English is only one of 11 official languages spoken in South Africa. It’s currently the preferred language of education and is used in many of the nation’s schools. But most children entering the education system are not native English speakers and many are still in the process of learning English by the time they arrive at school.
The main language of instruction in education influences academic and career progress. Oral language proficiency is a foundational skill that’s required to develop the ability to read which in turn is required, together with writing, for all types of learning.
Language use in schools has been a focus in both national and international research. It is largely agreed that learners should be taught in their home language. However, many countries continue to promote English instruction including Kenya, India, and South Africa. The conflict between what is being implemented in schools and what is recommended by the available research remains unresolved.
There is a strong body of work that shows that learning problems can develop if the language in which a child has oral proficiency is not the same as the language of instruction. As a result, policymakers in most countries now recommend home language instruction for the first years of education after which a gradual transition to another language can be made.
But the policy won’t succeed unless there is buy-in from the general public. In designing and implementing education language policy, it’s therefore necessary to understand peoples’ preferences.
We set out to find out what these are in South Africa. We examined public attitudes towards main language of instruction at different levels in the South African education system. Preferences for language of instruction at different stages of education was examined for the period 2003–2016 and this allowed us to map any changes in attitude.
We found that a majority of the population favoured English as the language of instruction at all levels of education. It is clear that people are unaware of the benefits of home language instruction and may resist efforts to promote the teaching of African languages in South African schools.