The government should consider teaching subjects in indigenous languages or strengthening the learning of English if it wants to improve results in basic education‚ University of the Witwatersrand education expert Prof Mary Metcalfe has said.

Metcalfe spoke to TimesLIVE after delivering the annual JB Marks Memorial Lecture at the University of Johannesburg on Tuesday night. The memorial lecture was hosted by the JB Marks Education Trust Fund and the National Union of Mineworkers.

During her interactive session with students‚ unionists and academics‚ she laid bare the serious challenges the South African education system is facing. One of the problems is that children were not taught in their mother tongue‚ which affected their ability to understand concepts.

Using a vast trove of data‚ Metcalfe showed the gathering how‚ from Grade 3 to 4‚ pupils from provinces with large rural communities began to drop in performance because at that level subjects are taught in English.

She said the government was ambitious on policy change but struggled to implement it.

"We also run away from the big question of language all the time. A child can only learn in a language they understand. If a child is learning in a language which is foreign to that community and the only place they are exposed to it is at school [it is a challenge]," she said. "Think about that: I can’t learn in Chinese. There are children that only hear English in their community at school; the rest of the time they are laughing and exploring [in their indigenous language]."

"To get the concept taught‚ the teacher has to over-simplify. If you are using a language that everybody is comfortable with‚ you have more time and you do not have to over-simplify. There is an over-emphasis of English in our system. We should either concentrate on teaching English so that people are confident in the language, or we should teach in African languages."

Refilwe Motloane‚ a professional development officer at the trust‚ also expanded on the importance of language. "We were in the Eastern Cape and teachers wanted to enquire how proceedings would go about on the day. We responded in English and they physically moved backwards."

"At that point there was a language barrier. We couldn’t communicate with the teachers. If we can’t communicate with the teachers in English‚ how do we then communicate with the learner?" she said. "In Setswana, we have borrowed words from English and Afrikaans. We can use those when we don’t have an indigenous term for the concept being taught. We should teach all the subjects in indigenous languages."

During the lecture there was also a lengthy discussion about funding from national government and the high drop-out rate in schools. Questions were also raised about why the quality of education differed from one province to the other if it comes from the same government.

Motloane highlighted this after the lecture: "We need to be equal. Whatever you have a child living in Sandton‚ you must give a child in the Eastern Cape [the same] … Until we change that and we become equal‚ we will always have problems."

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