Education is an important aspect throughout the globe, as it is included in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 2022). In South Africa, the right to basic education is established within the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. This right is treated as one of the critical governmental obligations because the country cannot function without educated individuals. However, there have been cases where the right to education has been violated to some extent through barriers such as language. This study explores the importance of multilingualism concerning the right to education.
Education refers to developing skills to secure a chance in the socio-economic phases. In other terms, it is the process of teaching and learning. Through teaching, information is shared, which takes the study to the role of a teacher. The teacher combines learning materials and expertise to provide a comfortable learning environment for learners as they have rights to education as stipulated by the South African Constitution(Frost and Sullivan, 2017).
McConnachie and Skelton (2017) assert that the South African Constitution is a transformative legal document because it seeks to improve the country instead of leaving things the way they are. The apartheid system caused an unequal and dysfunctional educational system, on which the democratic South Africa changes have been slow. However, it must be noted that basic education for most is a hope to escape socio-economic difficulties.
Right to education: South African constitution
The right to basic education content is included in section 29(1) of the Constitution. Section 29(1) of the Constitution stipulates that everyone has the right to basic education and adult education (McConnachie and Skelton, 2017:15). The Constitution includes further education, whereby government should have reasonable measures in place to make further education accessible and available. Therefore, section 29 of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution ensures that the fundamental right to education is protected, respected and promoted (Churr, 2015: 2405).
In section 7(2) of the Constitution, the state is obligated to protect and promote the rights in the ‘bill of rights’. Therefore the court has the power to compel the state to provide basic education. Furthermore, the state is obligated to prevent parents and caregivers from being obstacles to children’s right to basic education; learners must not be hindered from enjoying teaching, and the state must implement measures to ensure all children enjoy their rights. Additionally, the state must avoid taking actions that would prevent children from learning, although during the lockdown period, this right was violated.
According to Pendlebury (2009), the South African educational system has to be expandable and flexible. The two variables mean that the education system needs to adapt to changing societies by accommodating learners and students based on their different cultural and social structures. A curriculum needs to pay attention to the needs of learners. However, some schools fail to accommodate various learners in terms of language subjects. These learners are subjected to the choices made by School Governing Body, regardless of the school being well-resourced to provide multiple language choices.
Section 29 of the Constitution stipulates that a learner has the right to choose ‘subject languages’ in public educational institutions where reasonable. In this case, allowing learners to select the language they are most comfortable with is appropriate. Therefore, the choice of English as a subject for the first additional language is not debated to some extent to make it comfortable for learners when they reach higher institutions of learning. However, prescribing another language for the learner without consulting them first or checking the language they are likely to pass is inconsiderate.
Section 29 of the Constitution further supports the argument that a child should be given a chance to make their “language choice” in the context of their mother tongue. In Section 29(2), the Constitution is on the view that everyone has the right to be taught in the official language of their choice within public educational institutions, meaning that everyone has the right to enjoy their culture and should not be denied that request (Section 30 of the Constitution).
Churr (2015:2405) argues that the South African government plans to implement a new action plan called Schooling 2025. The action plan is focused on teachers, learners, school funds, numeracy, literacy and general education quality. This plan aims to teach learners in their mother language for the first three years. However, English will remain compulsory but will not be a replacement for the mother tongue. The schooling 2025 plan is a clear indicator that learners should have the option to choose their mother tongue as part of their subjects instead of being forced to learn a language selected by the School's Governing Body.
Language in Education Policy Act 27 of 1996
Section 30, 31 and 35 of the Constitution denotes the language rights within the context of South Africa. For example, section 6(1) of the Constitution recognises 11 languages, 9 being indigenous African. In comparison, section 6(2) of the Constitution allows the state to advance all the languages. Furthermore, Section 29(2) of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to be offered education in their chosen language. This demonstrates that the school should be provided with the opportunity to have many languages, which will open the platform for learners to make their own choices. The Education department needs to introduce additional languages in the school to move with the ‘schooling 2025’ programme by Angie Motshekga. The failure of the school to have various languages violates multilingualism, as stipulated by the Language in Education Policy Act, Language Policy for Higher Education and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. The school may be dragged by organisations such as the Human Rights Council to court.
Du Toit (2016) notes the case of Afriforum in 2015 against higher education. Afriforum took universities to the court regarding their language policies; the organisation argued that Afrikaans is diminishing. The concern that should be raised in this case is that Afriforum sees the need to protect the Afrikaan's language. However, the school fails to recognise the necessity of additional languages to make learning easy for children from various backgrounds.
Multilingualism: the case of the South African educational system
In South Africa, most people's mother tongues are not Afrikaans or English. Mkhize and Balfour (2018:135) argue that the continuation of Afrikaans and English being the dominant official languages in the public arena undermines the rights of others, as noted in the Constitution and legislative frameworks. The hegemony of these languages in the education domain does not respect the Constitution, Language Policy for Higher Education of 2002, and Language in Education Policy of 2007.
The school must consider the importance of learners choosing the language they are most comfortable with rather than continuing with the legacy of the apartheid system. Although the School Governing Body sees it essential to enforce two languages, Fouche (2009) notes that implementing a language that learners cannot comprehend leads to a high possibility of failure.
According to BusinessTech (2022), the basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, states that the education department is moving with plans to introduce various mother-tongue languages in the school's curriculum. Fouche's (2009) argument is correct concerning the risk of failure if learners are taught a language they do not understand. Motshekga noted that the problem with South African education is that children are taught in a foreign language while they can excel in their mother tongue.
Motshekga states that the government has successfully implemented the mother-tongue project in most Eastern Cape schools and plans to expand this project to other provinces. She elaborates that in 2015 schools introduced IsiXhosa and Sesotho as the language of the learning environment and teaching in all phases. Through this pilot, learners are taught natural science, mathematics and technology in the language they understand(BusinessTech, 2022).
The drawback of teaching in a language learners are comfortable with using is that the assessments are in English, which is problematic because the learners succumb to the language they do not understand (BusinessTech, 2022). This demonstrates that learners are tested based on their language abilities rather than cognitive development. Therefore, technology is necessary to translate scientific terms and mathematics frameworks into languages learners can understand to rectify the language barrier. This takes the discussion to communication and technology below:
Education: communication, human dignity and technology
The “Section 10 right to human dignity” can be seen as the umbrella body for all other rights within the Bill of Rights. The motion of human dignity refers to the ideology that all people have value and should be respected and protected. Human dignity protects all people against humiliation, exploitation, belittling treatment and poor conditions. However, the situation that learners face in school violates their right to learning and dignity. The fact that they are not allowed to choose the language they are more likely to excel indicates that the Education Department is failing these learners.
It must be noted that failing the home language and the first additional language means failure. This means that students from most South African schools face the risk of failing because they are not allowed to choose their home language or first additional language. They are in jeopardy of being left behind unless the Department of Education addresses this inequality. The government needs to invest in the education of future leaders.
Montoya (2020) notes that COVID-19 demonstrated that most schools do not have access to online-based learning. This is problematic because communication and technology integration seem not as important in the education sector. As a result, learners face poor conditions, and online learning demonstrates that the situation is worse, while the language issue adds to the current crisis. Angie Motshekga stated that technology would translate mathematics and science concepts to the language learners understand (BusinessTech, 2022), demonstrating the importance of additional languages for the school in preparation for the future.
In preparation for the future, the government has introduced the “Incremental Introduction of African Languages” in South African Schools, targeting the implementation of additional African languages. The policy aims to give learners access to African Language and not only be dependent on English and Afrikaans. The new framework of 2017 offers three official languages, one for the home language and two for additional. However, there will be one obligatory African language in all the phases of learning. (Ferreira-Meyers and Horne, 2017).
The incremental introduction of the African Languages policy indicates the importance of the school in introducing additional languages since the school is oversubscribed with learners from various backgrounds. As stated by the principal, the School Governing Body's ‘response’ demonstrates that they cater to the parents rather than the learners. Learners need priority in choosing the language they are comfortable in because parents are not the ones writing exams. The failure of the school to introduce additional languages violates the Incremental Introduction of African Languages policy.
It is essential to measure learners' intelligence through language assessments to determine the language of preference, where they will likely excel. South Africa is a democratic nation with policies supporting the “language of choice”. Without the introduction of additional language means that the Education policies and Constitution are violated and contradicted.
It is crucial for the well-being of learners to introduce additional languages. Although parents' opinions in this scenario matter, one must note that it is not the parents who are writing exams but the learners. Therefore, the Education Department should view additional languages as beneficial to the learners. The learners have the right to primary education as stipulated by the South African Constitution and should be allowed to choose their preferred language.
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