There are many different ways in which one can describe the meaning of language. Different scholars, from Aristotle to Vygotsky, have different definitions and theories surrounding the role that language plays. However, Edward Sapir (former American anthropologist-linguist) described it best by categorizing language as purely human and non-instinctive. “Every language enables its speakers to express whatever they want to express, only the technical means are different.” In South Africa alone, we have 11 official languages that are spoken by over 56 million people.
In the context of the South African education system, post-Apartheid, the main question that I focus on in this paper is, how does the SPARK Schools language policy meet the needs of diverse students in a South African context? Research continues to support the statement that using a child’s mother tongue is crucial to effective learning. (Buhmann, 2008) Yet, there are nine indigenous languages to consider, as well as English and Afrikaans.
This paper focuses on answering the above question by providing the reader with an extensive analysis of the SPARK Schools’ language policy document by addressing the following:
- Informing language ideologies. (how it is conceptualized)
- Approach to language teaching and learning.
- The imagined learner of this kind of language policy.
- Strengths and weaknesses.
- Alignment with goals and intentions of the 1997 Dept of Education Language policy.
SPARK Schools language policy is based on the Department of Education’s “Language in Education policy” as well as their own Diversity Policy. “The SPARK Schools Language Policy was developed based on requirements of the Department of Basic Education’s Language in Education Policy, the National Education Policy Act, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, and the SPARK Schools Diversity Policy.” (SPARK School’s Language Policy, Section 1.1)
There is a clear, concerted effort on SPARK Schools’ part to be in close alignment with the goals and intentions of the 1997 Dept of Education language policy as they refer to it at least seven times throughout the first two sections of their language policy. There are three good examples that stand out in particular: promotion of inclusivity; acknowledgement of a more fluid relationship between languages and culture and lastly, attention to the redress of previously disadvantaged languages i.e. the nine African languages, apart from English and Afrikaans. Firstly, SPARK Schools promotes inclusivity by enforcing respect for languages other than one’s own, in their language policy. “Discriminatory behaviour on the basis of language, intentional or otherwise, will not be tolerated at the School.” (section 6.1) Secondly, they acknowledge a more fluid relationship between languages and culture in which parents are encouraged to continue speaking with their child in their home language, whether it is English or not. “Acknowledging that language plays a significant role in cultural identity, SPARK parents/guardians are encouraged to continue speaking with their child in their home language, to instil cultural values and practices…” It is well known that children’s own language behaviour is shaped by parental language. (King, 2008). Thirdly, they pay attention to the redress of previously disadvantaged languages by offering isiXhosa and isiZulu as first additional languages, isiXhosa at their school in the Western Cape and isiZulu at their schools in Gauteng. The influence behind their decision of making isiXhosa and isiZulu first additional languages was that these were the most populous previously marginalized African languages of their respective provinces.
However, one of the few weaknesses of SPARK Schools language policy is that it is generic. The same language policy applies to all the Spark Schools despite the fact that they span across different areas with different demographics as well as two different provinces. (Western Cape and Gauteng) English is chosen as the exclusive medium of instruction for all their schools across the country. The issue here is that the same language of instruction won’t necessarily succeed across different areas of the country. The other challenge is that learners do not all necessarily live in the same area as the school so it can be challenging to make assumptions as to what their home languages may or may not be outside of school. Although, if we look at the SPARK Schools in context, for example, the Western Cape branch, English isn’t the most widely spoken home language, it is Afrikaans, in Stellenbosch (location of the school) even more so. This raises the question as to why Afrikaans isn’t offered as a home language option or even as a first additional language option. The answer to that would be relative to the informing language ideologies of the schools’ policy.
Afrikaans is often stigmatized as the “language of the oppressor.” (Busch, 2010) Afrikaans is excluded from the curriculum even though it is one of the most frequently used languages in both the Western Cape as well as Gauteng. The areas in which each Spark School is situated, confirms this statement. The reason for this can be linked to the example I mentioned previously which was the redressing of previously disadvantaged languages. During Apartheid, the Department of Education’s Language in Education policy was used to only favour English and Afrikaans which therefore marginalized all non-English/Afrikaans speakers. “The raising of the status of the nine African languages was thus designed to reverse the effects of decades of language engineering.” (Busch, 2010)
Reversing the negative effects that Apartheid had and still continues to have on language today, is an ongoing process. A similar process can be found in a case study done at Rakaumanga school in New Zealand where the aim of their language policy is to protect the indigenous Maori language, which too became neglected after the New Zealand Department of Education made English the sole medium of instruction. In South Africa’s case, this was the introduction of Afrikaans alongside English as medium of instruction in all schools in 1974. Hence, the government introduced a form of a “revitalization process” (Hill, R and May, S. 2014) which is how Maori was brought back into schools in New Zealand. This is something that South Africa is attempting to do as well, as seen in the 1997 Department of Basic Education’s “Language in Education Policy.” Although, it’s implementation hasn’t really been successful.
Another ideology that informs SPARK School’s language policy document is that acquiring English as a home language is considered a steppingstone for learners to become citizens of the world. In their language policy document, they continue reiterating the fact that it is their mission to create global citizens. (See Introduction 1.3) In fact, it is their vision, “South Africa leads global education.” English is an International language whereas the rest of our 11 official languages are not.
“Although the presence of English in the urban public space is overwhelming, it is important to bear in mind that this does not reflect language preferences in daily life.” (Busch, 2010) Although, SPARK Schools recognise that most learners are multilingual and not all learners come from homes where English is spoken or used as a home language, English is still seen as superior. English is offered as a home language on the basis that all learners have English as a language in common between them, even though it isn’t necessarily their mother tongue. Learners at SPARK Schools become fully immersed in learning two languages as both the home language and first additional language is mandatory from as early as grade R. It is believed that many learners are already exposed to at least two or three languages outside of school. (Busch, 2010) For bilingual children, parental ideologies are also theorized to play a crucial role in determining language outcomes. (De Houwer, 1999) This is why they have emphasised the fact that parents should continue to speak with their child in their home language. They should not have to repress their cultural identity by ignoring their own language and just speak in English.
SPARK Schools language policy follows a learner-centred approach. They allow and encourage learners to use their linguistic resources for meaning making in and outside the classroom. Their language policy document is divided into three sections: Languages as subjects; Languages as Social and Cultural Media and Languages as Media of Communication. It discusses different areas of language use and not just in the mere sense of language as a medium of instruction in the classroom. Learners are provided with opportunities to speak in their various home languages when it comes to peer/group work in the classroom as well as in common spaces. One of the strengths of this language policy is that it is set up in a way that is clear, easy to understand and it is quite specific as to how they view language use and the role in which language plays in their setting.
Another strength of the SPARK Schools language policy is that they promote inclusivity, diversity and tolerance in various ways such as by addressing consequences for any form of discriminatory behaviour on the basis of language as seen underneath their rules section. They also encourage learners to speak in whatever language they feel most comfortable with during social interactions as well as during group work in the classroom.
Learners’ home languages may also be used as a form of scaffolding for better understanding in the classroom setting. Instructional code used by teachers in textbooks may not be the same as the linguistic resources children bring to the learning process. (Pluddermann, 2015) As mentioned in 3.4 underneath the section, Languages as subjects, teachers or peers may act as translators in the event of any learner struggling with a limited understanding of English Home Language or in one of the first additional languages. “A teacher may act as a translator or ask a helpful peer to translate. This scaffolded instruction is a form of structured bilingual education that supports student achievement.”
Code-switching is allowed which gives learners the opportunity to use their linguistic resources for meaning making. Teachers use code-switching for the purpose of explaining new concepts, clarifying any questions the learner might have as well as to make connections with learners. (Probyn, 2006) However, this extends outside the classroom as well which can be seen underneath section 5 which is, Languages as Media of Communication. SPARK Schools make an effort to involve their school community as far as possible by doing the following: providing translation of weekly newsletters, homework instructions and announcements sent home, in the case of that learner’s family having a limited understanding of English, facilitating community meetings and events with dual language translation and having a translator in meetings with parents as well as providing written and verbal feedback on the child’s progress in both English and the parent’s most proficient language.
The SPARK School’s language policy shows that although language can form a barrier between people – it does not have to. This is an example of a school that can create spaces for multilingual identities to challenge traditional monolinguistic ideas. SPARK Schools are privileged to have the access to resources that they have, however it is important to note that SPARK Schools are a network of independent (private) schools and not government. Of course, this does not in any way mean to say that government schools cannot adopt a similar approach to their own language policies. There is a need for all South African schools to adopt practices that address diversity and difference. (Makoe, 2014) The main problem that most government schools face is not only the lack of implementation of such practices and policies but a lack of resources and funding which is needed to implement the kind of language policy that would reach the vast majority of African language speakers.
One thing that SPARK Schools can consider for the future is to have dual-medium instruction as opposed to offering the use of a translator in the classroom. This would allow learners to feel like they are in more control of their own learning. This would also support the fact that most learners do not have English as a home language and as I stated in my introduction, using a child’s mother tongue is crucial to effective learning. The fact that SPARK Schools has included such considerations in their language policy supports the above statement as well. In mentioning that learners or teachers may act as translators, stating that learners may speak whatever language they are comfortable with in social interactions as well as during groupwork and going the extra mile by offering translation of newsletters, announcements, homework instructions etc verifies that they themselves know that many of their learners do not have English as a home language, hence my suggestion for dual-medium instruction as a consideration.
My analysis of the SPARK Schools language policy has shown that they indeed have made an effort to meet the needs of diverse students in a South African context. They state the following, “we value diversity and the expression of diverse cultures…” It also shows that by being more aware and sensitive to the role of language professionally and casually, we can come closer to maintaining our diversity but at the same time, be united. We cannot lift up one, without lifting the others. We cannot favour one, without favouring the others. Language is for everybody. There is not one better than the other.
- Spark Schools. 2019. Language Policy. Available: https://www.sparkschools.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Language-Policy-18092018_External-Distribution.pdf
- Department of Education. 1997. Language in education policy. Government Gazette, Vol.17997. No.383. Pretoria: Department of Education. Available: https://www.gov.za/documents/language-education-policy-0
- Busch, B. 2010. School language profiles: Valorising linguistic resources in heteroglossic situations in South Africa. Language and Education. 24(4): 283 – 294. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500781003678712
- Palmer, D.K and Martinez, R.D. 2016. Developing Biliteracy: What do teachers really need to know about language? Language Arts. 93(5): 379 – 385.
- Hill, R and May, S. 2014. Exploring Biliteracy in Maori Medium Education: An Ethnographic Perspective. In McCarty, T. (Ed).