South African parents want their kids to be taught in English: What this tells us about the African identity

Nii Ntreh October 03, 2019
School children attending parade in South Africa. Photo: Trevor Samson / World Bank

South African parents are not enthused by their children being educated in other official languages apart from English, a study finds.

This development raises a question on the African identity vis-a-vis the influence of the English language.

In an explanation of their findings that was first carried by, researchers Jacqueline Harvey and Steven Gordon found that about 65% of South Africans surveyed wanted their kids tutored mainly in English at the foundational phase between grades 1 and 3.

This is in spite of multiple studies that confirm that children grasp concepts, in mathematics for instance, better if they are taught in their mother tongues.

Gordon and Harvey cited the work of Kathleen Heugh who noted that learners stand a better chance with a first-language appreciation before venturing into second-language appreciation.

Despite this, in South Africa and indeed, many other African countries, English is the preferred language of educational and professional progress.

The South African case can be seen as a microcosm of Africa, with the Rainbow Nation having measured the sentiments of the general public on the matter since 2003.

The researchers found that it was not just at the lower levels that South Africans preferred English in learning. They favoured it well into the older years of learners.

As part of the reasons given for this phenomenon, the researchers mentioned that the ability to speak and write English in South Africa was linked to socioeconomic advancement.

To put in plain terms, the system was set up to reward people who mastered the “Queen’s language” as against any of South Africa’s other 10 official languages.

Another reason given is that authorities do not commit as much into training personnel capable of teaching in other languages or even resources to undertake this venture.

Both reasons, according to researchers Gordon and Harvey, “…reinforce the view that English is superior to African languages.”

Although they make no inferences as to how their study impacts the identity of African peoples, it will be difficult to overlook such a connection in light of psycholinguistic evidence.

For any curious observer, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis comes to mind. This concept holds that our ability to make sense of the world is determined by the language available to us.

It says that we “think” in the language that we easily “speak”.

The theory is attributed to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, and in fairness, has been hit by criticisms by world-famous intellectual, Noam Chomsky.

But for us as Africans who have had to contend with 400 years of physical and intellectual exploitation thanks to Europeans, one wonders whether the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is not capturing our truth.

We constantly find it hard to express ourselves in our mother tongues. And as a result, we fail to grasp concepts because we are trying to understand them in a second language.

We fail to self-identify with communal expressions. We struggle to believe that we can be considered “refined” if we are not speaking English or French.

We have imitated these and many other European languages, right to the accents.

All of this self-harming is done to the detriment of our local languages. All across Africa, there is a paucity of learned men and women in the languages of our ancestors. Languages are quite literally dying.

If there is anything at all the South African survey teaches us, it is that increasingly, we are becoming Westernised. Although that in itself may not be a bad thing, it is the way in which we are eager to let go of the tools that make us unique.

It is now in vogue for many scholars and intellectuals from Africa and the diaspora to identify as pan-African. It is rather paradoxical that very little attention is paid by us to our tools of thought.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 3, 2019


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