Unreadiness of Indigenous Languages to be used as Media of Instruction in South African Schools: Real or mere Language Ideology?

Author: WS Nkabinde (University of Zululand, South Africa)
Speaker: WS Nkabinde
Topic: Pedagogical Anthropology
The GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


The intended paper is inspired by the findings of research work on the role of English as the only Medium of Instruction (MoI) in rural and township schools of South Africa. The results indicate that this decision creates problems for the learners concerned. Amongst others, Webb (2002) and Williams (1993 & 1996) in Webb et al. (2010, 279) assert that black rural and township learners generally have an inadequate proficiency in English, and this has a greater impact on their (curricular) performance. Referring to the Californian situation where English was the only permitted language for instruction, Gutierrez et al. (2002) describe the effect of the English-only policy and its practice as “devastating”. For the similar conditions in South Africa where the learners’ primary languages are rejected, McKinney (2017) asserts the following:
It is strange that the most treasured resource a child brings to formal schooling, language, is deemed a problem (McKinney, 2017: xv). Despite a plethora of voices disapproving of the English monopoly of the South African education, the status quo has remained intact and doesn’t seem to come to an end anytime soon. Instead, reasons condoning the perpetuation of the situation are being given. Amongst the reasons offered, is the ‘unreadiness” of the indigenous African languages to carry the Medium of Instruction role because they lack standardisation, and are technology-unfriendly (Webb, 2010: 281). Moreover, the increased number of code-mixed varieties (urban vernaculars) in some parts of the country is also cited as a reason justifying the rejection of South African indigenous languages from the education space. The aim of this paper is to interrogate the dynamics related to the unreadiness of the said languages to carry the MoI responsibilities in some South African schools. That is, can it be possible that the “unreadiness” is just a pretext for language ideologies?
The significance of the paper: Whether the claim is valid or not, the paper will alert different human communities of the possible deliberate extinguishing of their respective languages. Subsequently, mechanisms of defending and protecting people’s cultural assets will be developed.

Keywords: Indigenous language, South Africa, Standardisation, Medium of Instruction, Language Ideology