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“There’s a social justice agenda that gets and keeps me passionate about this work” – a Q&A with Lara Krause, language activist and PhD researcher into mother tongue education

Published in the Sunday World: 27 May 2018; Daily Dispatch: 28 May 2018; Herald: 31 May 2018)

By Carla Lever

Lara Krause, language activist and PhD researcher into mother tongue education. Photo supplied.

You’ve specialised in language and education in South Africa for many years now. What gets you so passionate about these topics?

It’s always struck me that something as universal as language, which was never an obstacle in my own education, can make life so difficult for millions of children at school. So there’s a social justice agenda that gets and keeps me passionate about this work. I’m also excited by the idea of debating what language really is – what counts as a ‘proper’ language and what gets dismissed as unacceptable or informal.

There is a big and important movement fighting for access to mother tongue education, but your research suggests it’s a complicated issue. Why is that?

Well, one issue is that South Africa is a country where most children grow up speaking more than one neat language category – they mix isiZulu, English, isiXhosa and maybe Afrikaans as a normal part of everyday life. They communicate just as efficiently as everyone else – perhaps more efficiently! – but what is their mother tongue? It shows the shortcomings of our thinking.

Can you give us some practical examples where school language policy doesn’t always help children?

Well, the numbers used in everyday isiXhosa are mostly adapted from English – the formal isiXhosa words for numbers are almost never used. When children learn maths in ‘mother tongue’, though, they are often taught standard isiXhosa words for numbers – words that are actually foreign to them! This sometimes has children being marked down in tests if, for example, they can’t write a number like 153 out in standard isiXhosa words. These children can often count and work with numbers perfectly well – it’s just that the words they know are not acknowledged because they don’t fit into one language category. That’s not a failure of thinking, it’s a failure of policy.

In your experience, what creative things are teachers doing in practice to help students with this?

Teachers work a lot with visual aids, I find. Even though resources are often hard to come by, they print posters, bring pictures or postcards to continuously illustrate what is being spoken about. I’ve also seen teachers physically act out vocabulary that they are teaching and integrating little jokes to make learners remember things better. I’ve been really impressed by the creativity teachers bring under very difficult circumstances!

Obviously it’s important that we turn around our literacy rates in South Africa. Do you think a more flexible approach to language use might help with this?

Yes! If I could decide, I would relax language restrictions when it comes to writing in content subjects in primary school. Children should be free to use whichever language resources they have to show their knowledge. We should also stop worrying so much about teachers mixing languages in the classroom – research suggests it’s one of the most efficient ways of helping students understand. We should legitimise and support any practices which help our children learn and develop a love of using language to express themselves. As they are exposed to standard ways of saying and writing things in the books they read, children absorb the formal rules if they’re allowed to grow into them.

You’ve done some work with picture stories to see how children naturally write. Can you tell us about why you did this and what you discovered?

I wanted to see how children choose to write if they are allowed to use any mix of languages they like. It looks as if children write more courageously and freely when not restricted to ‘one language’. This data is my current project so the insights are not very detailed yet.

How can parents and communities best support children to become curious, creative readers and thinkers? Are there any tips you’d give on supporting how children close to us talk and write?

I think it would be great to start early to expose children to different types of texts. Reading books together with children and talking about them is incredibly valuable and conducive to any sort of learning activity. However, if books are not always at hand, a whatsapp message with lots of emojis that mom just got from dad can be turned into a resource for learning about reading, writing and creativity as well, just like the writings on the wall of the spaza shop and the lyrics of children’s favorite songs.

From Sunday April 15, Nal’ibali will be publishing its supplements in two new languages. An English-Setswana edition will be published in the Sunday World in the North West, and an English-Xitsonga edition will be donated to reading clubs in Limpopo. Clubs in both provinces will collect their copies from select post offices. The post offices (10 in each province) will also have 50 additional editions each to give away to member of the public.


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