Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Is English an Option?

No, according to Abiola Lapite on Foreign Dispatches. Apparently, the South African education minister has said that English will be downgraded from a core subject to being optional. Abiola presents some good reasons why English should be maintained at the core of the SA education system: namely that it is a vehicle for economic improvement. It is simpy the international language of the rich.

I kind of agree with Abiola on this, although we should note that English is but one of eleven official languages in SA, and is in no way the most widely spoken. We should also note that the right to learn any two official languages will in practice be restricted by a simple lack of textbooks and other resources. And we should remember that most people will continue to choose English or Afrikaans as one of their choices anyway.

Moreover, the SA government is in a difficult position on the language question. The legacy of Apartheid is still to be seen in many ways, one of which is the continuing prevelance of Afrikaans among the black population. I'm guessing that the government is wary of being seen to favour the two white official languages over the many languages spoken by the remainder of the population.

That said, there is no reason why a language like English shouldn't be presented as a universal second language, as is often the case in India (which actually relies on a two-plus-one model, ie., English, Hindi and a regional language.1 There are good benefits to this economically and it wouldn't put the quality of first language learning at risk.

Of course, though, the most major constraint on social mobility through education isn't really langauge learning as such. It's the poor quality of education for children in townships combined with inadequate resource allocation.

1 Which reminds me of a recurring thought I have when people complain of the lack of bi-lingualism amongst the English. Namely, that enormous numbers of Englsh people are bi-lingual, but it isn't noticed because their second language is Urdu or Gujarati or the like.

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