English in the Xhosa classroom

18 Jun 2006 - 14:12

WHILE her study may seem to have a distinctly local flavour, the PhD findings of language development lecturer Rochelle Kapp on the attitudes of Xhosa speakers in township schools towards English has proven to have some international mileage, and has made its way into an applied linguistics programme in the United States.

Kapp, who is married to Professor Kelwyn Sole of the Department of English Language and Literature, is co-ordinator of the Centre for Higher Education Development's (CHED) Language Development Unit, and works mostly with first-year students from disadvantaged school backgrounds for whom English is a second language. In 1997, she decided that she needed to find out a little more about these students' scholastic backgrounds.

"I guess one of the things that bothered me is that we don't know much about former DET schools," she says of her initial concerns. "We develop policies and we develop curricula which are meant to bridge the gap between school and university, but not much research has been done about these schools, and I really wanted to know what goes on in those classrooms."

In her thesis, The Politics of English: a study of classroom discourses in a township school, Kapp revealed some of what "goes on" in the English subject classrooms of one Western Cape township high school, information she gathered mostly through observation and interviews. According to Kapp, she found a number of contradictions with regard to English at this school. "Students say they are highly motivated to learn English," she reports. "My data about attitudes towards English are overwhelmingly positive. English is associated with modernisation, conflated with education. English is viewed as the language of the future and this future is constructed away from home, outside of the township." But speaking English comes at a price, Kapp pointed out. "Speaking in a second language is always difficult.

"To speak English aloud in class is to risk humiliation and derision. Some students take that risk and are marked as 'Model Cs', aspiring to 'white' norms and values, this, despite the fact that many of the students' processes of identification are located in western, particularly, American popular culture."

The teaching of the subject is also laden with contradictions, says Kapp. The syllabus advocates student-centred, exploratory learning, but rewards oral communication and functional writing skills.

"In the face of the pressure of an evaluation that values banking of facts, it is inevitable that teachers will choose functional rather than student-centred process discourse.

"Even teachers who have the education and training to teach creatively and at a cognitively demanding level, consciously choose to disregard the 'progressive' discourse of the syllabus in favour of instrumental 'drilling'." As a result, students learn a functional literacy that is situation-specific and likely to be transient, notes Kapp. In her thesis, Kapp emphasised that students need good academic literacy in their home language and English. Intervention, she recommended, is required both at individual school and subject level.

"If it is generally acknowledged that English is our lingua franca, that it is highly desired, and that it is indeed the language of power, we have a responsibility to ensure that those for whom it is an additional language are not placed in a position where they are unable to participate fully in the society because their access has been restricted by inappropriate policy and consequent curricula."

According to Professor Doug Young of UCT's Department of Education, who supervised the research with Professor Anne Herrington of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in the United States, Kapp's work was very well received by all three external examiners. One of these examiners, based in the United States, has already included some of Kapp's findings in her own applied language course, he reported.