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The vexed issue of language

March 11, 2010

In our work at the Foundation, we have developed a language of our own with phrases like “speaking Greek to the Italians”, “polishing shoes” and others. The phrases function like metaphors and are short-hand for ideas we have discussed at length previously – the one about speaking Greek to the Italians refers to using Cynefin language when speaking to people who are not part of our team and therefore are unlikely to understand what we are talking about. Most families develop private languages like these; they play an important role in establishing membership and identity.

The same applies to fields of knowledge, of course. The discipline-specific discourse provides more precise language tools than the language in common use. Effective use of the discipline discourse is a crucial element of what students must learn in order to acquire an identity, first in the academic world and later as a professional in their chosen field. As an internal consultant, I learnt early on that the skill to rapidly acquire a new discourse is vital in getting access to any new community you want to work with. The downside, as Dave pointed out in his blog earlier this week, is that the use of language can also be used to exclude people from a community.

In a multi-language context, like South-Africa, language in general poses challenges. My grandmother, like Dave’s, also told stories about having to wear a plaque with the words “I am a donkey” when she was caught speaking her own language, Afrikaans, in school in the Colonial days. Language issues played a role in the 1976 Soweto uprisings; in fact, the power issues inherent in language play a political role everywhere. Recently I heard an interesting debate on the radio about the recognition given to the vernaculars of particular social groups and to regional forms of Afrikaans when it comes to what is considered to be the standard form of the language used, for example, in newspapers.

These factors come together dramatically in education, as language is the medium that carries the concepts the children have to learn. The South African education policy allows for mother tongue education for the first three years, with a chosen language of teaching and learning, usually English, added in the next three-year phase. After that, the language of teaching and learning is supposed to be used in the classroom. In reality, urban communities no longer are homogeneous in terms of home language; in fact, many families do not even share a common mother tongue. Most classrooms, therefore, are multi-language environments. In a mathematics classroom, learners must acquire mathematical discourse while being taught in English, while neither the teacher nor any of the class speaks English as a home language. If the teacher wants to revert to a home language to explain a concept, he or she has several languages to choose from. Then in the science classroom, the concepts are expressed in the language of mathematics, which was taught in the mathematics classroom in English, which ….

The tower of Babel, all over again …..

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