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First Additional Language for the Win!

The limits of my language are the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein

The benefits of bilingualism are manifold. Recent research into brain plasticity and functioning are revealing more and more advantages to learning a second (and third) language. From improved cognitive ability  and higher test results across all subjects, to behavioral improvements and increased tolerance and empathy, the list goes on and on. Hey – being bilingual even wards off dementia, helps prevent Alzheimers and delays brain atrophy by about 7 years!

With all these benefits, why do our South African school students (and their parents) complain so much about their requisite First Additional Language? Shouldn’t the inclusion of a compulsory second language in our school curriculum be applauded and encouraged? All the studies on bilingualism concur that it makes no difference what language is being acquired; the benefits remain the same.

Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In my experience as a Learning Coach and teacher, I have found a lot of resistance to learning Afrikaans, in particular. There seems to be a feeling – certainly among English speaking South Africans – that the language is becoming redundant. There’s also the political association with Afrikaans still being seen as “the language of the oppressor,” that creates resistance to learning it at school. Students pick up the resistance from their parents and this carries over into the classroom and is reflected in their academic performance in this subject.

Most English speaking South African students still choose to take Afrikaans Eerste Additionele Taal, rather than one of the other official languages though, because it’s perceived to be “easier”. It’s not easier to learn Afrikaans than it is to learn isiZulu or isiTswana. However, parents generally know Afrikaans (at least a passable amount of it) from having to take it at school themselves and are, thus, able to help with homework. Also, at many English medium schools, if the First Additional Language is isiZulu or isiSotho, for example, the class often has many students in it who are first language speakers of that language. The second language learners fall behind as the pace of the class is too rapid for them. They then opt for taking Afrikaans, although they would rather be learning another language.

One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way. Frank Smith

It doesn’t matter what your second language is – just learn one! The earlier the better, too. Current studies show that our language acquisition abilities are best between the ages of 6 and about 12. As we age our brains lose their plasticity (unless we keep them limber by learning new things daily). Becoming fully bilingual during our school years – and continuing to use that language throughout life – is one of the best gifts we can give our brains.

So why are so many students struggling?

Apart from the aforementioned resistance to Afrikaans (in particular), there is, in my opinion, far too much focus on book-learning and grammar rules. It has been proved in numerous studies that we do not acquire language by reading and writing. We have to hear the language AND we have to speak it. Before we evolved into a literate culture, orality dominated. Even today there are cultures in the world that aren’t literate. Yet, these people manage to communicate, pass on knowledge, survive, trade and thrive, without reading or writing. Without any books on grammar, member of these cultures learn to speak flawlessly and with wonderful idiomatic expressions to boot. Take a University-educated person and give them a new language to learn by using only books and guess what? They can pass a certain amount of questions on grammar tests, but they do not learn the language. They cannot learn to speak it and they certainly don’t learn how to think in that language.

Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things. Flora Lewis

Language is social. Language is cultural. Language is communicative. Language is about hearing and speaking; watching and gesturing, for the hearing-impaired (interestingly enough both use the same parts of the brain). To try and learn a language without conversing with others in that language is impossible. So why do we expect our kids to do it?

The curriculum is so dense with grammar and literature that there is little time left for actual communication in the First Additional Languages. Don’t get me wrong – literature is wonderful and hugely important and grammar, necessary … but shouldn’t the focus be on COMMUNICATION? We are so lucky to live in this wonderfully diverse country. We are privileged to have direct access to so many cultures and languages. We have a fantastic and unique opportunity to create generations of South Africans who have advanced abilities to understand, empathise, see things from different points of view and communicate better than their monolingual peers. Let’s start celebrating this.

I don’t care whether your child learns Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa or Zulu as their first additional language. I care that they are supported in becoming bilingual – fully bilingual – and reaping all the rewards that this will afford them; now and in years to come.

A far as possible I try to always practice what I preach, so …

Afrikaans Club

With the above in mind, Bev Cooke-Tonnesen, aka The Learning Coach, is starting Afrikaans Club; an Afrikaans Language Club for Durban teenagers. The aim of this club is improve fluency and confidence in Afrikaans in a fun, social environment. Each week there will be different activities/games which will afford the club members a chance to interact, laugh, have fun and – most importantly – SPEAK AFRIKAANS!

Club sessions will be planned and overseen by Bev, who will be assisted by Afrikaans Home Language students.

Bev’s note: I would love to be holding a Zulu Club, too. Sadly, I’m taking an embarrassingly long time to become fluent in Zulu. I am trying , though! Zulu Club for teens is on my “To Do List” 🙂

Glossophobia: fear of public speaking

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”  Jerry Seinfeld

Having always been one of the freakish minority who actually enjoy speaking in public, I have often wondered why people allow themselves to continue through life with this very real phobia, without doing something about it. I mean, we all have to do it at some point; may as well learn how to enjoy it, right? Continue reading Glossophobia: fear of public speaking

Homework! Oh, Homework!

Years ago, when I  still owned my educational theatre company – Hooked on Books – I included a poem by Jack Prelutsky in the Senior Primary show. I had my actors sing the poem, with accompanying choreography, to the tune of George Michael’s Faith (which will give you a clearer indication of how many years ago I’m talking about 😉 )

Go on, sing it (you’ll need to extend some words and add in a few “oh-ohs” to make it scan – but you can do it): Continue reading Homework! Oh, Homework!

Failing to let them fail

When I was living and teaching in California, in the early 2000’s, I was lucky enough to attend some wonderful teaching conferences and seminars. A particularly inspirational speaker (whose name I wish I’d written down, or committed to memory) said something that made a huge impression on me:

“Never deny a student their right to fail.”

Continue reading Failing to let them fail

Spotting Talent

If I had to narrow down the one thing that I’m best at, it would probably be the ability to spot potential and talent in people. Running my own education theatre company years ago, I managed to nab the “pick of the litter” each year. Now our TV screens, stages and award ceremonies are littered with stars who landed their first acting jobs with me, back in the day.

When I was teaching in schools, I managed to spot talent in my students, too. Continue reading Spotting Talent

Case Study: Drowning in the Stream

Erin’s mom phoned me at the start of Term Two: “Erin’s failing Geography. She just can’t understand it – can you help?”

Can’t understand Geography? Surely any applied science at high school level is quite easy to grasp. So I dug a little deeper: Continue reading Case Study: Drowning in the Stream

One Size DOES NOT Fit All

Imagine if schools issued school uniforms in the same way that they issue education? Imagine if they decided on an average shoe size that students in that grade ought to be wearing and issued each child with a pair of shoes in that size?

It doesn’t take much effort to extend the metaphor to envisage the struggle of students for whom the shoe doesn’t fit. Students whose feet haven’t quite yet grown to the expected “norm” would swim about in their shoes, tripping and stumbling, not managing to keep up with the others; no matter how hard they tried. Those who happened to have larger feet would be in a different kind of discomfort; feet squished into a painful, blistering space that hobbled and injured them. It sounds cruel, doesn’t it? Of course schools would never do that – and parents would never allow it. So why do we allow a “one size fits all” approach to curriculum design, teaching and testing?

Continue reading One Size DOES NOT Fit All