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Opposing Monolingual Bias in Our Classrooms

Multilingualism is a critical part of South Africa’s diverse social fabric. This reality is enshrined in section 29 (2) of the Constitution which maintains that everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public education institutions where that education is reasonably practicable. Through this right, learners’ diversity and individuality are recognised, and the important goal of unlocking their potential fully realised. However, English – and in some contexts Afrikaans – remain the dominant modes of teaching, learning and business in this country. The questions of what multilingualism really means, how it can be realised, and how it might be celebrated as a resource rather than a problem formed the topics of discussion at BRIDGE’s first Joint Early Grade Reading (EGR) and Teacher Development (TD) Community of Practice (CoP) held on the 22nd May 2019.

UCT lecturer Xolisa Guzula presented on ‘Multiliteracies Pedagogy: Plurality of language or multilingualism and multimodality’. Xolisa critiqued the monolingual bias in South African education, particularly ‘anglonormativity’, which is the expectation that people will and should be proficient in English and are deficient – even deviant – if they are not. In ex-Model C schools it’s not just English but a particular variety of standard South African English which aligns with whiteness that is privileged. There is a contradiction/gap between the multilingual language practices, and performances of South African children (and adults) in everyday life, and the dominant monolingual orientation of curricula, language policy, assessments and what is enforced or desired in schools and classrooms.

Xolisa expounded on multiliteracies as a pedagogical approach developed by the New London Group. The approach maintains that pedagogy has to value cultural and linguistic differences of learners and develop an epistemology of linguistic and cultural pluralism (linguistic and cultural diversity as a norm). This in turn leads to a pedagogy of productive diversity which considers what diverse groups bring to a classroom as a resource for the design of lessons and as a resource for all learners in a classroom.

Multiliteracies debunk the concept of languages as pure, autonomous and bounded entities that shouldn’t be ‘contaminated’ with other languages. It rejects the myth that monolingualism, or a high level of proficiency in a single named language is the norm and that linguistic purity is good while ‘mixed’ languages are deficient.

The CoP also included the perspective of two Foundation Phase educators teaching in multilingual classrooms. Catherine Mlanjeni and Sarika Bagoo– Foundation Phase HODs from Actonville Primary School – discussed some of the challenges faced by teachers in bilingual/ multilingual schools and some of the solutions they’ve developed. Their joint presentation touched on the focus of monolingual education in university for pre-service teachers and the lack of awareness of linguistic diversity in most classrooms. Both teachers, as well as Xolisa, affirmed the importance and value of code switching, multi-modal teaching practices (learning styles can differ from one culture to the next) and peer-to-peer translation when teaching English to learners who aren’t first language English speakers. Leveraging digital tools such as multiliteracy resources online, and the oral storytelling abilities of community members were also mentioned as creative solutions to the problem of monolingual bias in South African education.

The focus on multilingualism also forms part of the broader project to decolonise education. If we are to take this movement seriously, decolonised education in South Africa must put African languages at the center of its teaching and learning project.

To access the Meeting Highlights from the joint CoP, click here.