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Societal Benefits of Multilingual and Multicultural Education

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 2130 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The issue of bilingual and multilingual education is particularly challenging for most educators in any country. In South Africa’s education history, the anti-apartheid movement laid a foundation for the nonracial movement, and it is still, according to Nkomo et el (2004) the main reason the movement which was “resulted from a conscious struggle to change the undemocratic and unfair apartheid cultures and practices by replacing them with more inclusive democratic, educational ethos based on a human rights culture”. More recently, globalization has seen the focus of diversity and inclusive education expanding to also include social class, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation/preference, ability, and other differences.  Integrating South Africa’s vast population that was legally excluded from the full benefits of citizenship is a big task and it will take years to achieve. Therefore, despite the efforts that have been made in recent years, South Africa’s education system is not reflective of its diverse nature. According to Soudien, Carrim and Sayed (2004),”One size does not fit all because citizens are not located in homogeneous, symmetrical and stable social, economic, and political positions.” Although there are many definitions for inclusive diversity education among scholars or practitioners, there is a general agreement that education opens doors to financial and economic freedom, decreases poverty and inequality promotes social, economic, educational and cultural growth. Therefore, in order for a fair and democratic society to succeed it need a strong a multilingual and a multicultural education.


Language plays an important role in teaching and content in all subjects. Globalization has increased the need for cross language communication and multilingualism in South Africa. During the apartheid era, the language policy in education was used to control people of color by segregating them into many ethnolinguistic groups; it also separated Afrikaner from English learners. South Africa’s, language in education policy advocates for non-discriminatory language use thus, promoting multilingualism in education using languages (Department of Education, 2002). According to the new constitution, all learners have the right to choose their language of instruction. This is an important step in severing the unequal and oppressive ties of apartheid. While the policy provides an opportunity for extensive mother tongue-based learning, people still have the choice of English over any of the mother tongues. This is a popular choice among parents of previously disadvantaged groups as indigenous languages have gained a lower status and prestige than English and Afrikaans.  According to Motala (2013) there is a correlation between the low proficiency of the language of learning and teaching and low levels of learner achievement. Despite this a majority of South African parents still insist prefer (with their children’s concurrence) to have their children taught in English by English second language speaking. Although English is the preferred language of teaching and learning of instruction for learning(LoTL), experts agree that all learners should be given access to education should in their different Home Languages at Foundation level (Hueghs, 2002).

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South Africa official languages are each associated with a specific ethnic group with its own unique social, economic and political standards, this present complications and challenges. According to Heugh (2002) Learners find second language acquisition is easier when learners are more proficient in their home language. The current practice in government schools is that IN THE Foundation phase the LoTL is the learner’s mother tongue, with a change to English in grade four. This policy assumes that learners can translate concepts they learned in an African language into English successfully when they reach grade four. A large number of South Africa learners come from homes where they speak English as a mother tongue or a second language; these learners have the advantage of receiving education through their mother tongue throughout their school years. Learners from homes where indigenous languages are the first language on the other hand are faced with the challenge and shock of having to master a new language. This puts learners at a disadvantage and may extend the learning gap, since it lessens the child’s learning time in a language they are able to fully understand. In this case the learners may require extra support from schools and home in order to keep up with their peers. Students’ failure in literacy in the early years of primary school has a negative impact on their future educational outcomes. It is therefore vital for teachers to be equipped to handle the learners’ differing needs, skill levels, and learning history in their early years of primary school. There is a fundamental need for the development of an academic literacy ‘construct’ that promotes the use of multilingualism so that learners are not disadvantaged when they are called upon to demonstrate their academic proficiency.

It is not an easy task to solve the issues of multlingualism in South Africa because a larger number of the official languages are sufficiently represented to justify them for use in public institutions. According to research, while teachers know and are aware of the difficulties that come with teaching and learning in a multilingualism environment, however it is not reflected in their practice (Heugh, 2002). Change is also possible if we restructure the educational climate. This is drastic, but necessary step in order to make a difference. This means that schools need to hire more diverse faculty in terms of ethnicity, language, experience and background. Teachers that are currently employed could do in-service training to cope with new demands and to enable them to understand the importance of multilingualism. As a society, South Africans can advocate for schools to be well equipped with resources and for well-paid, respected and supported educators.


After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the democratic government acknowledged the need to transform the country’s education system to develop an education system fit for purpose and this led to social, cultural, economic and political empowerment many, as well as offer direction in revolutionizing the country’s education system toward a multicultural learning system. Despite making significant radical changes in official policy and considerable investment in education in the past few decades, the level of literacy in most South African schools is not where it should be (Spaull, 2012). Even though Schools that were disadvantaged during the apartheid era may now be sufficiently resourced and effectively managed, and major policies have been implemented to mitigate those factors related to school failure, the country continues to struggle with school failure.

South Africa’s sociopolitical climate shows dynamic demographics in schools and societies with economic freedom as a driving factor. Cities and urban areas in South African are made up of previously disadvantaged people, those with different cultural and economic backgrounds from the majority, as well as those with a different native language other than the common language.  Rural areas are characterized with unique problems that affect learning in general. Zhang (2006) stated that in South Africa, reading literacy scores are significantly lower and rural schools in almost all cases have fewer and lower quality resources such as the quality and state of school buildings, the availability of equipment, resources and facilities, teaching materials and teachers’ qualifications.

The power shift in South Africa will take time to attain a satisfactory balance. This is without doubt the situation when it comes to education in the country. In arguing a concept she calls “culture power” Delpit, states that teachers often do not consider how their personal social locations affect the less powerful groups in their classrooms. She speaks about how so called “elite educators” may denounce the benefits of their own privilege because it makes them uncomfortable. All societies have their own special set of rules and code for partaking in power, these rules reflect the rules of culture of those in power. Culturally non-dominant learners have to learn the rules of language and communication in order to succeed into the society they live in.  According to Delpit, there is a momentary increase in self-esteem resulting from indiscriminating affirmation of non-dominant learners’ cultures for marginalized learners. However, this does not prepare them for the many challenges they have to face. She also mentions the role of education in getting society to be more culturally accepting. More specifically, how a universal education system can help deter racism and related issues. However, this may only be beneficial to learners within the “culture of power”.  If universal education succeeds then children from non-dominant cultures may be silenced by cultural notions and standards that do not suit them. Therefore, culturally non-dominant learners have to be taught acceptable cultural and linguistic competences to avoid having problems gaining access to tertiary education, work and other forms institutional and economic opportunities. This doesn’t mean that these learners are required to conform to the dominant culture, or even that their ways should not be acknowledged and valued or should be changed. Instead, Despite suggests that teachers be responsible for teaching them the rules of the culture of power while working to change the unequal structures of power. When designing curriculums stakeholders from non-dominant children’s cultures should be consulted because they are best positioned to understand the importance of valuing and preserving one’s own culture while having to learn how to operate within a new culture (of power).

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According to Delpit, the real issues lie in cross cultural communicating and in addressing some of the more essential issues of power, of whose voice gets to be heard when deciding on what’s best for poor children and all children from non-dominant cultural groups. She does not focus on how is meant to, she focus on how it is. All efforts to promote a multicultural society should include educational efforts that respect and preserve learner’s cultures and teaches them how to understand and work with culture of powers that are not their own. This type of education will help learners to become more successful. Teachers need to keep in mind that learners are not clean slates, and that they bring with them prior knowledge to the classroom, this includes knowledge of their societies and family lives, which is their culture. Therefore, if learning and teaching becomes more culturally relevant then real connections can be made and the true process of learning can begin. Furthermore, in order for schools to be able to help create a better world, they have to be actively involved in training educators and learners on how to be culturally sensitive and respectful to others who have different cultural traditions from theirs.




  • Department of Education (2002). Language policy for higher education. Pretoria: Department of Education. [Google Scholar]
  • Heugh, K. (2002). The case against bilingual and multilingual education in South Africa: Laying bare the myths. Perspectives in Education20(1), 171–196. [Google Scholar]




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