The Mandarin additional language debate - Let us agree not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater

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A person's reading or vision of the world and possibilities out there is often formed by their horizon of experiences and exposure to information. Comments on minister Motshekga's announcement on offering Mandarin as an additional language, which means it is optional, reflect the reality of three main points - first the people's loss of trust for new ventures because of the government's continued lack of consultation and top-down decision-making. Secondly comments also reflect the impact of the largely undeterred self-enrichment corruption by public officials, and thirdly the education system's failure to demonstrate, through practical examples in many people's lives, how post-colonial partnerships and post-colonial education can open access to skills, careers and professions beyond our borders and the historical confines of the masters' languages and curriculum.
Comments and views on the Mandarin additional language matter reflect the above three points as educated by our experiences, information we are exposed to, environments in which we grow up, conditions we live with or what we hear from sources that we regard as dependable. That education syllabus starts as conversations and realities in the home, it continues in ‘formal’ institutions and importantly in the public space with the realities that we encounter being the syllabus.
Comments to the Mandarin language program reflect reactions to the public space syllabus of public officials who are rewarded for underperformance, self-enrichment, and their continued disregard for official negative audit reports. The message received is that what we are promised is not necessarily what will be done, accomplished or delivered to the whole populace as the stated beneficiaries. Invariably beneficiaries are seen as those related by blood, affiliation or common purpose to the decision makers because the public space syllabus is the reality application of scholarly concepts such as the Corruption Watch Index, the Human Development Index or the Gini Coefficient. For example it references the real life disparity between the lifestyle of the mining bosses of Lonmin and that of the miners, even without knowing South Africa's position in the world production of platinum which is a very rare and high income-generating mineral. The self-protective scepticism for any new ventures is therefore understandable. In different 'own' languages people recall the Sepedi saying:' wa longwa ke selwana se swana o tshaba le mogokolodi ', functionally translatable into ‘once bitten twice shy’.
The comments also indicate the lack of effective consultation with the populace, which becomes a stinging reminder and recycling of the apartheid mantra of race-class, insider-outsider, top-down decision-making. This is especially ironic for 'a government of the people by the people'. Accountability and consultation underpin dialogue and partnerships for exchanging ideas rather than assigning observer-status for the electorate through the disabling we-govern-you-without-you practices. Consultative partnership exists even when there is an agreement to disagree on the what, how, why, when, by who and for whose benefit. Where there is a disagreement the disagreeing partners are then able to seek alternatives that could improve whatever they see as deficient.
Beyond the self-enrichment problems and scanty consultation, people expressed disillusionment with the continuing inequality of education for the black majority and how they cannot see any remedy from the Mandarin language venture for that. Transforming the education system can be done alongside other explorations of markets currently inaccessible because of language and other barriers. The primary goals of education are critical thinking, skills development and competency training for 'a better life' either in employment and or entrepreneurship. Post-colonial education has the added expectation of racial redress for those commonly termed the 'formerly' disadvantaged. Numerous evidence-based studies however indicate the inappropriateness of the term 'formerly' rather than the reality of continuing disadvantage and 'disparity' in the quality of black students' education as discussed in Nick Spaull's 'Education in SA: A tale of two systems'. [i]
Dr Nomalanga Mkhize queries [ii] the inequality which drives the migration of black students to 'white' schools feeding myths of racialised abilities. Push factors of that migration include dire under-resourcing, inadequate competency levels of teachers, very little or no career guidance, and non-market responsive curricula in this period of the Knowledge Economy. In such under-resourced schools they are not exposed to achievements or possibilities of even 'those like them' such as the Cape Peninsula black girls [iii] who took part in workshops on the building of Africa's first private satellite or possibilities and achievements highlighted by Sandile Shezi [iv] , South Africa's 23 year old millionaire who owns the 'Global Forex Institute, a forex company', and is a millionaire without unduly benefiting from the route of government tenders. Quarantined from a wider range of subjects or courses in under-resourced schools and teaching approaches which invariably do not widen their horizon, it becomes difficult for many black students to visualise possibilities beyond their immediate environment.
Observation of these students' realities informs the skepticism on benefits for the wider population from the Mandarin language program as experiences endorse Nina Simone's quest of 'I wish I knew how it feels to be free'. The post-1994 freedom and education has not equipped or exposed them to wider professional destinations, either in multilingualism or marketable skills. We emphasize that people visualise possibilities depending on their horizon of experiences and information they are exposed to by their 'formal' and public space education. Reality-based discussions on the wide-world marketability of those of our people who schooled and worked in far-away countries like Japan, Hong Kong, Germany and so on would provide a vision of the wider-world marketability of additional language proficiency, where students are exposed to such. The World Map would have post-colonial meaning and relevance in how they see the world and their post-1994 possibilities in that world.
Our membership of BRICS should not only be realised by the few business elites who are now partnering with their counterparts in Brazil, Russia, India and China. Young people must also seize the opportunities that this membership brings. Learning Mandarin will surely open some of these opportunities in various careers making them more marketable as they access knowledge areas, books, and skills broader than their current curriculum range. In practical career terms sign posts on this journey of exploring possibilities and opportunities will access the post-1994 reality that their parents sacrificed for but did not have.
Outside our confined horizons, other young people are using cross-language bridges to explore career possibilities in the very BRICS countries. A South African woman's daughter resident in Toronto is currently in Brazil to be ‘immersed’ in the spoken Portuguese language after paying for foundation learning in one of the Language Schools of Toronto. For her Spanish language competency she visited Cuba and Mexico in 2014, after that she went to Paris in 2013 for French lessons. Her profession? She’s a medical student in her second year of Medicine (after doing her BSc degree). She and two others from Kenya who did French as an additional language enjoy wider access in job destinations in Canada itself and beyond. When practising medicine she will not be confined to English-speaking countries, nor French speaking countries, nor Spanish speaking countries. Unlike what we are told about the Mandarin project, in the three examples above, the parents of these three young women paid the fees of the Language Schools.
Perhaps we can gain more knowledge of the possibilities and benefits of widening language proficiency and professional destinations of the future, through conversations with South Africa's Cuba-trained doctors, not just about the language but also what they learnt about public service, about working in similar or different socio-economic conditions, or any other experiences opened by their venturing into wider horizons that we did not even dream of before 1994.
Chimamanga Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian who is one of Africa’s eminent young black female writers, has books that have been translated into 30 languages. Her access to that wider multilingual world illustrates the importance of quality education and multilingual proficiency in spite of self-enrichment by corrupt officials, hence our plea that we 'not throw out the baby with the bathwater'.
Some of the children of those who painfully lost employment when factories were closed in Cape Town and elsewhere whilst markets were flooded by 'Made in China' goods, may have the opportunity and skills to access the post-1994 reality that their parents sacrificed for but did not have. In fact learning other additional languages is part of the political widening of possibilities for our people - ask white South Africans about their gains from being able to visit, work or live in European, Asian or other faraway countries.
This can be done alongside activism for remedying the political landscape by transforming the inequality in education, the non-consultative, corruption-riddled governance that clouds people's vision of possibilities, and the 'oogklappe' resulting from all three. That remedial program would need to start at coal-face structures of councillors, municipalities or other local government structures, as well as in the training of teachers in post-colonial education. In that way we will widen access without ignoring what has to be transformed, thereby 'throwing away the bathwater' but 'keeping and growing the baby' against all these odds.
Tags: #access to wider professional horizons #for whose benefit #unequal education #self-enrichment Thato Linkeng Bereng is committed to Action Research, transformation and anti-racist post-colonial education.