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“Die pad is lank en swaar.” Taalreise in Mangaung

Johanna J.E. Messerschmidt


Linguistic journeys in Mangaung. It is argued that all learners, even if taught through medium of their mother tongue, have to undertake a linguistic journey to cover the distance between the language variety spoken at home and the more formal variety used in the school as social institution. Learners who are taught through medium of a foreign language, not related to their mother tongue, have to cover an extra distance. Against the background of the distance between home language and the language of the school, this article discusses some of the qualitative results of an international research project, called the Phaphamang Language Project. Phaphamang means “Wake up!”. The research took place at three school in Mangaung, a township near Bloemfontein, in the Free State. Classroom observations of the presentation of specially designed task-based lessons revealed how Gr. 4 learners used English and Southern Sotho while learning history. Although English is the official medium of instruction according to the policy of the schools, teachers had no choice but to switch to Southern Sotho to make the input comprehensible and to initiate the learning process. Co-operative learning and negotiating of meaning took place in Southern Sotho. The learners were not able to use English to bridge information gaps. Their productive skills in English were restricted to single words, a combination of two words and fixed patterns. A general perception exists that learners will acquire English by using it as the language of teaching and learning. The learners in Mangaung have thus embarked upon a linguistic journey, the destination of which is the control of the English language in its educational function: as a tool to think and reason, and to access, process and use information for learning. Some of the stumbling blocks on the road are the initial language skills of the learners when the switch to English is made, the teachers' command of the language and the absence of the language in the environment. The conclusion is reached that the distance the learners have to cover, is too long and the road is too difficult to lead to academic success.

(Journal for Language Teaching: 2002 36(3-4): 246-258)