As an English teacher, I used to tell my learners – ‘English only in this classroom!’ It didn’t always work, and now I don’t think I would do the same anymore because of what I have learnt since then:

People don’t keep languages in separate compartments in their brain
People who are multilingual draw on different languages in their heads to make meaning. I’m pretty sure that when my learners were sitting in my class there were a lot of isiXhosa in their heads, and some were probably translating words I said into isiXhosa to help them understand what I was saying. Instead of ignoring that, I could have used isiXhosa as a resource to help with understanding. We could have had a discussion on how you would say these words in isiXhosa, and even perhaps how isiXhosa would express it differently. This would not only help them with understanding, but would also be developing higher order thinking, as translation is an interesting and challenging activity.

You need to make meaning of what you read – using all tools at your disposal
Making meaning of what you read is vital, so even if the text is in English, it is extremely beneficial to discuss the more challenging concepts in a language you feel comfortable in. When we discussed witchcraft in one of our prescribed setworks, for example, it may be that my learners weren’t able to express their opinions fully and were limited by their English vocabulary. It would have been good for them to express their thoughts about the play as extensively as they could in any language, as this would help them develop their thinking more fully.

People feel comfortable speaking in their home language
Attitude is a vital part of learning. How you feel affects how you learn. If learners feel silenced because they are not confident about English, then this will impact their attitude to their studies. And if learners are labelled ‘stupid’ or ‘slow’ this can affect their feelings about themselves and their own performance; this label is too often given to learners whose main problem is that they are shy to speak English.

Language is part of your identity
And, linked to the point above, your home language is linked to your identity. In South Africa, just as black Africans were oppressed, so African languages were not given the recognition or status they deserve. We cannot ignore our history, and how it has led to the unequal society we have today, which includes acknowledging the inequality between languages themselves. I now think that me banning isiXhosa in my class could have made learners feel that isiXhosa was not as important, as valuable as English – an attitude that has been entrenched by colonialism previously. For proper learning, I need to respect everything that my learners bring into the classroom, language included.

Learning in home language improves learning in English
Research has shown that the best way to learn English is to first learn your own home language well. The way we do it in South Africa – with learners jumping from home language in grade 3 to English in grade 4 – makes learning extremely challenging. Learners should be learning difficult concepts in their home languages first. And they should be learning English as well from early. So it is not a matter of either learning in English OR developing our learners’ home language. Both are important for their academic development. By high school level learners do need to be studying in English. But that doesn’t mean they have to neglect the development of their own home language.

However, rules are sometimes there to be broken! When I was discussing this with a group of teachers from the Eastern Cape, an English teacher who spoke isiXhosa as a home language said that she has used the ‘only English’ rule effectively, and still created supportive, comfortable environments where learners felt safe to take risks and experiment with language. Good teaching is good teaching! So it can work, and if you have managed this effectively yourself then it’s not all wrong.

In general, though, we need to recognise a learners’ home language as a rich resource rather than obstacle or problem.