In a move which has been described as a “strange flick-flacking” in policy, the department said an African language would be introduced “incrementally” as another first additional language in Grades R and 1 where none were offered.
This, in an effort to “promote multilingualism” and foster “social cohesion”.
While supportive of the principle, educationists cautioned that, practically, it could not currently be done, given the current timetable and short supply of teachers.
The department said (in an e-mail to The Mercury) that it would prepare for “full-scale implementation” by phasing in the policy at selected schools in each of the provinces this year.
In schools where Grade R and 1 pupils were taught in an African language, and also learnt either English or Afrikaans, they would have to acquire another African language. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has made several references to such a policy, including in her budget vote speech before the National Assembly earlier this month.
However, school governing body associations say details have been scant.
Motshekga’s department confirmed its plans just as the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) announced its decision to make it compulsory for undergraduate students, who were not proficient in Zulu, to register for a course to develop conversational skills.
However, with the new public school curriculum dictating that only one first additional language may be offered, many KwaZulu-Natal primary schools are opting for Afrikaans rather than Zulu.
Afrikaans is considered easier to pass, and teachers and learning materials easier to come by, as The Mercury reported last year.
In a report released earlier this month, the National Education Evaluation Development Unit also cautioned that, while introducing an African language for all pupils was in the interests of nation-building, there was a shortage of teachers.
However, according to the national Education Department, it had developed workbooks to be used as the core teaching resource, and was relying on its Funza Lushaka teaching bursary to address the shortage of teachers.
Tim Gordon, national head of the Governing Body Foundation, said the primary concerns were that the curriculum was already being criticised as “overly full”, and how the teaching of these additional languages would be staffed.
“We have heard numerous suggestions around the possible (and certainly desirable) introduction of a compulsory local African language in schools. Yet, in none of our interactions with the departments, neither provincially nor nationally, have we been able to obtain confirmation of the facts. In light thereof we cannot see that it is realistic that the policy will be introduced in 2014. Introducing the new languages as full academic subjects would require another lengthening of the school day,” Gordon said.
“However, we believe that it is imperative that our young people learn to use each other’s languages and are exposed to the different cultures – as one can normally only do through the use of the language of that culture. We would therefore be very supportive of an approach – such as offering a communicative language instead of an academic pursuit – or some other realistic, workable accommodation to make this possible,” Gordon added.
And, while a move in the right direction, to make the teaching of African languages compulsory again, after the new curriculum had edged them out, was a “strange flick-flacking” in policy.
Paul Colditz, the national head of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas), concurred that it was “impossible” to fit another language into the primary school day.
In addition, the vast majority of the existing teacher corps had received their training in either English or Afrikaans.
“Only very recently some teacher-training institutions began training teachers in African languages other than Afrikaans. It will take very many years to train enough teachers to teach African languages as subjects,” Colditz said.
“People are not opposed to the idea of learning an indigenous African language but at present the practical and curricular problems are insurmountable. Educationists say that teaching three languages for primary school children is simply too many. This is precisely why the number of subjects was reduced when the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (Caps) was conceptualised and introduced.”
Neil Avery, a lecturer at the University of KZN’s school of education, said the national Education Department’s plan was noble, however there was a widely acknowledged shortage of African language teachers coming out of teacher education programmes, particularly for the lower grades.
Professor Sarah Gravett, the dean of education at the University of Johannesburg, said that the situation was changing, with more students now choosing African languages because they had been prioritised through the Funza Lushaka bursaries.
Gravett said that while finding teachers may be problematic, she was supportive of the move.
The national Education Department said that English first additional language had already been introduced in Grade 1 in those schools where pupils changed to using English as a medium of instruction in Grades 3 or 4.
However, the debate still rages on whether this is the best move by the department.