Mother tongue teaching 'proved crucial to success'
Cape Times
October 5, 2005

By A'eysha Kassiem

Mother tongue education is crucial to a learner's success, especially in subjects such as maths and science, says a Human Sciences Research Council report.

The report, compiled by chief research specialist in the assessment, technology and education evaluation research programme, Kathleen Heugh, is based on a draft report on bilingual education and the use of local languages.

It was compiled by organisations such as the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Institute for Education.

In the Western Cape, mother tongue education takes place in the foundation phase - from Grade 1 to 3 - but Heugh says this is not nearly enough.

"It is almost impossible for pupils to learn enough of the second language in three years to switch to a second-language medium of instruction by Grade 4.

"In countries where there are well-trained teachers and sufficient classrooms and school books, children usually need between six and eight years to learn a second language before they can use it as a medium.

"This means under optimal conditions, they should not switch language medium before Grade 7," says Heugh.

She added that switching mediums earlier would result in "educational failure" as pupils would not be able to grasp subject content.

"When children are tracked over a long period from Grade 4 onwards, significant gaps begin to appear between children who continue mother tongue education and those who have switched to a second-language medium.

"We can now predict that most pupils who switch from a mother-tongue education to another language by Grade 4 are likely to achieve only between 30% and 40% in their second language by Grade 12, even though they seem to have had longer exposure to this language.

"In contrast, students who have learned in a mother tongue medium for at least six years are likely to reach 50% or more in the second language.

"Those who have mother tongue education throughout Grades 1 to 12 plus the second language taught as a subject by a teacher who is proficient in the language, are likely to achieve 60%.

"So, despite popular wisdom, the longer pupils have mother tongue education plus well-resourced second language as a subject, the better they will perform in this language and are more likely to achieve in maths, science and their own home language," said Heugh.

She added that nowhere had it been demonstrated that a mainstream education system could be successful if based on a second language - particularly if it may be the pupil's third, fourth or even fifth language.

"The most economical scenario is to equip a corps of teachers with what is known as 'native or near-native like proficiency' in English to teach it as subject language specialists.

"The return on investment ... promises far greater rewards both economically and in terms of educational outcomes for pupils."

  Published on the web by Cape Times on October 5, 2005.
Cape Times 2005. All rights reserved.