June 18, 2024

English vs mother tongue study: Universities have duty to create supportive environment

3 min read

In South Africa, most students’ higher education study is conducted in English. This has the benefit of opening doors – even globally. However, when a student pursues their studies in a language that is not their first language, whether by choice or due to lack of alternatives, it is not without its challenges, an education expert says.

“In South Africa, a country with 11 official languages – now 12 after the recognition of sign language – the decision about the language of instruction is mostly made for students given that English remains the dominant language in higher education,” says Peter Kriel, general manager at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s leading private higher education provider.

“That, however, does not take away from the challenges and considerations associated with being educated in English as opposed to one’s home language. These challenges must be recognised and considered. And institutions and educators play a vital role in creating inclusive environments that support students in overcoming language barriers, ensuring the benefits of English-language education are accessible and to the benefit of a diverse student population.”

Kriel notes that being educated in English, even if it is not your first language, comes with many benefits. “Being educated in English opens a plethora of opportunities, including globally. English is overwhelmingly the operative language in academia, business and science, providing students with access to a vast pool of resources, publications and international collaboration.

“English proficiency is also often considered a valuable skill in the global job market. Employers worldwide seek candidates who can communicate effectively in English, providing those educated in English with a competitive edge in their careers. Learning and being fluent in English can contribute to personal development by expanding one’s cognitive abilities, improving problem-solving skills and boosting self-confidence. It opens up opportunities for personal growth and lifelong learning.”

However, one cannot ignore the challenges related to being educated in English when it is not your home language, says Kriel, adding that universities must be aware of and responsive to the challenges faced by second- and often third-language students.

These challenges include:

Fluency issues

Non-native English speakers may face difficulties in expressing complex ideas, leading to potential misunderstandings in academic settings. The pressure to master academic English can be overwhelming, affecting a student’s confidence and performance, and must be taken into consideration.

Cultural and identity considerations

The language of instruction is closely tied to cultural identity. Studying in a language other than one’s own may lead to feelings of detachment and cultural displacement. Students may grapple with an internal conflict between embracing a globalised educational experience and preserving their cultural roots.

Educational support systems

Native language instruction often comes with the advantage of a robust support system, including lecturers and classmates who share the same linguistic and cultural background. In an English-dominant environment, students may find themselves needing additional support to bridge potential gaps in comprehension and communication.

Adjustment period

Anecdotal evidence suggests that South African parents prefer their children to be taught in English at school level and that about 70% of South African schoolchildren from Grade 4 and up have English as either the first or the additional language of choice. Proficiency levels vary, however, and adjusting to the higher education environment adds another level of complexity. Acclimatising to an English-speaking educational environment requires an adjustment period. Students may therefore need time to adapt to the nuances of academic English.

“While English opens doors to global opportunities and career advancements, it is crucial to acknowledge the hurdles related to language fluency, cultural identity and the adjustment period,” says Kriel.

“In South Africa, most students do not have the option of studying in their home language. It is therefore incumbent on universities to create inclusive environments, and actively support students by nurturing linguistic competence and inclusivity.”

Image credit: wayhomestudio/Freepik

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