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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


BORNMAN, Elirea; PAUW, JC; POTGIETER, Petrus H  and  JANSE VAN VUUREN, Hermanus H. Mother-tongue education, mother-tongue learning and identity: Reasons for and problems with choosing Afrikaans as the language of teaching. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2017, vol.57, n.3, pp.724-746. ISSN 2224-7912.

The article discusses the responses of Afrikaans-speaking students to an open question contained in a questionnaire survey. The study focused on the factors influencing language choice in higher education and specifically at Unisa, the largest and oldest open-distance learning institution in Africa. It involved an internet survey of a sample of Unisa students, namely those who indicated on their registration forms that they were Afrikaans speaking or spoke Afrikaans and English as well as students who enrolled for at least one module in Afrikaans. The question, on which the current article focuses, can be translated as "Give the most important reasons(s) why you have chosen to study in Afrikaans". The background against which we investigate the students' responses includes theory on the role of language in education. More specifically, we focus on the role of mother-tongue education and mother-tongue learning as well as the role of language as a symbol of identity. We also discuss aspects of the language policy in higher education in South Africa and discourses on the declining position of Afrikaans as a language of learning and teaching (LoLT). A total of 2 794 completed questionnaires were received. With regard to language choice, 1393 (50,7%) of the respondents had chosen to study in Afrikaans and 1314 (47,8%) in English, while 87 respondents (or 1,5%) did not respond to the question on language choice. The reasons provided for their language choices by the subsample of respondents, who had chosen to study in Afrikaans, were first analysed thematically. Frequencies were then calculated for the themes that emerged. The theme most often mentioned relates to various advantages of mother-tongue education and mother-tongue learning. Respondents used a variety of terms indicating attachment to Afrikaans as their first language, such as "my mother tongue", "my home language" and "my language". The responses furthermore refer to various advantages of being taught and being able to learn in their mother tongue. The respondents indicated, among other things, that they not only learned faster and more effectively in their mother tongue, but that they also achieved deeper insight into the learning material. A distinction was therefore drawn between merely acquiring knowledge or facts - described as rote learning - and acquiring insight and being able to apply and communicate about the learning contents. This was contrasted with learning through the medium of their second language (English), which necessitated - despite the fact that they had a good knowledge of English - the frequent use of a dictionary. Respondents also indicated that communicating in their mother tongue is easier in stressful situations such as examinations. Lastly, they were convinced that mother-tongue teaching and learning enhanced their academic achievement. A second overarching theme revolves around the role of the mother tongue in defining identity and heritage. Responses referred to pride in their language, their language rights and language activism. It was further surprising to find, contrary to the prevailing misconception that English has become the language of the workplace, that a considerable number of respondents connected their choice in a positive way to their occupational environment. Certain students indicated that their choice had been influenced by the fact that they had attended Afrikaans schools. Respondents also noted various problems related to studying through Afrikaans, for example that most textbooks were written in English only. The findings of the study have provided insight into the learning strategies that students use in distance learning and their generally positive experiences of mother-tongue teaching and learning. These findings support claims in the literature regarding the advantages of mother-tongue education, for example that mother-tongue learning facilitates the integration of new knowledge with existing knowledge; allows for a deeper understanding of concepts; and enhances academic achievement. The results of the study emphasise that the role of language in higher education is not restricted to pedagogical concerns and highlights the important role of language as a symbol of identity. Thus language choice in higher education can be seen as both a cause and a consequence of identification processes. The impact of higher education institutions on identity formation and identity dynamics in society at large should therefore not be underestimated.

Keywords : Choice of language; language attitudes; higher education; language of teaching; Afrikaans; mother-tongue education; mother-tongue learning; identity; textbooks; Unisa.

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