MOST pupils in South African schools face a language barrier in the classroom.
Children who cannot use the language t hey are most familiar with, (usually the home language), are unlikely to pe r form to the best of their ability. This has far-reaching consequences, all manifested in the failure of our education system.
The Home-Language Project is piloting a multi-bilingualism approach in a state primary school in Johannesburg with eight home languages per grade.
It aims for every child to develop two working languages, the common classroom medium (English in our case) and the child's home language (any of ten).
Thereafter it is concerned with how these home languages can be used alongside each other to support the common language, even where the teacher speaks only one language.
Most of us understand bilingualism as the teaching of two languages as subjects, with only one of these being used as the classroom language.
But this approach treats the home language as a support language and breaks away from the assumption that there can be only one classroom language.
Research tells us that a second language needs up to eight years of well-resourced teaching before it can be successfully used as a medium of teaching and learning.
Yet the Grade 4 transition to English-only continues in the face of damning results.
Multi-bilingualism gives each child a pair of languages, with no need to drop the home language in Grade 4 or Grade 7.
This way every pupil can use the home language orally in the classroom via same-language peer interaction, alongside the common language.
The child can use the home language to think through problems with a same-language partner. This can be geared up with parallel-language texts.
This method is being demonstrated in numeracy lessons for large (40 +) multilingual classes of Foundation Phase children and can be introduced anywhere, any time for any subject.
The public commonly believe simply using English in the classroom will result in the child learning good English.
The reality is very different.
It will take more than improved teaching to change this, as without a firm linguistic foundation at home, most African-language pupils learning through English will only score between 20 percent and 40 percent in English by Grade 12.
In the last decade, fewer than 2 percent of African-language first language speakers have gained a university entrance pass in maths or science, and fewer than 30 percent of pupils who start school achieve a Grade 12.
Yet we have good maths results coming from poor rural schools, where the unofficial oral use of the home language alongside English helps .
We can make the whole system work better by using better teaching methodologies.
l The writer is a manager at the Home-Language Project.