Rapelang Rabana: Let’s talk about the language barrier and how technology can fix it

Even if fees do fall, we have a much deeper problem. The real issue South Africa faces is changing the trajectory of student performance, particularly disadvantaged students, at higher education institutions.

A 2013 report by the Council of Higher Education indicated that, even if allowance is made for students taking longer than five years to graduate or returning to the system after dropping out, it is estimated that some 55% of the intake will never graduate. This negative throughput rate is unfairly skewed to the disadvantage of students of colour, and the net result of the disparities in access and success is that less than 5% of African and coloured youths are succeeding in any form of higher education.

The English adage that it is easier to tear down than to build up is pertinent in our case. The #FeesMustFall conversation needs an urgent shift of focus to #WhatMustRrise – of building up instead of solely tearing down. To this end, my personal area of interest is in how we build up language and communication equity in higher education, for one’s ability to assimilate knowledge is wholly dependent on reading, writing, speaking and listening at the linguistic level required within tertiary education. The severe lack of confidence in sharing ideas in English, rather than one’s mother tongue, hinders the progress of young learners.

The need for literacy in the form of basic reading and writing skills is well understood. But inadequate language skills at a tertiary level bring its own range of complexities. A tenet of the #FeesMustFall movement is the rejection of the superiority complex created around the English language, Western imperialism and its historically patronising views of Africans. This rejection has profound merit as, much to the detriment of many an African students, it has clouded our judgement of “intelligence” and “ability” for far too long. This refutation enables us to break the bonds of the deeply engrained myth that inadequate English language skills are equal to poor cognitive processing skills.

Making learning environments more inclusive by allowing discussions and explanations in vernacular where required, as well as bridging the language divide with interactive language-based programmes, will be instrumental in dismantling disempowering mindsets. We need to deal pragmatically with empowering the thousands of learners attempting to access, or currently involved in, higher education to ameliorate English language skills where the basic education system has failed them.

While most learners entering higher education speak English – i.e. they have Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) – this is inadequate for the skills required at tertiary education level, because the ability to communicate in a language is not equivalent to the capacity to learn in that language. Learners need to develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) in English to succeed at an English institution. Experts say that this level typically takes 5 to 7 years of immersion to develop, so the odds are painfully stacked against learners, even if they have strong cognitive abilities. Language ultimately dictates your capacity to express, apply and utilise your talents and abilities.

Anecdotal evidence from my engagements with HEI’s, indicates that less than 15% of learners arrive at university with Grade 12 or higher levels of English proficiency. Less than 15% are, therefore, ready to learn at a tertiary level. Moreover a significant proportion, in some cases even a majority, have English proficiency levels of Grade 9 or less. When I imagine such students sitting in a lecture hall trying to listen and absorb, I remember all my futile attempts at watching French movies, despite obtaining a distinction in matric French. Vocabulary experts say that adequate reading comprehension depends on a person knowing a stunning 90% to 95% of the words in a text (Hirsch, 2003). Improving English proficiency and language equity is a fundamental empowerment strategy.

While there are no silver bullets, there are pragmatic steps we can take to improve language equity, including pre-degree foundation programmes and the inclusive use of vernacular language in academic discussion. I believe that the right kind of mobile and online learning tools can make a significant contribution. Furthermore, educators seek cost and time-effective solutions, as HEIs cannot afford to spend time teaching English grammar conventions, discipline-specific vocabulary or academic literacies, and writing principles. Language is the medium through which one expresses the critical thinking abilities required to dissect information in the academic and professional world. Well-designed technology based solutions, that apply the best of what we know of South African learning needs, would be ideally suited to assist intrepid learners.

At this point in time eLearning, as it stands at HEIs, is bewilderingly archaic. PDF files and PowerPoint presentations are put online (with a few videos and hyperlinks for good measure) and are pitifully dubbed eLearning! We haven’t yet, on a mass scale, begun to appreciate how to truly maximise the digital learning medium as it requires a complete reinterpretation of learning experiences in order to optimise its effectiveness. It is, and must be, far more than simply replicating what we experience in an offline teaching environment.

Two approaches have surfaced through my work in building learning technology. The first is very simple – create regular and frequent opportunities for you to get immediate feedback as you learn, as well as adapting the learning steps to your performance so effort is put in where it is most needed. Knowledge must be presented in bite-sized chunks so as not to overwhelm – the popularity of texts, tweets and posts shows how much more comfortable we are with concise information or micro-learning.

In small classrooms of 25 learners an educator is hard pressed to provide personalised feedback for every learner – the odds are even worse for learners in under-resourced schools. In my tutoring days, I discovered that learners often don’t get to review test scripts and rather only see a mark and thus have no idea where they went wrong, or right for that matter. In many cases this feedback loop never, or far too irregularly, closes in order to provide sufficient learning support. In a study in the US, The Cost Effectiveness of 22 Approaches for Raising Student Achievement found that rapid reinforcement was the most cost effective way to improve learning outcomes as compared to approaches including higher pay for teachers, smaller classes or even digital textbooks. Instead of providing online versions of textbooks in the hopes of addressing language challenges, adaptive micro-learning is far more effective in guiding a learner through the conventions of the English language and required academic literacies.

The second approach is the simplest I’ve encountered in developing critical thinking skills. A common complaint about young employees is that they just can’t think! Unpacking this statement, the subject of metacognition, by South African psychologist Dr M Prinsloo, is of particular interest. The meta-prefix refers to awareness of the cognitive processes you are using while problem solving. Simply put, this awareness is important in developing what we refer to as critical thinking skills.

If you are educated and have well developed critical thinking skills you will automatically interrogate what you read and ask yourself questions like: is this familiar? Is this accurate? What are the subcomponents of this situation? What rules are at play here? This internal questioning can be termed meta-voices. And the reality is that many learners leave school without developing this imperative form of critical thinking.

Through explicit intent and practice these voices can be developed. Using the first approach of personalised reinforcement, a learner can practise applying these meta-voices until the questions form part of their self-talk repertoire. Technology can also help by providing real-time coaches for learners to prompt them to interrogate important factors as they are reading an academic paper. At this point, the learner becomes an effective thinker and the goals of education are largely achieved.

Language equity must rise and I believe that technology that applies the best we know about the processes of learning has a major role to play in this quest. Equitable access to higher education goes far beyond fees, but rather requires us to ensure that proficient English language and processing skills are ever increasingly dispersed throughout our country in order to empower more people to excel at university and the world at large.

8 thoughts on “Rapelang Rabana: Let’s talk about the language barrier and how technology can fix it

  1. I was waiting for the most important point to be made, namely that development of the mothertongue also increases the ability to learn a second language.

  2. YES! This is definately the way to go – especially with global integration in mind. Unfortunately local language skills will not be of any value outside South Africa, something that many students tend to loose sight of.

    “This refutation enables us to break the bonds of the deeply engrained myth that inadequate English language skills are equal to poor cognitive processing skills.”

    Too true – I know of many Non-African non-english speaking people who struggle to express themselves in english and for some reason that is not equated to poor congnitive processing skills and they are even applauded for trying to use English… Imagine the person trying to express themselves is, a Spanish tourist visiting South Africa – reframe the situation… just a thought.

    All the best Rapelang – Looking forward to seeing this implemented.

  3. I’m Afrikaans and studied psychology entirely in English. Although it wasn’t easy at first, I did manage to pass almost half of all my modules with distinction. So while I agree that language can be a massive barrier in learning, I know from first hand experience that it is a barrier that can be crossed if the learner is adequately motivated to succeed.

    In my opinion, based on what I’ve observed, this is where our biggest problem lies: Motivation.

    Motivation can be broken down into two parts: external locus of control, and internal locus of control.

    A person with external locus of control doesn’t feel as if he is in control of his own situation and will look for reasons in his environment if he has difficulties. It has also been shown that students with external locus of control have more learning problems than students with internal locus of control (I will not cite sources here, but a quick search on Google should verify these points).

    There is a strong correlation between victimhood and external locus of control. Therefore, in my opinion, the view some students have that they are victims of an unfair system, whether these views are accurate or not, also plays a major role in the high failure rate. Even if the language barrier is breached, I’m afraid we still need to look at the culture of victimhood in South Africa, and how it is in a sense being propagated by populist leaders. Even if the system is unfair, the psychology of victimhood is maintained by the victim, not by the system.

    It is interesting to note that more black students graduated relative to white students when apartheid was at its worse than there are black students graduating now. To me this fact is indicative of a new black youth that has inherited a form of learned victimhood from a previous generation.

    The situation is actually far better today than it was in the eighties. Yet the success rate of students have decreased significantly. A higher level of perceived victimhood is the most likely explanation.

    In my opinion, language is an important issue, but it will be pointless to focus on this while ignoring the perceived victimhood among our black students. Something has to be done about that.

  4. I am advocating for English 1st language to be taught from grade 5 to grade 12 in our township and rural schools. I am aware how we value our native/african laguages, however when one consider to study post graduate degrees especially writting dissertation for Masters or PHD’s the competence in english language becomes critical. It is the principals and communities ( student governing body) that can institute changes in the townships and rural schools not the department of basic education/government/politicians. Please note we have to prepare our current generation (learners) to can compite globally. African languages or native languages from grade 5 to grade 12 I propose to be presented as 2nd languages.

  5. We still have a journey to travel. Most township/rural schools do not teach learners to engage the teacher or the subject. One finds this at varsity, students merely become sponges, absorbing facts to pass and never engaging the facts to create knowledge. For many Black students, expressing themselves in English is a fear. However students from pure Afrikaans schools who do not care if they abuse English or not, they have been trained and allowed to engage both the content and the lecturer (teacher).

    If there is another thing that must rise, is initiative from content creators to produce Education material in the other languages. There is much we can learn from Afrikaaners, they have schools whereby teaching and learning is in Afrikaans and their learners still do well at University. What stops us Black South Africans from doing the same.
    Finally, I have had exceptional results conducting Microsoft Word and Excel tutorials in Xhosa. All but one of 13 students got 75% and above.

    Good read, all the best for you future endeavors.

  6. Finally! LangEquityMustRise. Perhaps we can now start to accept that Bantu languages are not sufficient for higher learning and should not be primary in Institutions or we should start developing them because they have not changed much since the 1800s. The argument that pins Afrikaans against Bantu languages, I think it is fruitless and a pure waste of time. Afrikaans has been developed from languages that have been around since the 1100s and these languages were not merely spoken but in text, now to compare that with languages that the first known texts/scribes where found in the late 1700s.

    I think we should just swallow our pride and show some gratitude, because with how things were going most Africans would not have known how to write. I am not taking away from what happened in 1976 with the students, but I can imagine their frustrations were not with the language per say but rather how it was imposed upon them and who it represented. Now today we have somewhat a choice which is more than what most nations get; either learn English or Afrikaans, there are nations where the students are taught French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic yet they do not have the option of using it as a primary medium in Higher Institutions.

    Lets assume we do decide to develop the Bantu languages, then how do we achieve that without getting tangled in tribal wars of who’s language is better and end up with a genocide? Why not just pick a language that can be useful in learning and talk vernacular with your kin. Afrikaans is not a product of Apartheid. It was not for whites only, hence we find over a million South Africans of colour who have it as a home language and it is spoken in Namibia which has a black majority population.

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