A few months ago I went to Limpopo for a week. We visited schools that were part of FunDza’s online courses to inspire and motivate the students to read the stories and participate. The courses are to help improve their comprehension and develop their vocabulary and language skills. The visit was marvellous and the kids very excited and willing to learn (it had nothing to do with our fabulousness as facilitators). We also got to learn about the challenges that the schools faced and one of them, apart from the large sizes of the classes, was the language issue.

English is still the medium of instruction and examination in our schools. It is the language of communication in the world, depending on where you are, and it is still the language of business. The teachers told of how the students struggled with reading and communicating in English, and these were grade 9 learners. I can also testify to this as the students struggled to string sentences together to engage in the discussions we had, or just to answer questions. This made it difficult for them to speak up and therefore some would end up not participating because they were uncomfortable. These kids became part of the trouble makers as they were not really engaged (understandable feeling of being left out) and would make comments in Venda that would get the class laughing. These kids carry a stigma of being the dumb ones in the classes because they can’t speak English.

Now this is in 2017, after our education systems have been changed so many times to better suit and equip the students. Even though this is such, the pass rates are as low as ever. Which makes me ask the question: What are we doing wrong?

I was educated under the Bantu Education system and at the time saw or knew nothing wrong with it. It was only after I leaned about this system and where it came from and why it was implemented that I saw how wrong it was. But the system has changed a couple of times since then. However, when I compare my education and the outcomes of it, to that of today, I worry about our youth and wonder how much has changed…

Working in the literacy space, I’m shocked at the level of literacy our youth have today. It saddens me that the majority, especially those in the rural areas, can’t read well. The medium of instruction in these schools is English, as it was for us. But learners struggle so much that the teacher must then revert to their mother tongue to be understood. This is good: teach a child in a language that they understand so they can do better. But these kids have to write their exams in English and spend the rest of their lives trying to be part of a society that will never really accept them, no matter how well they do.

I’ll unpack this and maybe you’ll understand.

I’m a kid of the 80s who matriculated in 2002. I went to a township school with township kids. All our subjects were taught in English, except for the languages, Afrikaans and Xhosa. As I’ve said before, I saw nothing wrong with this.

I loved school. Because everything was taught in English and I loved the language, I spoke it even outside of class. This didn’t get me many friends as I was then ‘the weird kid who always speaks English’ when people referred to me; my birthmark had lost to this description of me. My classmates were not that different from those learners from Limpopo. English was difficult, and it wasn’t fashionable to do well. But for me, even to this day, I speak more English than I do Xhosa, my home language, and I still see nothing wrong with this.

What bothers me is when people applaud my way of speaking and ask where I went to school. When I tell them to a township school they have never heard of their reactions are priceless. “Noooo, really? You don’t sound it? You must have had a great background then and some great influences,” they say.

This, to me, implies that this is not natural for a black, Xhosa kid from Motherwell. That I’m supposed to speak broken English and not be so well versed and articulated. I find this insulting, though I never say anything. Am I supposed to be less than great, excellent and special, just because I’m black? Or is there more to this and I just don’t know?

Although I didn’t consciously decide to be a coconut, I became one and was part of a society that spoke like I did and read what I read. But even though I think I am part of this society, I’m still an outsider. I still have to work twice as hard to become barely comfortable in life. It’s something hard to accept.

But why is it still like this? That even though we need English as much as we did before to succeed, being good at English (English teaching hasn’t improved so this is hard) is still seen as losing your roots, or becoming a ‘cheese girl’? Why can’t we be both – excellent in English, and our mother tongue? Why aren’t our schools managing to achieve this?

Our schools, unlike the multiracial or so-called Model C schools, don’t even have extracurricular activities anymore: no sports, no athletics, no drama, no choir, nothing. Our classrooms are packed to the brim and teachers are meant to cope with it and push the syllabus. Our kids are meant to learn these subjects that might not help them in future, because let’s face it, the majority will not make it to tertiary anyway. And then they must become adults and find jobs and contribute to society.

Deep sigh.

The system is meant to have changed but it still is the same system used in the days of old, and so is keeping the African child in service jobs. For this, I blame our elders that were entrusted with our democracy and freedom. They chose for themselves and their houses, and nobody cared to ask the African child what she needed or wanted.

There are many debates about language. There is research that shows that young children who learn in their mother tongue for longer, and slowly add English, actually end up with better English language skills in the long run than those who get little instruction in their mother tongue.

So perhaps it would it be better if the language of instruction was the mother tongue spoken in schools? But would that not discriminate against some – as our classrooms are reflective of our ‘rainbow nation’, containing multiple cultures and languages?

I don’t know what the answers are. But it feels to me as if we are still feeding our kids a language they can’t help resenting and that we are losing them. The question is – what can we do about it?

Tell us what you think: What languages should be used in schools?