange phenomenon. Throughout the education system, there is an opportunity for Afrikaans students to be taught in their home language. In my model C high school (ie. Eshowe High), we had one Afrikaans first language speaker in the whole class – so the lecture had to be delivered in 2 languages – to accommodate 1 student in a class of 40.

Is there Consistency in Professional Exams: English vs Afrikaans?

When I wrote the professional exams in accounting – there were 2 languages accommodated – English and Afrikaans. And so it goes on. I must confess – I didn’t really care about all of this. I had made peace that in every exam I wrote there were 3 populations – the English first language speakers for whom the system is tailor-made and who have no language transition issues. The Afrikaans speakers who were insulated from the language transition problem by being given a paper in their mother tongue. And then there was the rest of us – for whom every single accounting or auditing  assessment was not just about the content but included an additional assessment on language complexities for which no marks are allocated. The type of burden that – in a 5-hour assessment, translates to a lot of time spent on this language translation process before you can attempt to answer. And as soon as you have formulated an answer in your mind, you need to ensure that the written version is in perfect English just so you can stand a chance of passing. We made peace will all of this.

And yet through it all, there was always the air of speculation hanging in the air – what if the Afrikaans version has more info? Will we ever know? Who checks to see that the papers are the same? How do the Afrikaans students always outperform the curve? Are they smarter? Who know?

And then it happened: The University of the Free State (UFS) – that central oasis of institutionalised racism and an obsession will all things urinal – found a way to give us insight into the process. In an assessment for Auditing students, the university issued 2 papers – one in English, and the other in Afrikaans – as usual. Never mind that the date in the English paper was in Afrikaans; the shocking thing is that one of the questions required students to list 5 components of internal control – and the English students had to try and remember these 5. In the Afrikaans paper – the 5 components were listed in the question and all the students had to do was simply rewrite them and get full marks.

And that is not my main problem. The question is how many of these ‘oversights’ have been missed in the past 10 years alone? What happens in the Afrikaans lessons to ensure that the information exchanged is on par with the information presented to the non-Afrikaans class? When North-West University insists on teaching the all students in Afrikaans with the proviso that someone will sit in and translate the content into English in order for the black students to be ‘accommodated’ who shall we turn to in order to confront this nonsense?

But don’t worry – this won’t change anytime soon. In a country where so many professional organisations protect and defend this scandalous form of discrimination – all I can say to those black students at UFS, Pretoria, North-West, Stellenbosch, University Johannesburg is keep soldiering on people. This is the institutional autonomy the our 1994 government gave to protectors of privilege. Enjoy it! §