Category Archives: Education

South African Matric results of 2013: Who says I need more than my pineal gland to pass?

In Timeslive, we read:

The government must act urgently to independently verify the credibility of the National Senior Certificate examination results and of all future matric results, DA leader Helen Zille said on Tuesday.

DA’s Zille calls for independent audit of matric results.

“I believe that the Minister of Education, Angie Motshekga, should institute a full-scale independent audit of the 2013 results,” Zille said in a statement. Provincial education departments are solely responsible for appointing markers and marking matric exams, the opposition party said.

Not marked by a central body, Exam papers are not marked by a central national body, the DA said.

“This means the quality of marking cannot be guaranteed and is not adequately or comparatively standardised around the country. “Matric markers are not tested for their competency, their subject knowledge or for their ability to interpret answers which are phrased differently from the exam memorandum,” Zille said.

Zille and friends

Zille and friends

I am reminded of a past colleague of mine from the University of Fort Hare who told me what happened to his daughter. She was one of the top pupils (ok, “learners,” if you want) in matric. In her English matric essay, she wrote on the topic “My first date.” She wrote about being stranded and starving in a desert  and came across this date  (palm – get it?). Our pupil failed the essay and consequently got low marks for the whole paper. She asked for a remark. This time she got an A. Moral of the story: only mother-tongue English speakers  should mark English First Language/Higher Grade papers – unless you’re like one of those non-mother tongue speakers of English whose English is much better than a mother-tongue speaker. (See my The Second Language (L2) speaker is dead – Long live the L2 speaker).

When I was a teacher at Mmabatho High Shchool in the 1980s, I did research on “ Indiscriminate Advancement and the Matric Pass Rate” which resulted in a PhD ““Language proficiency tests and the prediction of academic achievement,” University of Cape Town, 2000. The study investigates the ability of English proficiency tests (1) to measure levels of English proficiency among learners who have English as the medium of teaching and learning, and (2) to predict long-term academic achievement (Grade 7 to Grade 12).

In the 1980s, the matric pass rate for the whole of South Africa was much much lower than the bountiful 78.2% for 2013. For one thing, the pass mark was not a paltry 30%. In the 1980s there were not many complaints about the pass mark being unrealistically high. Indeed, it was the other way round where “Bantu” education and other factors were blamed for scuppering the aspirations of black learners.

Various reasons for the low pass rate have been suggested in academia and the media. Reasons given in academia were: the low level of English proficiency of learners (Young, 1987), Bantu Education (Hartshorne, 1987), the medium of instruction and learning from Grade 5 onwards (English) is a language which is non-cognate to the learner’s first language (Mascher, 1991), and low academic ability (Gamaroff, 1995a, 1995b, 1997a). Reasons in the media were: the irrelevance of the contemporary school system to real life, the absence of a culture of learning and teaching, an impoverished primary school and preschool background, a pass-one-pass-all mentality, the demoralisation and disillusionment of teachers, the irresponsibility of teachers, the poor administration by the Minister of Education and by the provinces, a lack of commitment from the business sector, strikes encouraged by teachers’ trade unions, and a general breakdown in society.

Without doubt all these factors have contributed in some way to academic failure. There is one other factor, however, that has not been mentioned, namely, automatic promotions through the grades. According to the editorial in Educamus (1990:3) and Calitz (1998:14) the educational casualty figures would have been much higher if automatic promotions, or indiscriminate advancement, had not occurred in individual schools from one grade to the next.(For references given, see Indiscriminate Advancement and the Matric Pass Rate).

In the  City press, we read that “basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is considering raising the controversial 30% matric pass requirement – and she wants South Africans’ advice. Motshekga’s department has run advertisements in several newspapers calling for public comment on, among other things, whether the current 30% minimum pass mark is enough to equip pupils for success in higher education and the workplace.”

A Theatre . A brain operation is in progress.

Actors: Surgeon in charge and Newish (Jewish?) surgeon

Surgeon in charge: Hey, that’s the pineal gland of the brain you’re stabbing!

Newish: Surgeon: Sorry, I only know about this 30% of the brain; they didn’t teach me anything about the other 70%.

Surgeon in charge: Your teacher’s in for it. I’m gonna separate his body from his soul; and I don’t need to go through his pineal gland to do it.

Theatre notes: The pineal gland is a tiny organ in the center of the brain that played an important role in Descartes’ philosophy. He regarded it as the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed.

Biogenetic factors in mental development

Author: Raphael Gamaroff

Abstract

1. Introduction

2. Choosing a point of view

3. Differences and universals

4. Origin of mental processes and their impact on education

5. Lenneberg’s biological view of language development

6. Conclusion

References

Abstract

A conflict of views on human development seems to exist between the natural sciences (e.g. genetics, neuroscience) and the social sciences. Although there is much that is useful in Luria’s, Bhaskar’s, and Vygotsky’s emphasis on the sociohistorical dimension in mental development, there seems to be a lack of appreciation of the important role of biogenetic factors in mental development . Indeed, these mental processes – as these authors affirm – do transform and are transformed by society/history through activity, and no doubt the Marxist position that society (more aptly, the state) shapes individual and social consciousness carries a lot of truth. But a more balanced view of the research into human problems of education and development is that the historical, extrinsic, chain of events are also shaped by inborn, intrinsic capacities. I tend towards the view of Chomsky that society and the environment act as triggers, i.e. “the experience does not determine how the mind will work but it triggers it, makes it work in its own largely predetermined way” (Chomsky, 1988:172). Such a view is euphemistically unpopular, because it destroys hope – that is built on view that educational/social intervention can transform a poor learner into a good learner.

1. Introduction

“Every man [generically speaking], where he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer’s day” (Russell, 1938). The cloud of comforting convictions that encompassed Bertrand Russell – the pacifist sceptic and one of the great philosopher’s of the twentieth century – shifted across the same sky as the mystic’s cloud of unknowing that seeks penetration into the mind of God. Russell and the mystic have a mind, are both persons, and both exist, i.e. occupy a “world”. Yet both have radically different visions, interests and emotional states (Sowell. 1987). The prime function of language – as a faculty of the brainmind – is to automatically categorise these visions, interests and emotional states, and the prime motivation of the user of language is to express and then to communicate these categorisations (Ellis, 1994). These categorisations are a mysterious configuration of fragmentary abstraction, without which knowledge is not possible, and with which ignorance is probable. This configuration of abstractions is what we call a point of view.

The higher one climbs up the ladder of abstraction, i.e. the more one moves way from bread-and-butter conceptions, the greater the difference between conceptual systems. These differences may exist not only between groups or individuals sharing very different languages (linguistic codes), but, extremely importantly, also between groups or individuals sharing the same languages. Groups may be of a sociocultural nature or an interest-group, such as a profession, e.g. science.

One persuades another of one’s point of view, one negotiates one’s point of view, one creates one’s point of view, one reflects on one’s point of view, one resists another’s point of view. Everybody who listens, speaks, reads or writes, filters everything through a point of view, through a theoretical perspective. To this perspective the scientist adds a methodological orientation based on the chosen theoretical perspective .

Among scientists there are many different and theoretical perspectives and methodological orientations, which produce – as in the arts and religion – a multiplicity of expressive systems or discourses, i.e. “ideologically determined ways of talking or writing about persons, places, events or phenomena.” (Wallace, 1992:68). Each person’s discourse is the product of a variety of different beliefs and experiences, and owing to our human nature “we should not be surprised to find that each side necessarily misreads and misrepresents the other side in order to reconstitute its own position” (Blundell, Shepherd & Taylor, 1993:26). Blundell et al. are speaking in the context of cultural studies, but the implied reference is to researchers in general, who all work within a cultural framework. By culture I understand

that level at which social groups [or individuals] develop distinct patterns of life, and give expressive form to their social and material life-experience. Culture is the way, the forms, in which groups [or individuals] `handle’ the raw material of their social and material existence…Culture is the distinctive shapes in which this material and social organization expresses itself.

(Clark, Hall, Jefferson, & Roberts, 1975:10).

2. Choosing a point of view

Choosing a scientific point of view – whether in, say, physics (a “hard ” science) or in, say, sociology ( a “human” science) has probably got less to do with science than with philosophy; the philosophy of beliefs, values and social practices (i.e. a world view) rather than with philosophical theories of knowledge and existence. Whether the domain of study be art, religion, physical science, psychology, social work or linguistics, it is the “paradigm[that] determines the identification and interpretation of “empirical evidence” [or of any other kind of evidence or experience] in a given discipline (Bizzell, 1979:764; my square brackets). World views usually conflict with one another. Thus what one person may consider to be his or her world view, another may label as an ideology, where the will to dominate may be seen as the mainspring of the former’s world view:

Human beings have all sorts of beliefs [whether they be physicists, philosophers. applied linguistics; to mention only the academic domain]. The way in which they arrive at them varies from reasoned argument to blind faith. Some beliefs are based on personal experience, others on education, and others on indoctrinations. Many beliefs are no doubt innate: we are born with them as a result of evolutionary factors. Some beliefs we feel we can justify, others we hold because of “gut feelings”.

Davies (1993:19; my brackets)

The aim of cultural studies, applied psychology and education is to change people – for the better; thus the kind of theoretical perspective and methodological orientation is often chosen in terms of the changes one would like to see.

3. Differences and universals

An educational psychologist, unlike a a philosopher or a “pure” scientist, is not primarily looking for universals in human structure and development, but for differences. For the linguistic scientist Pinker, “differences between individuals are so boring” (Pinker, 1995:428; original italics), whereas Carroll’s survey of research into human cognitive abilities was written with the intention of serving as a “reference work and as a textbook in advanced courses in individual differences” (1993:vii).

An evaluation of human abilities is necessarily concerned with differences. However, it is not possible to understand differences without understanding universals, i.e. the commonalities between human beings.

An educationist is primarily concerned with differences related to learning, and the concomitant problem of failure. If there were no problems there would be no teachers, because children would not need adults to lead them to success and adulthood. Educationists, like scientists, and unlike politicians, seek enlightenment concerning their limitations. It remains a valid principle in science that one should always be aware of the limitations of one’s own paradigm. Bizzell (1979:766) points out that Kuhn is “acutely alive to the limitations imposed by a paradigm, limitations that may not only restrict free enquiry, but vitiate the social usefulness of the discipline.” In Kuhn’s words,

one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake. Other problems, including many that had previously been standard are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time…One of the reasons why normal science seems to progress so rapidly is that its practitioners concentrate on problems that only their own lack of ingenuity should keep them from solving.

(Kuhn, 1970:37, quoted in Bizzell, 1979:766)

Ultimately, choosing a specific conception of development or of “reality”, specifically of the individual in society, is to a large extent a philosophical exercise which is based on value judgements. “Models of psychological reality cannot be proven right or wrong, correct or incorrect, by any objective criterion.” (Hillner, 1985). Some rational decisions have to be made, but these decisions are enmeshed in “all sorts of subjective and idiosyncratic considerations” (Hillner, 1985). Thus it is questionable whether “[t]here is only one way of seeing one’s own spectacles clearly: that is to take them off” ( Campbell, 1985:19-20). It would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate the spectacles from the eye, which is why “I” see through a glass darkly. There is much subjectivity in science, of the “human” as well as of the “hard” kind. Theories are subjective expressions, where the data are often driven by the theory than the other way round. To establish anything empirically without a theory to “drive” the data seems impossible. Theory , although tempered by the data, remains underdetermined by the data.

The theory and data of the social sciences are basically concerned with the person-in-the-world. Trying to understand the nature of the relationship between the person and the world is “one of the more exasperating and contentious of all humanistic concerns, [namely] the proper nature of the relationship between the individual and society (or the state, culture, or community)” (Cuzzort and King, 1995:129). It is the person’s mental processes-in-the-world, and how they impact on education that I want to focus on.

4. Origin of mental processes and their impact on education

Luria (1976:3) emphasises the social and historical origin of mental processes: “It seems surprising that the science of psychology has avoided the idea that mental processes are social and historical in origin. And Vygotsky (1978:57) in a similar vein. “The internalisation of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology.” Bhaskar (1979:45-46) attributes an even more imperious role to society.

The model of the society/person connection I am proposing could be summarised as follows: People do not create society. For it always pre-exists them and is a necessary condition for their activity. Rather, society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce and transform, but which would not exist unless they did so.

In contrast to Luria, Vygotsky and Bhaskar, Popper’s (1965) “natural science” view is that there “is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life” i.e. a fertile plurality of self-constituted principles. I don’t agree entirely with Popper’s view, because the natural science point of view is also a theoretical construction existing within the fertile plurality of other theoretical constructions such as those of historical meanings (Rauche, 1992:470). This means that there can be no self-constituted principle, because all principles (or hypotheses) are rooted in the contingency of history. But this does not imply that society pre-exists the individual, but only that society is produced, reproduced and transformed by individuals and that individuals are, in turn, transformed by society into “social actors” (Miller, 1984:12-14).

For Luria, Vygotsky and Bhaskar, all phenomena are processes in motion and in change. Changes in society bring about changes in the individual. The development of the individual is brought about by society and culture. Human “development” for Vygotsky is mainly a social process, and human nature mainly a social construction:

Within a general process of development, two qualitatively different lines of development, differing in origin, can be distinguished: the elementary processes, which are of biological origin, on the one hand, and the higher psychological functions, of sociocultural origin, on the other. The history of child behaviour is born from the interweaving of these two lines. The history of the development of the higher psychological functions is impossible without a study of their prehistory, their biological roots, and their organic disposition.

(Vygotsky 1978:46; original emphasis and my underlining).

Vygotsky assigns the elementary psychological functions of language to the biological level, to the “roots” of behaviour, to the intrapersonal; but the higher psychological functions of language to the social level. With regard to cultural development, every psychological function appears twice:

first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (interpsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals…The internalisation of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology. As yet, the barest outline of this process is known.

(Vygotsky 1978:57)

Thus, Vygotsky assigns biological (intrapersonal) properties to the “roots” of the tree, and social properties to the tree (itself). Vygotsky’s metaphor could be misleading because it gives an image of biology being confined to the roots of the tree, whereas the ramifications of biology are not confined to the roots but extend up the trunk into the branches.

With regard to language, Vygotsky, 1978:28) maintains that human beings would be no different from animals without the social contact with other people. This is indeed so. But not because the social imprints itself onto a tabula rasa, but because the human brain has the innate, i.e. biological, structures to learn, whether it be a language or some other kind of tool. Exposure to and intake from society and the world trigger off the innate capacity to learn.

Although there is no doubt that a psychology that is merely based on biology is inadequate, this does not mean that tools are the only source of the abstract notions of the brainmind. Surely there is a symbiotic relationship between the development of the brainmind and mind tools such as aids to measuring, calculating and thinking and communicating. The tool of tools (and often the tool of fools) is the sign: “The use of signs leads humans to a specific structure of behaviour that breaks away from biological development and creates new forms of a culturally-based psychological process” (Vygotsky 1978:40).

It is Vygotsky’s term “breaks away” that is problematic. In order to explain the problem, it would be useful to examine the concept of maturation. According to Vygotsky, it is a fact that “maturation per se is a secondary factor in the development of the most complex, unique forms of behaviour.” Vygotsky 1978:19). However, according to Fodor (Piatelli- Palmirini, 1980:149),

The only intelligible theory of enrichment of conceptual resources is that it is a function of maturation [of the inner unlearned structures of the cognitive subject], and there simply isn’t any theory of how learning can affect concepts.

For Lenneberg (1967), Bickerton (1981), Chomsky (1988) and Pinker (1995), language and conceptual development are largely a function of maturation. It is truistically obvious that without the proper environment, maturation will be adversely affected.

The neo-Piagetians, Demetriou, Shayer and Eflides (1992:6) in their discussion of theories of cognitive development stress the importance of both the biological and the social aspect of learning, but point out, as does Fodor, our ignorance of the learning (and the teaching) process:

[W]e still do not understand very well how cognitive structures interact with each other and how their formation is affected by the structure of knowledge as it exists in our present educational and broader cultural environment…we also know that mental and school-specific knowledge structures are constrained by both internal and social constraint systems…we have already gathered firm knowledge about the developmental and cognitive preconditions under which learning may occur. However, we still need to learn a lot more about how learning situations work in the mind and/or the brain to alter its present state into a more advanced one. Thus, we are not very knowledgeable about how to engineer specific learning environments aimed at quickly and efficiently imparting specific knowledge structures useful to a particular individual of a particular age for a particular purpose.

I agree with Fodor that (biological) maturation, contrary to Vygotsky’s socialist view, plays a much greater role in cognitive development than Vygotsky asserts. Consider language in the context of growth and maturation. Lenneberg’s views (1967) on the biological basis of language is worth perusal. The following are the salient features of Lenneberg’s biological view of language development:

5. Lenneberg’s biological view of language development

Language for many seems to consist of cultural conventions, e.g. Wittgenstein’s “language games” (this is not to deny the monumental contribution of Wittgenstein). However, fruitful explanatory principles can also, and perhaps primarily be found in the biological sciences, specifically in genetics and the brain sciences (Danesi, 1994; Oller, 1981; Paradis, 1991; Perecman, 1989; Pribham, 1971; Woese, 1967:4; Young, 1978). There are radical differences between the rules of games (arbitrarily determined) and the rules of language (biologically determined). However, we can still speak of the biology of game-playing (what are the capacities that enable a human to play a game of chance, to “waste” one’s time away. An animal (humans are included under “animal) is not like a tool that can be arbitrarily assigned a particular use. The structure of the brain and the body are an interdependent unit. These structures are programmed from within, i.e. genetically (Lenneberg 1967:1-4). Thus the developmental process is physiological in nature. Modifications after birth are determined by genetic and prenatal events. The degree of plasticity (e.g. the diversity between individuals) is the product of biological conditions. And obviously the environment plays an important role. “Thus the notion `dependence on environment’ (which by implication is the same as `dependence on experience’) is not a useful criterion for the classification of behaviour” (Lenneberg 1967:12).

6. Conclusion

My point of view has been given, which hopefully was based on more than gut feelings. Vehement oppositions are to expected in academia. But

we have reason to hope that a conversation among discourses, between occupants of this position and that, offers the best hope that we shall create as a species the rich intellectual landscape that is essential if we are to understand our universe and our place in it. The multiple discourses of mankind, brought, now by history into mutual consciousness, are not a Babel but a chorus.

(Appiah, 1992:230; original italics)

The question is: Why are some individuals better choristers than babblers? Here we are touching, what I think is a neglected – because a sensitive – issue in multicultural studies, namely, the biocultural reality of intellectual variability. From the educational point of view, the problem is how to explain the large disparities in academic ability between individuals belonging not only to different cultures, but also to the same culture. Are these disparities merely environmental? Millar (1988) maintains that one can develop concepts, but cannot acquire them. This seems to mean that there are innate capacities that must have something to do with biology. How biology and environment function together is not very clear, but there is no doubt that all abilities are related to inborn biological capacities, which are different in each person. I am not suggesting a (purely) deterministic order, but merely that each individual is “set up” in different ways.

Whatever one’s point of view, all human beings are preoccupied with the ultimate question: “What is it to be human? A (social) “actor” (Miller, 1984)? Knowing how to perform our own or one another’s “tricks” (Miller, 1984; Campbell, 1985:20)? Cuzzort and King (1995) answer:

To be human is to perform, like an actor, before audiences whom we con into accepting us as being what we try to be. Our humanity is the costume we wear, the stage on which we perform, and the way we read whatever script we are handed.

References

Achebe, C. 1988. Hopes and impediments. London: Heinemann.

Appiah, K.A. 1992. Inventing an African practice in philosophy: Epistemological issues. In: Mudimbe, V.Y. (ed.). The surreptitious speech:Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Bickerton, D. 1981. Roots of language. Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers, Inc.

Bhaskar, R. 1979. The possibility of naturalism. Brighton: Harvester.

Bizzell, P. 1979. College English, 40(7):764-771.

Campbell, C.M. 1985. Learning and development. An investigation of a neo-Piagetian theory of cognitive growth. Unpublished Master of Arts thesis, University of Natal, Durban.

Cattell, R.B and Horn,J.L. 1978 A cross social check on the theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence with discovery of new valid subtest designs. Journal of Educational Measurement, 15:139-164.

Chomsky, N. 1988. Language and the problem of knowledge. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Clark, J., Hall, S., Jefferson, T. and Roberts, B. 1975. Subcultures, culture and class: a theoretical overview . Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 7/8:9-74.]

Cuzzort, R.P. and King. 1995. Life as a con game: The dramatic vision of Erving Goffman. In Cuzzort, R.P. and King, E.W. 1995. Twentieth-Century social thought (5th Edition): Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Danesi, M. 1994. ‘The neuroscientific perspective in second language acquisition research: a critical synopsis’, International Review of Applied Linguistics, 32(3): 201-228.

Davies, P. 1993. The mind of God: Science and the search for ultimate meaning. London. Penguin Books.

Demetriou, A., Gustafsson, J-E., Efklides, A. and Platsidou, M. 1992. Structural systems in developing cognition, science, and education. In: Demetriou, A., Shayer, M. ans Eflides, A.. Neo-piagetian theories of cognitive development. New York: Routledge.

Ellis, J.M. 1994. Language, thought, and logic. Evanston, Illinois: North Western University Press.

Fodor, J.R. 1980. Fixation of belief and concept acquisition. In: Piatelli-Palmarini, M. Language and learning: The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.

Hillner. K. 1985. Psychological reality. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Humboldt, W. von. 1963. Man’s intrinsic humanity: His language. In Humboldt, W. von. Humanist without portfolio: An Anthology of the writings of Wlihelm von Humboldt. Tr. Marianne Cowan. Detrot: Wayne State University Press.

Jensen, A.R. 1972.Genetics and education. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Jensen, A.R. 1973. Educational differences. London: Methuen.

Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2nd Edition. Chicago. Unviersity of Chicago Press.

Luria, A.R. 1976. Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Miller, R. 1984. Reflections of mind and culture. Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press.

Paradis, M. 1991. ‘Language lateralization in bilinguals’, Brain and language, 39: 576-586

Perecman, F. 1989. ‘Language processing in the bilingual: Evidence from language mixing’, Hillenstain, K & Obler, L.K. (Eds.). Bilingualism across the lifespan. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, S. 1995. The language instinct. London/New York. Penguin Books.

Pribham, K. 1971. Languages of the brain. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

Popper. K. 1965. The open society and its enemies. Volume 2. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Russell, B. 1938. Sceptical essays. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Sowell, T. 1988. A conflict of visions. New Delhi: Affiliated East-West Press Pvt Ltd.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (Edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner and Ellen Souberman). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. 1965.The river between. London: Heinemann,

Whorf, B.L. 1956. Language, thought and reality (edited by Carroll, J.B.). New York: Wiley.

Woese, C.R. 1967. The genetic code: The molecular basis for genetic expression. New York: Harper and Row.

Young, J.Z. 1978. Programs of the brain. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. 1988a. Language and the problem of knowledge. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Solutions to Academic Failure: The Cognitive and cultural realities of English as the Medium of Instruction among Black Learners

Per Linguam, 11(2):15-33, 1995.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

Abstract

1. Introduction

2. Multiculturalism, english as the medium of instruction and academic failure

3. The mother tongue as the exclusive medium of instruction

4. Critical language study (CLS)

4.1 Critical language study in schools

4.2 People’s english and critical language study

5.  Intelligence, BICS and CALP

6.  BICS, CALP and the mother tongue/first language

7. The liberation of cognitive potential

8. The separation of high ability learners from limited ability learners in the teaching situation

9. Summary and conclusions

References

ABSTRACT

In South Africa, black learners who are speakers of Bantu languages have to use a second language, namely English, as the medium of instruction from Std 3 onwards. The differences between English language-culture and Bantu languages-culture(s) have generated a host of problems (and pseudo problems?), where the main problem is academic failure. Three solutions to academic failure are discussed in the light of cultural and cognitive factors in multicultural education:

1. The use of the mother tongue as the exclusive medium of instruction

2. Critical Language Study (CLS) and People’s English

3. The separation of high ability learners from limited ability learners in the teaching situation.

It is emphasised that culture is closely connected to a symbolic system, and thus an understanding of cognitive processes in academic learning requires an understanding of culture, and vice versa. Ultimately of primary importance in academic study are the cognitive underpinnings of Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) developed in the first language.

1. INTRODUCTION

In South Africa, black learners who are speakers of Bantu languages have a second language, namely English, as the medium of instruction from Std 3 onwards. The differences between English language-culture and Bantu languages-culture(s) have generated a host of problems (and pseudo-problems?), the most important of which is academic failure. In order to accommodate the changes in South African classrooms (as well as new ways of talking about old problems), “second language teaching” is now called, in some circles, “teaching in multicultural settings”.

In previous research (Gamaroff 1993, 1994), I dealt with the relationship between culture, intelligence, conceptual frameworks and academic ability. I emphasised that culture is closely connected to a symbolic system, where culture and cognition are closely interrelated (Thompson 1991). For Rohner (1984), who defines culture as a “system of symbolic meanings”, the emphasis is not on social behaviour, but rather on how people conceive their behaviour. Meanings are created out of the interaction between linguistic forms and the minds (concepts) of language users (Lee 1922:27). These meanings are represented, or rather (to describe the role of language more accurately) evoked (Slobin 1982:131-132; see also Lee 1992:9) by the symbolic system (in this context, language) of a culture.

In this article, I focus on the role of culture and cognition in academic failure through the lens of three familiar solutions to academic failure:

1. The mother tongue as the exclusive medium of instruction

2 Critical Language Study (CLS) and People’s English

3. The separation of high ability learners from limited ability learners in the teaching situation.

The first solution argues that only the mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction throughout schooling, because many learners do not have the linguistic analytical ability to learn a second language, especially if the second language is a non-cognate language. It is argued that the main problem in the learning of English as a second language and its use as a medium of instruction is not merely limitations in students’ linguistic analytical ability to do an English language task, but limitations in ability to do any analytical task

CLS emphasises language awareness as an instrument of power, and in so doing endeavours to increase the critical (i.e. analytical) ability required for academic study. People’s English, which is a South African implementation of CLS, tries to improve the ability to perform “speech acts” such as arguing, persuading and resisting print where necessary. It is again argued (as in the case of the previous solution) that the main problem is also limitations in students’ analytical ability to do academic study.

The third solution to the problem of academic failure relates to the desirability of separating low ability from high ability learners in the English classroom, as well as in the general academic context. The educational, psychological and political implications of such a separation are discussed.

It seems then that more consideration should be given to the cognitive underpinnings of language proficiency, where the latter involves far more than the learning of the “linguistic” system of a (first or second) language.

2. MULTICULTURALISM, ENGLISH AS THE MEDIUM OF INSTRUCTION AND ACADEMIC FAILURE

A multicultural educational institution is one where there is close contact between at least two different cultures. If the cultures are fundamentally different from one another (i.e. if they are non-cognate), this contact often leads to conflict. The conflict increases when the one culture has to enculturate itself into a dominant culture, as is the case in South Africa, where the onus is on traditional African culture to adapt itself to Western culture. In the educational context, cultural differences exist between learners (e.g. English speakers and “Bantu” speakers in the same classroom) and between learners and learning programmes (e.g. between African culture and Western culture). A major teaching problem is how to reconcile the needs of both English speakers and Bantu speakers – whether they occupy the same classroom or not – in terms of syllabus demands.

One of the major findings in the South African Committee of University Principals Report (HSRC 1981) was that limitations in English proficiency were the main cause of poor achievement among black learners. The Committee warned that unless this problem was tackled during the early years of schooling, black education faced a dismal future. And one of the preliminary findings of the (ongoing) “Programme for educationally disadvantaged pupils in South Africa” (Botha and Cilliers 1993) was that there are three major areas of concern in black schools in South Africa, namely, cognitive deprivation, language inadequacies and consequent scholastic backlogs. disadvantaged pupils, whether in the South African context or elsewhere, usually refer to those who have suffered educational, social, economic and political deprivation. Although these four kinds of deprivation often occur together, this is by no means always the case, because it is possible to be socially and economically advantaged, but still not have the much needed intellectual stimulation at home or at school.

Young (1987:164) makes the following observation with regard to the poor pass rate of Standard 10 pupils in the Department of Education and Training (the DET – now officially defunct – was the controlling body in South African black education until 1994, the year in which South African elections were held:

such inadequacy is often rooted in language incompetence, the causes of which cannot be found in the English subject classroom alone, but across the curriculum in every subject taught through English as a medium.

Thus, one of the main problems in the English-as-a-medium-of-instruction situation is perceived to be that low proficiency in English (language and culture) blocks the flow of information and the development of skills. However, I believe that the root of the problem lies deeper than limited English proficiency:

At college level we would expect our students to have a working knowledge of what one could call high school first language skills – skills such as summarising, comparing There are growing numbers of students who cannot perform these skills. Some students say they have never practised these skills in their first language classes. This compounds the problem for the ESL (English Second Language) lecturer. The students are working in a second language (for some a foreign language) and they are also dealing with an unfamiliar skill (e.g. summarising) (Higgs 1990:1).

Skills development involves a complex combination of information-processing strategies, sufficient exposure to the second language, linguistic knowledge, knowledge of the mother tongue, of other languages, and of the world (Bialystok 1978:71-75). Other important factors are social and psychological adjustment.

With regard to speakers of black languages, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that English is a non-cognate language, i.e. there are radical differences between the structure (grammar and vocabulary) of black languages and English (Mascher 1991); and probably also between the executive processes of western culture and African culture. It is the executive processes (i.e. information processing strategies) that I shall concentrate on:

Although it is possible that certain executive processes may be innate … In most cases they are likely to arise through learning, whether formal or informal, and to become entrenched through culturally mediated habits of thinking. Executive processes then, which are essentially goal-directed strategies of approach in problem solving and thinking, are a major locus for cultural influences on cognitive development and performance. At least some, if not most executive processes may be culturally relative and hence not represented in all populations (Verster 1986:15).

Intellectual stimulation does not operate in a vacuum but is embedded in specific conceptual frameworks that are part of the symbolic system of a culture (Thompson 1991). It can be argued that in South Africa, there is little “cognitive proximity” between black culture and “Western” (i.e. international) culture, making it difficult to translate these disparate frameworks into each other. However, there are many who take a very different view. For example, Van Niekerk (1992:32) asks the following two rhetorical questions:

Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework remarkable? And does not that reveal something of a type of conceptual commonality or constant that is ah initlo denied by social relativists?

According to Verster (1986:15) above, “some, if not most, executive processes may be culturally relative and hence not represented in all populations”. (In this paper, Verster’s “executive processes” are seen as a subclass of Van Niekerk’s “conceptual frameworks”.) For Wiredu (1992:331), on the other hand, who rejects the bio-intellectual variability of mankind, the “fundamental fact” is that “because of the biological unity of mankind, any human being can participate or imaginatively enter into any human life form, however initially strange”. In contrast to the views expressed by Van Niekerk and Wiredu, Millar (1988:157) maintains that if the intention of courses in higher skills development (these higher skills I equate with Verster’s “executive processes”) is to help students acquire higher order intellectual skills, such courses would be in “pursuit of the impossible”.

To sum up: Van Niekerk (1992) and Wiredu (1992) maintain that all cultures can adapt with ease to one another’s conceptual frameworks; Verster (1986) maintains that many cultures find it difficult, but not impossible, to enter into one another’s conceptual space; and Millar (1988) maintains that concepts can only be developed, not acquired, which places the emphasis on inherent ability.

Having provided the conceptual framework on which the discussion will be based, I now discuss some solutions to academic failure.

3.THE MOTHER TONGUE AS THE EXCLUSIVE MEDIUM OF INSTRUCTION

Mascher’s (1991:2) reason for the high failure rate among black learners is that “the medium of instruction from Std 3 onwards is a language which is non-cognate to the learner’s first language”. Mascher (1991:3) defines cognate languages as those which belong “to the same family of languages and so have a similar grammar and vocabulary because they share a common on gin” (a common history and culture). In addition to the difficulty of learning “through” (or “in”) the non-cognate language, there is also the difficulty of learning the non-cognate language itself. Mascher maintains that the ability to learn a non-cognate second language in a tutored situation requires special linguistic gifts of an analytical nature. The extensive studies of Macdonald and her colleagues (1990a, 1990b) have clearly shown the problems encountered by children who from Std 3 onwards do not only have to learn English, but also have to learn their content subjects through the medium of English. Mascher’s (1991:4) solution is that the medium of instruction should be the mother tongue throughout schooling, and that the formal teaching of a non-cognate language (as a content which under normal conditions occurs at the age of about 12 years. In this regard, Mascher (1991:11) make the following proposal:

It is necessary for people to be working on African languages so that excellent materials in the mother tongue, materials suited to the real needs of the children, can be developed, published and used in schools.

There are three difficulties with Mascher’s solution: Firstly, the economic necessity of attaining a reasonable mastery of English as a medium of learning (i.e. the medium of instruction) may make it difficult for the child to develop the mother tongue to the degree that Mascher recommends. Secondly, Mascher overlooks the following fact: “People do not necessarily want to be educated in their first language if that language has no cachet in the broader political context” (Eastman 1990:3). Thirdly, and most importantly, Mascher (1991) makes a causal link between the lack of sufficient “linguistic analytical ability” (which he distinguishes from other intellectual abilities) and the high failure rate. I find this causal connection spurious, because, in my view, the main problem is not the lack of linguistic analytical ability, but the lack of a sufficient level of analytical ability to do any academic task, whether it be a linguistic or non-linguistic task.

Limitations in analytical ability have genetic and environmental causes. For example, one may be born with sufficient analytical potential but it may be insufficiently developed through the mother tongue (i.e. through the language the child knows best – the first language) in the early years of home-life and school. Another cause of limited academic ability may be insufficient exposure to the background knowledge required to tap into new knowledge at a later stage.

4. CRITICAL LANGUAGE STUDY (CLS)

In contemporary education and politics in South Africa, as well as in many other parts of the world, the social function of “language as power” (Fairclough 1989; see also Fairclough 1992) has taken precedence over all other functions of language; indeed, over all other issues related to language (teaching) as well. (Almost the whole of the August 1994 issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy is devoted to the function of language as power.) In this section, I shall concentrate on Fairclough’s British experiences and then relate them to “People’s English” (Peirce 1989) in South Africa. I also examine the views of Fairclough (1989) and Peirce (1989) that language in education should concentrate on the empowerment of the disadvantaged and the oppressed. (In South Africa, disadvantage and oppression have often gone together.)

Fairclough (1989:6-12) finds major limitations in all the main approaches to the study of language. For Fairclough linguistics is too “abstract”; sociolinguistics is too “positivist”, i.e. it is too much like “natural science”; pragmatics is too “individualistic”; cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence are too unconcerned with the “social origins” of language; conversation analysis and discourse analysis operate in a “social vacuum

Fairclough (1989:13) suggests that these inadequate approaches be replaced by “critical language study” (CLS), which is an educational methodology that endeavours to increase critical language awareness. “Language awareness is concerned with a smorgasbord of specialities such as semantics, pragmatics, translation, creativity, deviant language ; advertising, jargon, prejudice, censorship, doublespeak and gobbledygook (Mittins 1991). “Critical language awareness”, on the other hand, may be regarded as an (intellectual) awareness of this awareness. Gattegno (1987:107; see also Stevick 1990:108) uses the term “awareness of awareness” in a more affective” sense. In his system, the “quantum energy” of the (affective) self is the prime mover in learning.

Fairclough’s three main influences are, firstly, theories on ideology, secondly, Foucault’s (1982) theories on discourse and power, and thirdly, Habermas’ (1984) “theory of communicative action”. Fairclough incorporates these theories into CLS, which, he maintains, is not just another approach like the others that he rejects, but is an “alternative orientation to language study” (Fairclough 1989:13).

Fairclough (1989:3) maintains that “the teaching of language in schools has to a remarkable extent contrived to ignore its most decisive social functions”. Language for Fairclough (1989:41) is “a form of social practice”; a “discourse”, and central to discourse is power:

The idea of ‘power behind discourse’ is that the whole social order of discourse is put together and held together as a hidden effect of power (Fairclough 1989:55).

One destructive manifestation of this power, according to Fairclough, is the gradual imposition of standard English in Britain, which he describes as a “long process of colonisation” (Fairclough 1989:56) brought about by capitalism. Standard English in Britain remains to this day a “class dialect”, that is, a capitalist dialect (Fairclough 1989:57). The “cultural capital” (1989:63) invested in this “class dialect” is the key to a good education, to a good job and thus to the good life. One example of this cultural capital is literacy. Those who do not have the ability to read and write effectively (in the traditional education system) often have lower social status, and therefore also lack the power to change their status.

The merit of CLS is that it critically examines the “commonsense” naturalisation of the meaning of words in order to reveal their disguised ideological character, i.e. CLS examines the unequal power relations manifested through the connotations attached to specific words. CLS hopes to unshackle the contents of discourse, and eventually to unshackle knowledge and beliefs (Fairclough 1989:105; see also Peirce 1989, for a similar view). One of the ways of developing critical language awareness is to examine the causes of communication breakdown and find means of repair. A second way is to expose people to texts (spoken and written) that they are likely to find alien, and to get them to examine these texts critically. A third way is to deliberately disturb commonsense notions through radical intervention (Fairclough 1989:106). An example of such intervention that Fairclough relates involved a student and an experimenter:

Experimenter: What do you mean you had fiat tvre?

The reaction of the “stunned” student to the experimenter’s question was the following “hostile” outburst: “What do you mean ‘What do you mean’? A flat tyre is a flat tyre.”

Fairclough warns that such a technique that disturbs commonsense notions should be used cautiously, otherwise the student may think the experimenter is playing the fool, or even mentally ill! “Victims” of radical interventions do not need a radical divergence from common sense to believe that anyone practising CLS is mentally ill – some language researchers maintain that language itself is a mental illness and a lie, and thus an insurmountable barrier to self-expression (Groddeck 1977:249-250). For Groddeck, in effect, people in general cannot benefit from any language approach; whether a linguistic, a sociolinguistic, a pragmatic, a cognitive or even a radically new approach such as CLS. The reason for Groddeck’s despair is that all people are, by definition, mentally ill, simply because they use language.

4.1 Critical language study in schools

Fairclough’s description of how CLS should work in schools is dealt with in this section. I then examine (Section 4.2) “People’s English” in South Africa and relate it to Fairclough’s CLS approach, and later relate the issues dealt with to a discussion of the relationship between intelligence, BICS, CALP and the relationship between the BICS, CALP and the mother tongue/first language.

Fairclough (1989:236) maintains that language abilities involve more than skills or tools for performing clear, error-free tasks, and for this reason he rejects the “instrumental language” approach (1989:236) a clearly described in a comment made by Kenneth Baker. (The context here is the speech given in 1987 by the Minister of Education, Kenneth Baker, who was responsible for setting up the Kingman Committee that investigated the state of English in British schools.):

I have been struck by a particular gap. Pupils need to know about the workings of the English language if they are to use it effectively. Most schools no longer teach old-fashioned grammar. But little has been put in its place. There is little common ground on teaching about the structure and workings of the language, about the way it is used to convey meaning and to achieve other effects. We need to equip teachers with a proper model of the language to help improve their teaching.

Fairclough (1989:237) maintains that such an approach to language teaching is “exclusively task-orientated” and is merely concerned with effective ways of conveying meaning. Whatever the nature of the “task”, it seems that Fairclough would regard any task that is not based on the social (probably socialistic as well) foundations of CLS as limited in scope. Fairclough’s aim is to educate – and not merely to train for a task – the disadvantaged sections of the population in the “emancipatory discourse” of “oppressed social groupings” (Fairclough 1989:239). One should develop their “existing abilities and experiences, their growing critical awareness of language, and their growing capacity to engage in purposeful discourse” (Fairclough 1989:244). The teacher and the teaching programme play a crucial role in this regard, and there is no doubt that the potential of a pupil can be impaired by the academic inadequacies of a teacher or of a teaching programme.

4.2 People’s English and critical language study

In the previous section I described CLS in Britain. I now relate CLS to its South African version, namely “People’s English”.

In order to cope in the working world, according to “People’s English”, one requires

the ability to say and write what one means; to hear what is said and what is hidden; to defend one’s point of view; to argue, to persuade, to negotiate; to create, to reflect, to invent; to explore relationships, personal, structural, political; to speak, read, and write with confidence; to make one’s voice heard; to read print and resist it where necessary (Peirce 1989:411-412).

An adequate preparation for entrance into the working world requires not only the four communicative competences, namely, grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competences (Swain 1985), but also knowledge of the relationship between discourse and power. Much of the impetus behind the present restructuring of education in South Africa is the need to empower the disadvantaged through the development of critical consciousness that will contribute to the social reshaping of a child’s world. Through the reshaping of discourse, the child becomes integrated into the texts he/she reads. Discourse is not merely concerned with texts or language forms, but also with giving prominence to the “socially constituted and socially constituting nature of discourse and language” (Fairclough 1989:238).

In English second language teaching, a useful distinction is made between:

1. English for Academic Purposes (EAP), which involves the learning of academic discourse (which is similar to Cummins’ CALP). This would be the main concern of the academic domain in education.

2. English for Occupational Purposes (EOP). This would be the main concern of the non-academic domain in training.

3. Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (Cummins’ BICS). This would be a prerequisite for both education and training.

(I shall elaborate on the BICS-CALP distinction in the next section.)

In spite of the fact that People’s English does not explicitly refer to EAP or BICS, I understand People’s English to implicitly embrace EAP, EOP and BICS. In all three of these subdivisions of such speech acts as defending a point of view; arguing, persuading, negotiating; creating, reflecting, inventing; exploring relationships, personal, structural, political; reading print and resisting it where necessary (Peirce 1989:411-412). However, People’s English does not distinguish between LAP, LOP and BICS and consequently, some people might believe that People’s English is able to empower them to perform all the above speech acts. In the academic context, which is the domain of CALP, there are many learners who are not able to persuade, argue, and resist print effectively, because they do not have the capacity to learn how to do it effectively. This capacity is closely related to intelligence.

5. INTELLIGENCE, BICS AND CALP

The everyday meaning of intelligent is clever, inventive, methodical, quick-witted. In more academic terms, an intelligent person is one who is able to perceive new order and new structure, and thus is able to combine things together in fresh ways, creating new abstract patterns and relationships such as identity and difference, cause and effect. Problem solving requires these abilities.

Cummins (1980, 1983, 1984) divides language proficiency into the two categories of Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). This distinction is very important in any discussion of language proficiency in education. All healthy human beingsautomatically acquire BICS in their mother tongue, but not all human beings are capable of achieving the level of CALP that is required for academic study. In order to understand what is involved in academic performance, it is important to understand the role of intelligence in CALP and the consequent role of CALP in academic performance.

The crucial question is whether there is a causal connection between limited intelligence and limited CALP in the second language (namely, English). The immediate response by many would be: “Of course not!” Some would even maintain that there is no direct link between first language/mother tongue proficiency and intelligence either. In the following paragraphs, I try to explain the distinction between BICS and CALP in terms of the symbiotic relationship between first language development and intelligence.

Consider the following account from Richard Boydell (Fourcin 1975:263):

Like every child, I was born without language. Unfortunately, I was also born with cerebral palsy, which, in my case, means that, although my intelligence is unimpaired, I have a very severe speech defect and no use in my hands and arms.

Chomsky’s comment would likely be that to be “born without language” (Boydell above) means to be born without a specific (natural) language (e.g. English), but this does not mean that Boydell was born without the capacity (Chomsky’s “Language Acquisition Device” – LAD) for learning a language.

6. BICS, CALP AND THE MOTHER TONGUE/FIRST LANGUAGE

In any discussion of the relationship between language proficiency and academic achievement, one should distinguish between the following three notions: general language proficiency, BICS and CALP. 1’General language proficiency” does not take the BICS-CALP distinction into account. BICS does not require what I call academic intelligence (i.e. academic potential), but CALP certainly does. With regard to CALP, various authors (e.g. Collier 1987; Cummins 1979, 1980) maintain that if CALP has not been developed in early childhood and/or the early years of schooling through the mother tongue (or at least through the language the child knows best) – and this is Mascher’s point as well (see Section 3) – many disadvantaged children will not succeed in an academic environment, where the medium of instruction is a second language like English; which is often regarded as an alien language (and culture).

One of the major problems of many learners who enter higher primary and lower secondary school, where a second language is the medium of academic instruction, is that they have gained neither the necessary knowledge nor developed the necessary skills in their mother tongue to learn anything academic – whether it be (CALP in) a second language or some other subject. The fact is that second language CALP cannot be separated from first language CALP, nor can either of these be separated from proficiency in the “content” subjects, e.g. integrated studies.

In order to attain CALP in a first language, e.g. Chinese, one must first know BICS in Chinese. However, if a Chinese speaker wants to develop CALP in a second language, e.g. English (ESL), it is not a prerequisite to develop BICS in ESL, because the attainment of a reasonable standard of BICS in ESL only occurs – in some cases it never occurs – after the attainment of a reasonable standard of CALP in ESL (as I have experienced with Chinese immigrants in my community). In these circumstances, CALP in a second language is developed mostly through the modes of reading and writing.

The crux of the matter is that many Chinese, in contrast to the disadvantaged people of South Africa (mostly black people), have had the opportunity to learn CALP in their mother tongue. In South Africa, many non-mother tongue speakers of English are obliged to learn BICS in English in order to gain a foothold on CALP in English, because they haven’t developed an adequate level of CALP in their mother tongue to enable them to move (relatively) smoothly into CALP in English. Thus, one of the problems in South African education is that disadvantaged learners have not learnt an adequate level of CALP in their mother tongue, and consequently are obliged to learn CALP in English. To add to their plight, they have to learn BICS in English and CALP in English both at the same time. Furthermore, a high level of BICS in a particular language (whether the mother tongue or another language) does not necessarily lead to a high level of CALP in the same language.

7. THE LIBERATION OF COGNITIVE POTENTIAL

In the context of South African education, the motivation to cooperate with – if not integrate into – a Western academic system will often increase when meaningful learning takes place. Thus, I regard the principal education issue not to be liberation (albeit an important issue) from the “class dialect” of formal English, as Fairclough (1989:63) maintains, but rather that more attention should be given to the fact that much of academic discourse is often incomprehensible (not only in a second language, but also in the first language) to learners with limited CALP. Without this ability, many children will not be able to develop much of what language teaching approaches, such as “People’s English” (Peirce 1989) or “discourse as social practice’ (Fairclough 1989), have to offer. Accordingly, one should view with caution all teaching programmes such as People’s English or programmes in a similar vein, that make, in my view, outlandish claims about raising the cognitive levels of people. For example, a course is being developed at the University of the Western Cape (Volbrecht 1992) called “English for Educational Development”, which seems to share the same aims as People’s English. The course has liberation as its “thematic core” where the

‘six sites of emancipation’ [non-sexist, non-racist, democratic, etc.] are continually explored through extensive reading, writing and discussion which is a powerful aid to the cognitive development of students. [my square brackets and italics.] (Volbrecht 1992:57).

Liberation, for many justifiable reasons, has been a major concern in South African education. Therefore the English for Educational Development course (Volbrecht 1992) and People’s English (Peirce 1989) have a positive role to play in encouraging and educating as many people as possible to be able to argue, persuade, resist print where necessary, and the like. However, it has yet to be shown that the intense political sensitising that resides at the core of an English for Educational Development course and People’s English leads to the necessary cognitive development.

Ironically, People’s English (i.e. for the “people”), and similar programmes, can only be so in intention (and in this regard it is commendable), because one might have to exclude from People’s English the majority of people such as artisans, agricultural workers, and many other kinds of workers. This exclusion from People’s English would not only pertain to the informal sector, but also to the formal sector, because many in the formal sector – whether L1 or L2 speakers – would not do extensive reading, writing and discussion to benefit significantly from People’s English. And the reason, I suggest, that they would not do it is not because they do not want to do it, but because they lack the ability to do it.

8. THE SEPARATION OF HIGH ABILITY LEARNERS FROM LIMITED ABILITY LEARNERS IN THE TEACHING SITUATION

In spite of the fact that the separate South African education systems of the past (“black”, “white”, “Indian” and “coloured” systems) have been officially unified into one education system, it might still be educationally desirable to separate high ability pupils from limited ability pupils in the teaching situation, The relevant contexts are firstly, the teaching of ESL, and secondly, the teaching of the other academic subjects.

The subject English (not only for second language users, but also for mother tongue speakers) should be, in my view, the most important subject in the curriculum, where the emphasis should not only be on literature, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on ESL. The question is whether pupils with limited English proficiency and high English proficiency should be, or could be, taught ESL in the same classroom.

In the new educational dispensation, it might be educationallydesirable to have two separate English departments (L1 and L2) in schools. I am specifically concerned with urban schools  in South Africa, because most rural schools will remain “black” in a future South Africa.

Such a separation was implemented at Mmabatho High School (in the North West Province) in 1990 (Barkhuizen 1991). The argument for this kind of separation at Mmabatho High School was that the English classroom consisted of pupils with a wide range of English proficiency, which made learning/teaching conditions very difficult. It is not only in the English classroom that problems will arise, however, because the subject English is only one of several subjects in the school curriculum that require English proficiency, specifically CALP. It is going to be very difficult for both learners and teachers to cope in a classroom where there are pupils with a wide range of academic ability, many of whom would have limited ability. Wakely (1993:9) describes the situation as he experiences it:

While it cannot be denied that it is possible in a class of mixed ability for some of the weaker, ‘surface approach’ candidates to move from ‘answer seeking’ to ‘knowledge-seeking’ … and to improve their performance, this is largely dependent on there being a sufficient number of able and willing students to carry the course along. Once the number of academically weak students reaches a certain level (probably about 40% of the total), the likelihood of a marked decline in the performance of virtually all the members of the class is greatly increased.

Separating limited ability learners from high ability learners might solve the problem described above, if it were permitted in the present political dispensation. However, besides the political factor, there is another, perhaps more important, factor that may militate against separate classes. The composition of the South African population is going to be reflected in the classroom of the future, where the majority of pupils are going to be second language users of English, with limited English proficiency and limited academic ability, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. If pupils were separated in order to avoid the problems that Barkhuizen and Wakely have experienced, it could mean that one classroom would contain, for example, 50 L2 pupils and another, only 10 L1 pupils. This would not be socially, financially, or psychologicallyjustifiable. One of the possible psychological effects would be that pupils might feel that there is a stigma attached to the L2 label.

The reason why Mmabatho High School was able to have separate L1 and L2 departments is that it admitted an equal number of advantaged (mostly L1) and disadvantaged (mostly L2) pupils. However, in the future, I do not think that Mmabatho High School will be able to do this. What will probably happen is that the proportion of disadvantaged pupils will gradually increase. This will make it difficult to justify the expenditure on a separate, relatively small L1 classroom.

Barkhuizen (1992:51) has suggested an alternative to separate English departments, namely, the “multicultural approach”. This second approach, which was probably conceived in the light of the changes that I have mentioned in the previous paragraph, involves adapting methodologies and materials to accommodate varieties and differences in “cultural heritage”, especially in the same classroom. One of the difficulties that would probably arise in such an approach is finding (and quickly enough) the appreciable number of qualified people who have sufficient expertise in curriculum development, as well as sufficient time to make the necessary changes. This task is the responsibility of the syllabus designer, and not of the teacher. (In the Eastern Cape of South Africa, there are plans to provide teachers with more training in syllabus design.)

9. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

This article dealt with three solutions to academic failure:

1. The first solution proposes that the mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction throughout schooling, because many learners do not have the linguistic analytical ability to learn a second language, especially if the second language is a non-cognate language. I have argued that the main problem is not the lack of linguistic analytical ability, but the lack of a sufficient level of analytical ability to do any academic task.

2. Critical Language Study upsets commonsense notions and tries to increase the students’ awareness of language as an instrument of power. CLS would regard any task that is not based on social foundations as limited in scope. People’s English, which is a South African implementation of CLS, endeavours to encourage and educate as many people as possible to be able to become socially active in such acts as arguing, persuading, or resisting print where necessary. I argue that the ability to perform these specific speech acts is dependent on Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

3. The last solution considers the desirability of separating low ability from high ability learners in the English classroom, as well as in the general academic context. Various implications of such a solution were dealt with, such as the financial, political and psychological implications. In the light of these implications, it was suggested that the separation of limited ability learners from “high” ability learners would not be a feasible solution.

There are three main considerations in attempting to find solutions to academic failure. Firstly, learners may not have the inherent ability to achieve success in an academically demanding environment. Secondly, they may have the inherent ability, but it may remain underdeveloped or may even be incapacitated by social, economic and educational (e.g. an incompetent teacher) factors. A clear indication of this poorly developed capacity is the underdevelopment of CALP, whether learnt through the mother tongue/first language or the second language.

Thirdly, one should also be sensitive to the upheavals that may result from trying to impose a “Western” English/American cultural system on the black populations of South Africa. For example, one of the puzzles encountered by English mother tongue (usually white) teachers (of ESL and other academic subjects) is the general bewilderment rather than resistance of black learners when confronted by the cultural demands of white society. What may be of central concern to these learners is not cognitive growth, reasoning, or logic, but rather the social adjustments needed to cope with learning a different language-culture (Cazden, John & Hymes 1985:xxxi; this is also one of the main points in Fairclough 1989).

Feelings and emotions play a determining role in the learning process. Accordingly, feelings of cultural anomie (estrangement) should not be ignored in attempts to develop cognitive programmes, whether these programmes receive their inspiration from psycholinguistics (e.g. Cummins’ CALP) or sociolinguistics (e.g. Peirce’s People’s English and Fairclough’s “language as empowerment”). I think while it is correct to say that some individuals, no matter what culture they belong to – providing bio-cultural and social conditions are right – are able to enter into and feel at home in another culture. There are, however, many who see academic culture as (radically?) different from their own, and consequently are not able to adjust to it and certainly not able to feel at home in it.

The ultimate socio-economic and political question is how to enculturate black learners into a Western educational system in a peaceful and just way. The hard choice – and hard truth – for many black people in South Africa is either to learn how to exchange information in a “foreign” language-culture (the better this is done, the brighter the economic prospects) or remain on the fringe of economic opportunity.

REFERENCES

BARKHUIZEN, G. 1991. Proposal for an independent English Second Language Department at Mmabatho High School. ELTIC Reporter, 16(1):25-32. Johannesburg.

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MulticultuREALISM and EMI (English as the Medium of Instruction)

Proceedings (Part 2) of the South African Applied Linguistics Association conference ‘Our multilingual society: Supporting the reality,’ Port Elizabeth: University of Port Elizabeth, 1993.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

Introduction

Pidgin’s answer to Babel?

Culture and cognitive functioning

The reality-construction view

The mapping view

Problems in translation: Bantu languages and English

Problems in EMI

Reality construction view revisited

The mystique of culture/language versus information exchange.

Conclusion

Bibliography

Abstract

In black education in South Africa, EMI begins from Std 3. Problems which arise during this transition continue well into secondary and tertiary education, and often result in academic failure. One of the causes of academic failure is attributed to the clash between first language-culture and English language-culture. For this reason multiculturalism has become an important branch of study in education; with the increasing danger of evolving into another hobby-horse. This paper contrasts two conceptions of the relation between language and reality. There is the mapping view, which claims that all language groups share in a common world, where each language represents a different map of this common world. This means that a knowledge of a specific map is all that is required to translate from one language to another. This mapping view is represented in South Africa by those who claim that what is at stake is the national “culture of information exchange”, and not the attachment to different cultures. In contrast to the mapping view, there is the reality-construction view, which claims that there is no direct access to the world out there, and that reality is constructed out of our fallible perceptions. It is the “Western” construction of the world, more accurately, the “culture of the modern world” that is dominant today. It is argued that information exchange is indeed what is at stake in a modern nation, but that this information exchange is not merely the result of a translation between linguistic maps, but also has to do, at a deeper level, with a construction of a particular “Western” view of the world that has imposed itself on the reality-constructions of other cultures, specifically the black cultures of South Africa. And it is this imposition (imposture?) of the “Western” view that plays a significant, but certainly not the only, role in academic failure. It is also argued that the informational function should be seen as only one of many functions of language-culture.The overarching message of the paper is a plea for constructive realism in multicultural education.

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Introduction

Modern anthropologists are aware that any worthwhile investigation of culture should treat with circumspection all descriptions of behaviour that take purely linguistic forms (Bloch, 1990). In the academic world of texts we are mostly concerned with purely linguistic forms. For this reason I would rather not describe the perhaps more interesting non-linguistic messages conveyed to me, a participant, in the discussions I had with a black South African educationist during the first few months of 1993. I shall only report his linguistic meanings and not the interesting non-linguistic ethnographical details. His view is shared by other black South African academics, some of whom work in the same educational institution as I. I mention two opinions of my informant (Informant 1), as I have formalised them:

1. My informant questions the bona fides of anyone who assumes that mother tongue education is a sound principle.

2. Multiculturalism, i.e. conceptual relativism (e.g. Western science versus African culture), is a myth ( the term myth throughout this paper carries the pedestrian meaning of “exaggeration”, “fabrication”).

The question is whether these two opinions reflect a grasp of educational realities or are rather a misguided (but understandable) reaction to the injustices of apartheid ideology. In this paper I try and provide some thoughts that touch on these two problems from a philosophical point of view. I shall argue two points:

1. The mother tongue is indispensable in the education process, from basic interpersonal skills to a high degree of academic literacy. This point relates to the next point.

2. Concepts are culturally mediated. I argue that “culture” does not only distinguish between groups, but also distinguishes between individuals within the same group. My main argument will be that the root of the problems of multiculturalism in EMI lies, firstly, in the confusion that occurs between members of “Western culture” who teach and write (text-)books for members of a “non-Western culture”; and, secondly, in the clash between these two different world views in the learning situation. In fact, the teaching and the learning problem are two sides of the same cultural coin.

Pidgin’s answer to Babel?

Along the South coast of China is found the most extreme example of Babel than possibly anywhere else in the world. A traveller encounters a new language every five or six kilometres, where inhabitants of one village have difficulty understanding the inhabitants of another. Merchants along the coast, who come from all parts of the world, have for centuries been using a pidgin Chinese-English as a lingua franca for these regions (Karlgren, 1962:18, Dillard, 1975:12-14). Here is what one of these merchants is likely to say if he had my thoughts at this moment:

Me one talkee person, me hab grandee time, me lub one talk; me no can talkee-talkee, me no lib good.(I am a very talkative person. I’m going to have a grand time. If you don’t allow me to speak at the conference, I’m going to be unhappy).

No doubt an excellent tool for exchanging basic information, which Chomsky (1966:22) describes as a “characteristic of no real human language, but only of invented parasitic systems”. Pidgin may indeed be a “parasite” – a fallen angel – because it feeds on the living tissue of natural languages, but, on the other hand, it is, relative to natural languages quite productive and systematic. As Dillard (1975:41) points out, pidgin appears very natural and is very useful to many kinds of people (e.g. (slave) traders, exploited populations, immigrants, lonely foreigners). Therefore it is undoubtably true that pidgin is a marvellous post-Babelian invention that transcends the confusion; a potion that neutralises the poison of non-communication. Unfortunately, pidgin is clearly limited when it comes to going beyond basic information exchange, to the need to talk about pidgin and “natural” languages like English, Tswana and Zulu, to academic needs, to academic language proficiency, which is our main concern. I distinguish, as Cummins'(1983, 1984) does, between basic interpersonal and communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive and academic language proficiency (CALP). (Note 1). These needs are the mainsprings of culture in the academic domain.

Culture and cognitive functioning

When I asked my Practical English students at Fort Hare to write a definition of culture, they invariably came up with rote textbook descriptions culled from their other subjects: “Culture refers to the norms and values…”, etc. Now, norms and values are the kind of “objective” things that do indeed belong to specific groups, which an individual has to conform to. But let us for a while suspend this traditional definition of culture and consider it anew.

Here is an extract, mistakes and all, from one of my Practical English students’ essays. The title was “Home is where the hope is”. I have substituted “culture” for “home”:

In a universal perspective home [culture] may be defined as an individual continent or world, where its inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness created by freedom of religion, personal custom, uncramped dignity, norms and values. The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually by called by the name is evanescant as a dream.

I asked (separately) two Practical English lecturers and one philosophy lecturer for their judgements. I quote:

First Practical English lecturer: “What a lot of nonsense. It does not make sense.”

Second Practical English lecturer: “He has imagination. Creative. A good effort.”

Philosopher: “I like it. I would give it a good mark. A bit flowery.”

I then discussed the passage with the first PE lecturer and the philosopher together. Here are a few quotes from the two of them:

First Practical English lecturer: Both of you are philosophers. You are used to extending boundaries. I like to impose them. My training is different to yours. I look for the limits of things. You look beyond the limits of things.

Philosopher: If you think this passage is meaningless you should try Derrida for size.

The First PE lecturer is right. I look beyond the limit of things, or of words rather. For this reason I do not care whether the student breaks the limit (especially in this type of “creative” writing). Indeed I encourage it. According to Popper (1977:268), creative thinking is characterised by the ability to break through the limits of the range – or to vary the range…This ability, which is critical ability, may be described as critical imagination. It is often the result of culture clash, that is a clash between ideas, of frameworks of ideas.

Popper advises that we should not confuse the “creative thinking” of critical imagination with “successful thinking”. What Popper seems to be saying is that there is a distinction between creating new combinations of ideas for one’s self, and creating them for the world, in the sense of a scientific breakthrough (which is often a matter of luck, e.g. the discovery of the light filament by Edison; or a matter of (day-)dreaming, e.g. Kukhule’s discovery of the Benzene molecule). What I am going to argue is that much thinking-and-talking especially in the academic domain, involves a clash of cultures. It is the term culture that now requires definition.

For me culture means what a person thinks (talks) about, and does about what s/he thinks (talks) about. Such a general definition might cause someone like Segal (1984) to remark that my definition signifies so much that it signifies nothing at all. Someone else will ask where is the concretisation of these thinkings and doings in a tradition? Rohner (1984) defines culture in a non-behaviourist way, as a “system of symbolic meanings”. The emphasis for Rohner is not on social “behaviour” (in the materialist, behaviourist sense; see Johnson-Laird, 1988:17), but rather on how people conceive their behaviour. Rohner’s definitions highlight two things: 1. Culture is systematic, i.e. it is concretised in a group; 2. Culture is a way of representing one’s world through thinking, i.e. through cognitive functioning (Note 2).

Cognitive functioning is basic to culture because it plays a central role in the constructing and sharing of symbolic meanings. For Cummins and Swain (1986:7), cognitive functioning refers to “measures involving general intellectual and linguistic skills such as verbal and non-verbal IQ, divergent thinking, academic performance and metalinguistic awareness.” Intelligence, as part of cognitive functioning, tends to be overlooked, nowadays, in definitions of culture, owing to its links with opinions about racism. But if culture is what people think and do, then surely, how well (intelligently) they do it is also important.

I make a distinction within cognitive functioning between two broad spectra of energies: thought and intelligence (Bohm, 1980:50). Thought is defined here as the “intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses to memory” (Bohm, 1980:50). Thought is basically mechanical (conditioned) in its operations, but may at times perform in novel ways. However these novelties are likely to be nothing more than the kind of fortuitous (irrelevant) interplay displayed in a kaleidoscope, for example. Intelligence, on the other hand, perceives new order and new structure. It is able to combine things together in fresh ways, creating new abstract patterns and relationships such as “identity and difference, separation and connection, necessity and contingency, cause and effect, etc.” (Bohm, 1980:50) (Note 3). These new patterns do not have to be new to the world, but new to the person’s mind. What we need to consider now is how these abstract patterns and relationships are made, and how they are concretised into a system; in other words, how somebody does what s/he thinks.

Before I continue, I need to make it clear that the term “cognitive” can be used in the comprehensive sense as defined by Cummins and Swain above, or in the more restrictive sense of the “mapping” of the spatio-temporal world into the mind. I shall explain “cognitive mapping” and “spatio-temporal when I deal with the mapping view of reality, a few paragraphs later on.

The reality-construction view

Words, by long and familiar use…come to excite in men certain ideas so constantly and readily, that they are apt to suppose a natural connection between them. But that they signify only men’s peculiar ideas, and that by a perfect arbitrary imposition [original italics], is evident, in that they often fail to excite in others (even that use the same language) the same ideas we take them to be signs of [underlining added].John Locke (1947 [1690]:206) (Essay of Human Understanding)

It is possible for members of the same group to share the same vocabulary and grammar, and still not understand one other. The reason is that they have constructed their realities using different linguistic/conceptual repertoires. Consider the following paragraph (Edge, 1993):

“Let us then define the fundamental function of language as: the textualizationof human awareness. Thus the energy of awareness is channelled into thought or speech and becomes linguistic matter – the textualization of human awareness in linguistic substance.”

Five lecturers – philosophy, literature, music and linguistics (two, which included me) could not agree on how “awareness” differed from thought (conscious or unconscious). I found one arrangement of the puzzle in Bohm’s (1980) book with the irresistible title of “Wholeness and the implicate order”. On page 11 he says:

The new form [contrasted with the static reductionist form] of insight can perhaps best be called Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement. This view implies that flow is, in some sense, prior to that of the `things’ than can be seen to form and dissolve in this flow. One can perhaps illustrate what is meant here by considering the `stream of consciousness’. This flux of awareness is not precisely definable, and yet it is evidently prior to the definable forms of thoughts and ideas which can be seen to form and dissolve in the flux, like ripples, waves and vortices in a flowing stream.[Underlining and brackets added].

The flux, according to Bohm, is the ground (non-solid, of course) of all things. Which must be the ground of culture as well. The question is:”How much of Bohm’s flux is outside his mind, and how much of it is his own constructed reality, which are constructed out of the language-concepts he uses?

Benjamin Lee Whorf’s views on the linguistic construction of reality are well known. Rather than trudge over the well-worn Whorfian ground, I prefer to look at a modern variation of the Whorfian hypothesis, as expounded by Grace (1987). Where Whorf mostly failed, perhaps Grace can succeed in providing an answer to the central epistemological question of how language, thought and reality fit together: The question:- “What are the distinctive contributions of mind/language (the inner world) and of the objective world (outer world) to knowledge?

Grace (1987:3-6) makes the following observations:

1. The effective environment of human beings is based more on the cultural than the natural.

2. The three major uses of language is to construct, preserve and transmit this effective reality. For this reason we can refer to the linguistic construction of reality (the creation of our view of things). In this discussion we are mainly concerned with the construction of our effective reality.

3. Since our reality construction is carried out by language, our best prospect for understanding the workings of reality construction is most likely to be through studying how language works.

4. It is important to keep in mind that our customary way of viewing language is itself the product of our reality construction.

In a given language-cultural community, established frameworks (whether scientific or social) which may remain fixed for a long time, are eventually restructured in terms of new ideas, which in turn leads to the restructuring of meanings, which may then either lead to changes in the meanings of established words, or to the creation of new words (Arbib and Hesse, 1986:144). The group and the individual are both involved in the symbiotic renovation of culture. In my own experience, I encounter new concepts (new opportunities for talking about things), which challenge my own assumptions – not beliefs (Note 4). Through confronting these challenges in a positive way I hopefully increase my knowledge and understanding. What I find interesting/useful, I renovate into my own cognitive structure, moving a rickety support here, getting rid of a crumbling wall there; moving between the three levels of awareness, thought and intelligence (as defined above). Through these “assimilations” and “accomodations” (piagetian terms), I construct new ways of thinking/ talking about things.

Grace (1987:6) then contrasts the reality-construction view with the mapping view of reality. These are two different epistemological assumptions, which lead to two different ontological interpretations. In other words, the way we (assume we) know the world is the way we accept it to be.

The mapping view

A large part of verbal language consists of spatial metaphors; “mapping” is one of these. Three key terms in spatial behaviour are “image”, “environment” and “cognitive mapping” (Downs and Stea, 1973). In spatial behaviour, the mind “draws” maps of its spatial environment using the “raw” data of perception. The drawing of these maps is called “cognitive mapping” (the term is attributed to Tollman, 1932). Spatial metaphors are also used to describe time, e.g. a long day, in the space of a morning. The external (I use this term metaphorically) world, to simplify it to its basic constituents, is our spatio-temporal reality. Nothing about the brain/mind can be explained without reference to this spatio-temporal reality (Arbib and Hesse, 1986:XI). So in a sense all of language is metaphor, i.e. a transferring from the world of perception to the “inner” world of the mind/brain. The theory of knowledge (epistemological) problem is trying to understand how the brain/mind can be in space and time, and how space and time can be in our brain/mind, both at the same time. The cultural problem is how this paradox is accommodated in, what Grace (a few paragraphs earlier) refers our “effective environment”.

In the mapping view, different cultures-languages share a pre-established common world, and languages are analogous to maps of this common world. Each language cuts up (classifies or maps) this common world in different ways. To use an analogy, the map of Eastern Europe is completely different to what it was 4 years ago, and even some of the place names have changed, e.g. Stalingrad has reverted back to St Petersburg. The terrain is the same, but the maps (boundaries) are different. When it comes to languages, the mapping view of language claims that different languages are different “maps” of a common world. The more cognate (similar) the languages, the more similar the map will be. Mascher (1991:3) defines cognate languages as belonging “to the same family of languages and so have a similar grammar and vocabulary because they share a common origin [ a common history/culture]”. Let us consider the grammatical component for the moment, i.e. morphology and syntax. In terms of the mapping view, the Sotho sentence Mosimane o mokgolo o ile o ithuta puo e and the English sentence The big boy had learnt this language may be claimed to be merely two different maps of the same reality. This means that maps as maps have no reality in themselves, but are merely two ways of looking at the same terrain.

Even if we accept that these two sentences are mapping the same thing (out there), there is still the fact that relatively few will be able to translate the information represented in the original map into the target map, especially if the technique for doing so is learnt in an artificial tutored fashion (school). This is true not only for black learners of English, but (perhaps chronically so) for white learners of Black languages. Before we return to these two sentences, let us consider some of the main morphological characteristics of the Bantu family of languages (Doke, 1967:47).

(The term “Bantu” is used here purely in the accepted linguistic sense).

1. Highly inflexional – prefixes and suffixes [or/and agglutinative, depending on how one sees it]

2. Concordial agreement – for example, all pronouns relating to a noun agree with that noun.

3. A high development in the conjugations of the verb, with a great variety of moods and tenses; including a separate positive and negative conjugations.

Some negative characteristics:

1. No prepositions [This is a point of debate]

2. No articles

Problems in translation: Bantu languages and English

Before I continue, I need to clarify the term “structure” as it is used in language learning. Sometimes structure refers to both grammar and lexis, and sometimes it refers to grammar (syntax and morphology) alone.

I use structure in the following examples to refer to grammar. Let us first consider some of the grammatical problems.

Consider the Sotho sentence (given above) again, with the literal English translation:

Sotho : Mosimane o mo-kgolo o ile o ithuta puo e

(Boy he big he went he learn language this)

In this sentence, the difficulties are more grammatical than lexical in nature. Much of lexis, rather than grammar, is regarded as culturally based, and for this reason lexis is regarded as the main stumbling block in learning a non-cognate language. I would tend to regard not only lexis as culturally based, but grammar as well, because in terms of my definition of culture, grammar as part of structure (grammar and lexis) is also something you think (about) and do. What is more it is, I think, an intimate part of what you think and do, a way of being-in-and-for-the-world – perfect bilinguals perhaps being the exceptions. (See Christopherson [1973] who maintains that mother tongue fealty is a myth).

Consider another few examples that show more complicated structural differences between non-cognate languages. I asked my Practical English students at Fort Hare to translate the following sentence into Xhosa: “In contrast to the behaviour of A, B behaves in the following way.”

Here are two of the Xhosa translations with their literal English translations:

1.Chasanisa kwisimo sika A, B ngalendlela ilandelayo.

(Differentiate within-nature of A, B way following)

The student has either misinterpreted the sentence as a directive (Differentiate), or, quite possibly does not know the standard form of Xhosa. As one informant described it: “Its kitchen Xhosa”.

2.Isichasanisi kwindlela ka A ahamba ngayo yahlukile kweka B.

(Difference in-way of A it goes different of-that B)

The double use of “difference” is superfluous. The Xhosa means “The way A goes is different from that of B.” A few of my other informants could not agree if this Xhosa sentence meant the same as the original English sentence, namely: “In contrast to A…”

Informant 2, a Xhosa speaker, maintains that the following is a good translation:

3.Ngokuchasene kwindlela u-A aziphethe ngayo, u-B uziphethe ngalendlela ilandelayo.

(Literal translation: As far as the difference the way A behaves, B behaves manner following).

Chasanisi in example 2 and -chasene in example 3 come from chasa (different).

These examples show that syntax of English and Xhosa (and Black languages in general) are radically different from each other. Of course, the English speaker, unless s/he is linguistically gifted, will have similar problems in learning Xhosa.

Problems in EMI

Besides the grammatical problems of learning a non-cognate language, there is also lexis. Lexis, unlike the finite (but nevertheless demanding) rules of grammar, is infinite (Note 5). But it is not just a question of the quantity of new words that have to be learned, but also the quantity of new concepts attached to each new word, especially abstract concepts, which do not “come” singly attached to each word, but rather in knotty, gluey bundles, each a cultural conglomerate of meaning.

Here are a few examples from the academic domain: Four of my Xhosa speaking informants tell me that in Xhosa there is only one word for mind and brain, namely Ingqondo. Therefore they translate “Psychological construct” by “Ukubona kwengqondo [kwengqondo = kwa ingqondo] (to see of mind). Does this mean that a “mental operation” will turn out in Xhosa to be a “brain operation”? (Note 6) There are numerous other problematic areas. For instance, in the field of science, there is no way to translate such “knots” as “atom”, “molecule”, “mole” into an African language. Each of these terms consists of a complex networks of concepts, which many non-mother tongue speakers of English (as well as many mother tongue speakers of English) find difficult to lock into.

In the non-academic domain, linguistic problems can cause more than inconvenience. Two situations come to mind:1. A Xhosa speaker with low English proficiency fails a driving test, because s/he had to learn the rules of the road from treacherous Xhosa translations of the original English; 2. Mistranslations in the Law Courts may lead to wrong convictions.

Many of the EMI problems are related to poor background knowledge. Problems occur when the background (old) knowledge of the learner cannot connect up with the new knowledge, either because the old knowledge has not been made available, or because the new knowledge is culturally (culture = symbolic meanings) so gooey that it gums up the understanding. In linguistic terms, the learner lacks the background schemata or relevant frames of reference to understand what s/he reads (Note 7). (Lanham, 1990:181; Chick, 1990:321). These frames of reference are constructed out of the totality of one’s life experiences, of which the first five years of life are often the most important.

I have given a few examples to show that English and Black languages are non-cognate languages, and therefore their linguistic maps differ quite radically. Now I find most astounding the following statement made by Gregersen (1977:2): “…African languages differ in no essential way from the languages of Europe, Asia, of the Americas”. What exactly does “essential” mean here? The Vedanta, Zen and a few quantum physicists would say that there is no essential difference between an arm and a leg, between a verb and a noun, between between and beneath, between essence and existence.

The fact is that Gregersen (1977:2) is just not interested in African languages as linguistic phenomena:

It is not linguistics, but a variety of nonlinguistic considerations – notably geographical, political, and anthropological – that has focused interest on the 1000 or so African languages as a group.

Well, if English, Black languages and Chinese do not differ in any essential way, the honour must go to pidgin the parasite for sucking out these differences, which would make pidgin the cognate base of all the languages of the four continents (including Estonian and Hungarian; and Hopi?).

Me one talk(ee) person, me hab grand(ee) time, me lub one talk;

me no can talk(ee)-talk(ee), me no lib good.

I might agree that languages such as Greek and English have a common base of background schemata – of course their grammars, I would think, are quite distant from one another – because they share a common

European heritage, but the same can’t be said for English/Greek and the Bantu languages. If there is a problem, firstly in translating one Greek (e.g. Aristotle) into another Greek (e.g. Plato), and secondly Greek into English (there are certain lexical differences as well), the problem of translating Plato into Zulu (or Zulu into Plato) can only be – notwithstanding a glorious transformation – a treacherous translation (TRADUTTORE, TRADITORE “to translate is to betray”). And of course this does not mean that Zulu – or Greek – is not a rich language in its own right (Note 8).

I want to contrast Dean Mascher’s view with Gregersen’s. Mascher (1991) mentions Hartshorne’s (1987) four reasons for the low standard of English among black learners and teachers:

1. The effects of Bantu education.

2. The DET, staffed mostly by Afrikaners, lacks the dedication to promote English.

3. The majority of English teachers are black or Afrikaans speaking, many of whom cannot teach English for communicative purposes.

4. English mother tongue speakers and English second language learners are generally racially segregated into different schools.

Mascher does not deny that these factors play a role in poor English performance, but his view is that none of these factors can compare with the fact that “the medium of instruction from Std 3 onwards is a language which

is non-cognate to the learner’s first language” (Mascher, 1991:2). He complains that the ability to learn a second language in a tutored situation, especially a non-cognate one, requires special linguistic gifts of an analytical nature. To add to the difficulty, the child from Std 3 onwards has to learn through the medium of English, a task which s/he is generally wholly inadequate to do – as Macdonald (1990, 1990a) and her colleagues have so painstakingly shown.

For the moment consider the white children in this country. These children have to learn English or Afrikaans as a second language. Many of these children have a pathetic knowledge of their respective second languages, and if called on in Std 3 to start using this second language as a medium of instruction (which would involve reading relatively advanced texts), would be a laughing stock. And yet Mascher refers to English and Afrikaans as cognate languages, which in my view they are (relative to the differences between either of them and an African language). Mascher (1991:4) suggests that the formal teaching of non-cognate language should not begin until the child has mastered his own language, which occurs at the age of about twelve. The dilemma is that on the one hand there is the spiritual/ cultural dimension of the mother tongue and on the other hand there is the economic necessity of learning English; for without a sound knowledge of English, many blacks will not be able to get/give any enjoyment. And that is what life is mainly perceived to be about. As a practical step, Mascher (1991:11) suggests that

It is necessary for people to be working on African languages so that excellent materials in the mother tongue, materials suited to the real needs of the children, can be developed, published and used in schools.

The Molteno Project is a good example of the work being done in this area. Lanham (1990) has pinpointed fifteen problematic areas in ESL for black learners. Two of these thorny areas are: inaccessible background knowledge, and ellipsis. Here is an example of ellipsis, using simple a Tswana example, with a simplified literal translation:

Question:

A o lebetse go ya (ko) sekolo-ng?

(Dummy) you forgot to go school to?

Answer:

Ke lebetse go ya.

I forgot to go.

Tswana can say Ke lebetse but not Ke lebetse go (I forgot to) as can be done in English.

So far so good. Many of us want the kind of material coming out of the Molteno project. Many of us, like Lanham and Mascher (I think), are swinging our pendulums back towards structure, i.e. many applied linguists, once again, are beginning to agree – the more things change the more they remain the same – that contrastive linguistics should play a central role in the writing of textbooks for blacks. But there is more to the problem than non-cognatism. The main problem does not lie in ESL learners, i.e. learners of OTHER tongues, but in the mOTHER tongue (English) and non-mOTHER tongue educators, who teach otherly (diverse) lessons, write otherly textbooks, set and evaluate in otherly ways. And the reason for this fortuitous diversity is that they construct their realities in otherly ways.

Reality construction view revisited

In the reality-construction view, there is no direct access to the real world. Grace argues that this does not mean that the models of reality that we construct are purely random, because the outside world, he maintains, does indeed impose some constraints on the inner world (Note 9). Gellner (1963:146) puts it this way:

We cannot say what the world is like without having [constructing?] concepts – language games [Wittgenstein] – in which to say it; and equally, we cannot say anything – operate language games – without there being a world, and a recognisable and familiar one at that, in which they existed and operated [Square brackets added].

Perhaps that is what culturing is all about; constructing meaningful games, playing them, and enjoying them. Of course, this enjoying is not a self-indulgent pleasure hunt, but rather a transitive (trans-site) (Note 10) en-joying of the world – perhaps the only kind of trans-lation that could be a success.

We saw that the key assumption of the mapping view states that “any content that can be expressed in one language can be expressed in any other language” (Grace, 1987:7-8). This view, which is referred to as the intertranslatability postulate, hopefully assumes that there exists a common conceptual ground – a mental esperanto – underlying the differences between cultures-languages. In the reality construction view (Grace, 1987:10), on the other hand, there is no clear boundary between culture, thinking and language. Each language-culture therefore constitutes its own conceptual world (Note 11). However, reality construction does not only obtain in different language-culture groups. The reason is that each human being constructs his/her own culture. And much of this constructing (si[gh]ting) (Note 12) is done through the insights gained from language, which makes it possible to make novel excavations – not only in syntax but also in lexis – into the hidden sedimentations of one’s cultural past, as well as make novel leaps of creativity. Each language theorist has a personal way of looking at language, i.e. a particular way of constructing a view of language, which may coincidentally concur with another’s view. But no two views are exactly the same (unless two people share the same eyeballs). Some find answers (Botha, 1992; Chomsky, 1965, 1967) in the hard-wiring of universal grammar (LAD – language acquisition device). Others argue that if there can be a LAD, then why not a mathematical acquisition device as well (Putnam, 1967:21; Staats, 1971:117) (Note 13) – a MAD.

Kuhn (1955) shows that conflicting schools of thought who share the same grammar and lexicon, may not understand one another’s way of talking. For example, I see a conflict between applied linguistics (where the talk is of grammar and communication) and literary theory (where the traditional – and often quite insipid – fare is spiced with such relishes as grammatology, deconstruction and zen). In my own speciality of language testing, I have found in modern literary theory new ways of thinking/talking about my subject. For example, here are two ways of my talking about “tests and construct validity”: the first one is quite acceptable in a traditional applied linguistics article; the second has a literary style.

Passage 1. Convergent.

In order to understand what a construct is, we first need to know what a test is. A test is a measurement instrument used to elicit a specific sample of an individual’s behaviour. A test is sometimes also defined, more obscurely, as an operational definition of a construct. The problem is that there is no visible link between the test (operational definition) and the abstract construct.

Passage 2. Divergent.

A thing is only intelligible if it is part of one’s experience. A trait (in the mind) is beyond our experience, and cannot be conceived or depicted without dipping the brush into a generous palette of symbols. For example, a religious person cannot imagine the glory of God without thinking of warmth, acceptance, perhaps of eroticism [C.S. Lewis’s (1965:101) idea]. Similarly, a psychological trait in its conception becomes a trait of metaphor, because it is impossible to conceive of the trait without the prior prickle (“senuweeprikkel”) (Note 14) of an external sti[mu]lus.

The first passage is an example of traditional scientific discourse, where a conscious (but unsuccessful) effort is made to skirt round the tropical forests of metaphor. The second is a deliberate effort to exploit metaphor. Actually I don’t think it is possible to use language without using metaphor. One can be more dull, but one cannot be less metaphorical (pictorial).

Having considered, in various parts of this paper, the relativity of meanings within the same linguistic group, namely English speakers, let us look at some of the problems between different language-cultures in terms of the mapping view of language. Consider Van Niekerk’s (1993:32) view of translation, which seems to be a mapping view (of the inner world, if not of the outer – if such a distinction still makes sense):

Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework not remarkable? And does not that reveal something of a type of conceptual commonality or constant that is ab initio denied by social relativists?

Contrast the above statement with the following statement by Van Niekerk (1993:34), who is describing Western culture versus “Azande” culture:

The contrast between Western and Azande culture is that the latter is unfamiliar with the theoretical approach to problem solving and rather represents a residue of the mythical thought pattern with its entwinement of knowledge and action [the meaning of “mythical” here is “a story that conveys a system of values and meanings”]

This latter statement implies that different cultures “have different views of the world” (Van Niekerk, 1992:33). But wait; Van Niekerk also maintains that it is wrong to argue that the “practice of argumentation, that is of establishing relationships between beliefs by means of logical rules… does not obtain in certain cultures”. There are two points I would like to make here. Firstly, there are many who would disagree (Note 15) with Van Nierkerk’s observation that “conceptual frameworks” are easily translatable. Secondly, it may be true that the “practice of argumentation” obtains in all cultures, but this is a far cry from the claim that “conceptual frameworks” are intertranslatable. For example, how does one translate this paper into a black language? Or into (someone else’s) English? According to Verster (1986:15) “some, if not most executive processes (I identify this with Van Niekerk’s “conceptual frameworks”) may be culturally relative and hence not represented in all populations. Millar (1988:157) goes further and makes the polemic claim that courses in skills development pursue the “impossible” because processes such as classifying and hypothesising cannot be taught, but can only develop (i.e. they are part of inborn intelligence). The upshot: Van Niekerk, maintains that all cultures have got much in common; Verster says we (i.e. non-cognate cultures) have not got much in common; and Millar says if you haven’t got it, you’ll never get it (Note 16).

The mystique of culture/language versus information exchange

Earlier I mentioned that Gregersen’s interest in African languages is not in the least linguistic, but political and anthropological. He is obviously not a teacher of ESL, where the ultimate concern is the processing and exchange of information through the medium of academic discourse. The danger is that in the political rush to develop a national culture of information exchange (communication), it may arise that a nation-builder constructs a reality that may clash with the reality-constructions of others.

I am referring to Alexander (1989:30), one of the most active proponents of a national culture in South Africa. For Alexander, language is merely seen as a tool for exchanging information. He maintains that the idea of a language group as the basis of a nation or the national group, stems from a “mystique” about language, and from a failure to see this phenomenon in terms of the rise of capitalism. This “mystique”, he claims, is based on the belief that each language has its own “soul” or “psyche”. Alexander rejects this – some would say, spooky – view and argues that

there is a historical explanation why language groups constitute the basis of nations in Western Europe and that historical explanation has to do with the fact that the development of means of communication [information exchange] was then in a very primitive state [Square brackets added].

Alexander (1989:3) adds that the language question leads these (could we call them) mystics,

straight into the murky, obscure area of culture, to the idea that language groups are not just co-extensive with nations but that nations and language groups are different aspects of cultural groups,that languages and cultures are co-extensive. It leads us on the political plane to the whole debate which is now “shaking” South Africa itself, viz. should we guarantee group rights or individual rights?

[See Vyas, 1992:261, with regard to individual and group rights].

This “murky, obscure area of culture” has developed in the last few decades into what is called “multicultural education”, which, if I have interpreted Alexander correctly, would represent for him nothing more than a multicoloured spook. For Alexander, the main issue is information exchange. Before I comment on Alexander’s exclusive preoccupation with information exchange, I think we should recall what it means to be competent in a language in the modern working (industrialising) society.

The main use of language in the modern working world is the exchange of information. But so is this (exchange of information) the main use of language in the academic world of scientific discourse (some forms of literary discourse are excluded here). This means that language competence – in the working world and specifically in the academic domain -should include (Peirce, 1990):

the ability to say and write what one means; to hear what is said and what is hidden; to defend one’s point of view; to argue, to persuade, to negotiate; to create, to reflect, to invent; to explore relationships, personal, structural, political; to speak, read, and write with confidence; to make one’s voice heard; to read print and resist it where necessary.

Few democratic educationists would disagree with such a description of language competence, and it has been merry-go-rounding for at least three decades in Europe and America. Part of the problem in South Africa is that cultural differences as well as past political policies have made it difficult for the majority of the population to develop this kind of language competence. In fact this kind of language competence is so new to many South Africans that it has been given a new name, with a political flavour, that seems to have lost much of its original bite; “People’s English” (Peirce, 1990:8).

Academic discourse requires specialised knowledge and skills that basic interpersonal communication does not require. Accordingly, the ability to argue, persuade and resist print where necessary requires a highly developed mix of linguistic knowledge and cognitive skill. For Alexander (1989:30), the sole purpose of language is communication (information exchange):

The proposition I’m going to put forward presently is that what is in fact at stake here is not language, not morphology, not syntax, nor grammar and the particular ways in which words and sounds are put together. Communication [information exchange] is what is at stake [Square brackets added].

Suppose that we are in a boat and are caught in a gale off shore. For Alexander, and for most of us, what is at stake is not manoeuvring the boat skilfully (putting words and sounds together), but getting safely to the bank (communicating a message successfully). In this sense it is true that what is at stake is communication and not putting words and sounds together. But then all (language) teachers, no matter what approach they adopt, whether the grammar-translation approach or the communicative approach or the “multicultural approach” (?), would not disagree with Alexander. The main point is that if the boat is unsound, there is less chance of getting safely to shore. If I have read Alexander correctly, I do read a certain dissatisfaction with the amount of attention language teachers pay to “grammar” compared to the amount paid to “communication”.

When we put the definition of “People’s English” above together with what seems to be Alexander’s marginalisation of grammar, it becomes easier to understand the opposition to grammar that exists in some institutions that are for “People’s education”. It is worrying, but understandable, when teachers tell their students that English grammar is a tool of Bantu Education and that they only teach English (grammar and culture) because they have to. However, one can understand the frustration of these teachers, many of whom had spent seven years or more learning English in Bantu Education schools, and getting little out of it. Whatever the frustrations of the past, let us not throw out the grammatical baby with the Bantu bath water. Grammar should be, of course, the handmaiden of communication, and not its mistress (the meaning of mistress here is not “illicit lover”, but female of “master”). What is more, language is far more than grammar and communication. We need the Jewish wisdom of a Noam Chomsky (1972) to lead us away from the Babel of confusion and put us back on the right track:

…it is wrong to think of human use of language as characteristically informative, in fact or in intention. Human language can be used to inform or mislead, to clarify one’s own thoughts or to display one’s cleverness, or simply for play. If I speak with no concern for modifying your behaviour or thoughts, I am not using language any less than if I say exactly the same things with [original italics] such intention. If we hope to understand human language and the psychological capacities on which it rests, we must first ask what it is, not how or for what purposes it is used.

Chomsky’s view has much in common with Mascher and with the writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who both maintain that language is first and foremost the carrier-transmitter-preserver of culture, i.e. of self-expression, of spirituality, of play, of enjoyment, of sanity. Surely such a belief, which is based on sound human(e)-scientific principles, cannot be a myth. Can we say the same about the belief in a united “national culture” (a culture of the nation) which consolidates itself by mythologising (away) the “mystique of cultures”. Such mythologising resembles an attempt to demolish the primeval confusion of Babel, by construing, out of the babble of its rabble (rubble), a new Tower. And using a trio of masonic misfits to do so; the likes of a Hopi Heidegger, a Latvian La-otse, and a Tswana Tolstoy. The prospect of engulfing linguistic-cultural diversity beneath the universal culture of political unity and information exchange would parallel the extinction of a whole synagogue of biological species; of human families. And politics is not possible without human political animals. This is not to say that unity (between individuals and groups) should not be the ultimate goal of humankind. But (political) unity without (cultural) diversity, and diversity without unity would be like the (non-)sound of one hand clapping. Arbib and Hesse put it this way (1986:58):

There is no reason that schemas developed in one culture should be fully translatable into patterns and schemas in another language. Even for persons raised in the same society, the differences in genetic constitution and individual experience provide “individuality” and “personality” as is constituted by a distinctive network of schemas for each person.

Conclusion

In the domain of translation, the basic assumption, according to Grace (1987:7), is that all theories about translation are “incorrigible”, i.e. they are not subject to correction in the light of subsequent experience. What seems to be the case is that experience is sifted in terms of one’s preconceived theories rather than one’s theories being modified by experience. What is “incorrigible” in the field of translation is also incorrigible in all quests for knowledge. The reason is that our theories (“schemas” [schemes, schemata]) are always undetermined by our experience (data), which means that we are caught up in a hermeneutic (epistemological) circle of theory and experience. My job (and enjoyment) as an academic thinker (taylor) is to unpick verbal knots, e.g. the knot of “reality”, the knot of “culture”, and the latest and most illusionary (playful) one of them all, the multi-syllabic knot of “multiculturalism”. I suggest that not until we make some progress in untying these hyperactive words/concepts can we successfully play the concrete game of applied linguistics. For Young (1990) an important part of the applied linguistics game is to “bridge the gap between linguistic theorists and language practitioners” (p.6) by relating “our practice to the base discipline of linguistics” (p.10). I think that besides linguistics, we need to relate our practice to other disciplines as well, such as anthropology, literary theory, poetry, philosophy, play.

We need to, if not break down the walls, then reduce the distances between the “ghettos” (Boulding, 1973:ix) that we call “disciplines”. Go back to the drawing board, or to the bedroom rather, for the simple reason that most humans begin (their anagrammatic being) in bed; and therefore so does politics, so does culture, so does linguistics. So does EMI. And for that matter, so does agriculture. At conception, a new mind-brain-heart-limbs burgeons forth from the ground of being, into the haven of the womb. One of the dangers the developing baby person has to contend with is getting tangled up in the umbilical chord. The process of culturing, i.e. the armed struggle for enjoyment, begins. For the rest of our lives, we struggle, exiled from the mothering womb, caught up in the entanglements of words. Wrestling with our MOTHER tongue. Vying with the OTHER; with the OTHER self. Representing the world. Grasping the gooey bundlings of concepts that words are meant to signify. Forever (im)proving “our model of our internal reality – of the nature of ourselves” (Churchland and Sejnowski (1990:225).

What I have tried to show in this paper is that sometimes we need to take a break from the music of EMI, and take another look at the score. We need to ask: What is thought, language; What-EM-I? Does the answer lie in the constructing of reality? Or/and in the mapping of reality?

Someone who can shed some light is the wisest of all Greeks, whose soul, with each remarkable soar of thought, transmigrated beyond the hemlock, beyond the limit (Note 17), to realise (release) yet another level of being:

“First there’s the real; then the really real; then the really really real”,

(opinions)                 (knowledge)              (understanding)

as Andrew Murray, former Professor of political philosophy at UCT used to say about Socrates, rolling his Afrikaans r’s (Murray’s of course), and ending off, in his posh Oxford accent,

“and so forth.”

Notes

1.. The use of “skills” in BICS and “proficiency” in “CALP” is unfortunate, because it creates the impression that “skills” in general belong to lower cognitive orders. Some writers distinguish between “transferable skills” and “transferring skills” (Bridges, 1993:50). Transferable skills are those that are learnt in one situation and are transferable to another. For example, a reading skill such as scanning that is learnt in the English class can also be used in the geography class. Transferring skills are metacompetences that consist of three elements (Bridges, 1993:50):

– a sensitive and intelligent discernment of similarities and differences. This seems to be Millar’s classifying skills.

– cognitive equipment that enables one to modify, extend and adapt.

– attitudes and dispositions that support both of the above. I suppose these have to do with motivational factors.

(See Note 17).

(Perhaps Cummins has the same view as Bridges; but if this is so, then surely BICS and CALP are misacronyms. Perhaps Cummins had other reasons for his choice of acronyms: BICP, unlike BICS, hardly goes down well with a nice cuppa.

2. These definitions (including my own), resemble museum pieces in that they do not capture the dynamic clashings of culture. Just as I was putting the last few finishing touches to this paper, I received a letter (14 June, 1993) from Manton Hirst, Principal Curator of King William’s Town Museum; in which he said the following:

“I tend to opt for a dynamic conception of culture.” Here is Hirst’s definition:

Culture is a mode of communication that expresses and addresses the self and the world, involves both verbal and non-verbal behaviour and not only has a logic, but a dialogic of its own.

This description fits in with what I am trying to say in the rest of the paper. (Actually I have deliberately avoided the term “dynamic” in my descriptions, because it, like “culture” – which I couldn’t avoid – is too gooey for words).

3. This description of intelligence would certainly be rejected by many Eastern thinkers. For example in Vedantic thought, the notion of cause and effect is an illusion, because (oops) cause and effect are not two separable events (parts of experience), but all of a piece: cause-effect. A cat does not have a head followed by a tail; it is a “head-tailed” cat (Watts, 1989:32).

Bohm maintains that intelligence is unconditioned. This means that intelligence operates independent of heredity and environment. Bohm (1980:51-52) argues that if intelligence were conditioned by either heredity or environment (or both) it would mean that the statement `intelligence is the product of heredity or/and environment’ is merely the product of heredity or/and environment. This would mean that meaning is the product of heredity or/and environment, and nothing more than the conditioned “spouting forth of word patterns”, which reduces intelligence to the product of either genetic or environmental forces. Once we step outside these two forces, we search for explanations in other domains. For Bohm, the answer lies in the universal flux of quantum physics. For Nietzsche (Esterhuyse, 1993) the answer begins in the first stage of metaphor, i.e. with the “senuweeprikkel” (stimulus). For Weideman (1981:231) it lies in the “creational ordinances”. For Grace the explanation lies in the linguistic construction of reality (which is similar to Nietzsche’s “metaphor” view). For Groddeck (1977) language itself is a lie, because each disclosure produces a complementaryenclosure, i.e. one cannot expose one(‘s) SELF without hiding another.

4.  We meet the problem of definition again and again. One man’s “assumptions” are another man’s “beliefs”. I use the term “beliefs” in the way C.S. Lewis describes it:

“The scientist, when at work, that is, when he is a scientist, is labouring to escape from belief and unbelief into knowledge. Of course he uses hypotheses or supposals. I do not think these are beliefs. We must look, then, for the scientist’s behaviour about belief not to his scientific life but to his leisure hours” (Lewis, 1965a:60).

These “hypotheses and supposals” are what I mean by assumptions. Johnson-Laird (1988:61) distinguishes two kinds of assumptions: those that are “built into the nervous system” and those “learned during a person’s lifetime”. It is the learned assumptions that are the fruits of the intercourse between the “thought” responses to memory (see Bohm’s definition of thought) and intelligence. Beyond that, we don’t know much.

With regard to Lewis’ distinction between “science” and beliefs, He certainly does not mean that there ever need be a clash between scientific assumptions and beliefs. However, according to Widdowson (1989:128) “All interpretation, after all, is a matter of reformulating ideas so that they key in with one’s own frame of reference.” Widdowson’s “frame of reference” seems to include both his scientific assumptions as well as his beliefs (as described by C.S. Lewis above). In Fodor (1986), we also find a collapse of the boundaries between science and beliefs, where “beliefs and desires”, “commonsense intentional psychology” and “the place of meaning in the world order” are all welded together in his psychosemantic descriptions (See his Preface).

5. The splitting up of language into function (grammar) and content (lexis) words can be quite useful, but there are wide cracks in such a theory. This bricks-and-cement (lexis and grammar respectively) approach has been criticised quite convincingly in the “cognitive grammar” of authors such as Langacker (1987) and Taylor (1989).

6. The single Xhosa word Ingqondo for both “brain” and “mental” seems to be more in tune with the modern science of neurobiology: “Language acquisition researchers need a basic working knowledge of the brain because ultimately that is what is being investigated” (Jacobs and Schumann, 1992:285). So then who needs the term “mental” except Descartes? In order to “get with” neurobiology, we should perhaps think like a Xhosa and discard our excess mentalist baggage; but in so doing we will have to coin a new word; instead of mental operation, we could have – to distinguish it from a brain operation – a branal operation.

7. Mastery of a language involves combining the ability to unravel lexical knots with the ability to manipulate grammar. I do not want to create the impression that grammatical dexterity is something separate from lexical prowess. See Note 5.

8. See Note 9, paragraphs 3 and 4.

9. Is the smell in the mentalist’s nose or in the empiricalist’s rose? For Watts (1989[1966]), it is an illusion (“Ludere” = play) to suppose that there is an inside or an outside to our brains, that there is such a thing as our or brains, This marginal note (hors-de-texte), for instance, need not be of marginal importance; because the significance of what is said does not depend on the kind of space it occupies; in the text, or outside the text. The hors-de-texte is an escape-hatch for the divergent thinker.

(Empiricism claims that the innate structures of the brain only contain general learning mechanisms, while the rationalist, like Chomsky, would claim that there are specific innate concepts or devices such as space-time or universal grammar – see Burks, 1979 cited in Arbib and Hesse, 1986:45).

Watts also thinks that it is an illusion to think and talk of rose or nose as nouns. For Watts (1989) and Bohm all is “wholeness” (Bohm, 1980) and they advise that we dispose of the nouns and play the verb game instead, anosing and arosing, or rather anosing-arosing. “Why can’t we think of people as “peopling”, of brains as “braining”, of an ant as an “anting” (Watts, 1989:95). Watts’ vedantic verb games have much in common with David Bohm’s quantum physics games, where the ground of being is a fluxing of ubiquitous energy: “Is it not possible for the syntax and grammatical form [syntax is part of grammar: Bohm’s “grammatical form” is commonly called “morphology”; R.G.] of language to be changed so as to give a basic role to the verb rather than the noun…for the verb describes actions and movements, which flow into each other and merge” (Bloch, 1980:29-30).

With regard to the inside (nose) and the outside (rose), I don’t think that the ontological division between inside (whiffer) and outside (whiffed) can be resolved using traditional ways (rationalist or empiricist) of thinking. I must admit I find the Bohm-Watts descriptions very interesting, and very much in tune with literary repertoires such as deconstruction, whose major focus is translation-interpretation, not only between natural languages, but within natural languages (i.e. between people using the same natural languages) – “between Greek and Greek”, where translation (of meanings) deals with nothing less than the “problem of the very passage into philosophy” (Derrida, 1981:71-72).

An understanding of the above problems are crucial to understanding what multiculturalism (cultural relativism) is all about, namely about multi-thinkings, multi-talkings and multi-doings, firstly and foremostly within a language, because unless we see that the problem of translation/interpretation is primarily one between “Greek and Greek” – in our case between “English and English”, we shall never be able to understand the problems of second language learning (in this country).

There are at least three choices: 1. Type (tap) on our divergent tympanums, to the rhythm of Bohm-Derrida-Bohm-Derrida-Bohm-Derrida-Bohm; 2. “Believe” in Aunty Fodor’s convergent commonsense” (1986:xi); 3. or perhaps the best – and most natural – choice of all, regard divergence and convergence as the two sides of the drumskin. (The tympanum (eardrum) “separates” the inner and outer chambers of the ear. Fodor in his Preface monologues to “Aunty” about “commonsense belief/desire psychology”).

10. See Note 15.

11.  “One of the die-hard myths of modern thought is the so-called neutrality or objectivity of our subjective theorizing. It is a dogma of scientific endeavour that has survived every major shake-up in the history of Western thinking. But it is nonetheless recognised today more than ever before that the dogma of objectivity is exactly that: an unverified and indeed unverifiable dogma. It has remained as much an illusion as the intellectual mirage of the attendant belief in the progressive discovery of truth” (Weideman, 1981:1).

12.  Babel is restricted to a particular site. See Note 15.

13. Chomsky claims in his earlier writings (1965, 1967) – in his “Language and mind” (1972), he is more cautious – that there is an innate language acquisition device; Putnam (1967:21) counterclaims that such a device only “postpones the problem of learning; it does not solve it”. And Staats (1971:117), in support of Putnam, states: “…the type of theory Chomsky describes is not explanatory, it tells us nothing of the determinants of the language responses of the original subjects.” (See Chomsky’s answers to these criticisms in his “Language and mind”).

14. See end of Note 3.

15. One of the messages of the Tower of Babel story is essentially this: In order to build or construct (POIESIS “construct”) successfully, one has to move smoothly between the paradigm (plan) and its exemplification (the building). Architecture as paradigm is disrupted by its limitation to a site; a limitation that distorts the paradigm (image). Similarly, in translation it “goes without saying, translation is anything but a smooth and efficient circulation between signifiers [paradigms] and signifieds [exemplification, site] ( Sallis, 1992:30). There is a copious literature on the problems of translation (one of the finest is Graham, 1985).

16. I have ignored the distinction between “content” (background knowledge) and “skills” in this assessment. Actually I think the distinction is often quite difficult to make, and for this reason I find Cummins’ [1983, 1984] two orthogonal continua of “context” (content?) and “cognitive involvement” (skills?) quite confusing in this regard. See Note 1.

17. According to Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986:202) the kind of “critical objective thought” espoused by Socrates “should be appealed to only by a beginner or an expert who, having left his domain of experience, can no longer trust his instincts” (for “instincts” read “intuition”). For the obsessive (my bias) Nietzsche, Socrates was the “first degenerate” of our culture ( Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986:202).

Socrates was an unsparing critic (Critias was one of the anti-democrats whom Socrates supported) of the democracy and democratic leaders of the time. For Socrates there were lots of sheep but no shepherd. Socrates was accused on the trumped up charge of corrupting the young and of being a traitor of being a traitor, but claimed to be an envoy of the “Good”. He was condemned to death and forced to poison himself with a potion of hemlock. If Socrates did not break through the “limit” in his lifetime, I believe he did so in the next.

In a universal perspective home [culture]… individual continent or world… inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness … The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion… evanescant as a dream.

A likely evaluation of the above passage by  three English teachers:

(THE ULTIMATE BETRAYAL? – TRADITORE: Del capo al fine)

Teacher 1: 20% The real?

Teacher 2: 60% The really real?

Teacher 3: 75% The really really real?

And so forth……

One man’s meat is another man’s…fish?

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Multiculturalism in Education: An African View


Paper presented at the XIX World Congress of Philosophy, Moscow, 20 – 29 August, 1993.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

This paper overlaps with Multiculturealism and EMI

We have our understandings no less different than our palates; … the meat may be the same, and the nourishment good, yet every one may not be able to receive it with that seasoning; and it must be dressed another way if you will have it go down with some, even of strong constitutions.

John Locke (1690) “Essay on Human Understanding”

Abstract

Introduction

Cultural relativity between individuals

The reality-construction view

The mapping view

Non-cognate lexis and background knowledge

The role of background knowledge in the learning of English in Africa

Conclusion

References

Abstract

This paper deals with some of the problems of multiculturalism, where the emphasis is on the cultural differences and disparities. Two views of knowledge acquisition are considered: the construction of reality view and the mapping view of reality.

Introduction

Modern anthropologists are aware that any worthwhile study of culture should be wary of behaviourial descriptions that take on purely linguistic forms (Bloch, 1990), because they are not able to adequately tap the submerged energies of flesh and blood. Books on culture are yet one step further removed from the purely linguistic communications of the human beings under study. One is reminded of Plato’s “simile of the cave”. Books are shadows of shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.

My title can have many meanings. Shall I be talking as an African, or as a white African, or as a white South African about multicultural education? Or as an unimplicated member of the human species about African education? I leave that for anthro-apologists to decide.

I want to begin by describing some of the views expressed in discussions I had with a Xhosa speaking South African educationist at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, where I teach English for academic purposes to second language speakers of English. The conversations occurred during the first few months of 1993. His views are shared by other black South African academics, some of whom work in the same educational institution as I. I mention two opinions of my informant as I have formalised them:

1. My informant questions the bona fides of anyone who assumes that mother tongue education is a sound principle.

2. Conceptual differences between cultures (e.g. Western science versus African culture, one African culture versus another), is a myth (the term myth here means of “exaggeration”, “fabrication”). Within the notion of conceptual differences, I shall imitate Wiredu (1992) by making a distinction between “conceptual disparity” and “conceptual relativism”. I explain these terms later.

I focus on my informant’s second opinion. The question I want to ask is whether this opinion reflects a grasp of educational realities or is rather a misguided (but understandable) reaction to the injustices of apartheid ideology. I shall argue that concepts are culturally mediated. This applies not only to cultural groups, but also to the “cultural individual”.

Cultural relativity between individuals

I present two examples of how academics who share the same mother tongue (in this case English) can disagree. The first example, a brief one, shows a typical disagreement between speakers of the same language. The second example, a longer one, gives an actual example of teacher judgements in the evaluation of a student’s writing.

Example 1

It is possible for members of the same group to share the same vocabulary and grammar, and still not understand one other. Consider the following paragraph (Edge, 1993).

Let us then define the fundamental function of language as: the textualization of human awareness [original italics]. Thus the energy of awareness is channelled into thought or speech and becomes linguistic matter – the textualization of human awareness in linguistic substance [Underlining].

Five lecturers (of my university “Fort Hare”) – philosophy, literature, music and linguistics (two, of which I am one) could not agree on how “awareness” differed from thought (conscious or unconscious). The reason is that these lecturers – all mother tongue speakers of English – have constructed their realities using different linguistic/conceptual repertoires.

Example 2

When I asked my EAP (English for Academic Purposes) students at Fort Hare to write a definition of culture, they invariably came up with rote textbook descriptions culled from their other subjects: “Culture refers to the norms and values…”, etc. Now, normsand values are the kind of “objective” things that do indeed belong to specific groups, which an individual has to conform to. But let us for a while suspend this traditional definition of culture and consider it anew.Here is an (uncorrected) extract from an essay of one of my Practical English students. The title was “Home is where the hope is”. I have substituted “culture” for “home”:

In a universal perspective home [culture] may be defined as an individual continent or world, where its inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness created by freedom of religion, personal custom, uncramped dignity, norms and values. The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually by called by the name is evanescant as a dream.

I asked (separately) two Practical English (PE) lecturers and one philosophy lecturer for their judgements:

First PE lecturer: “What a lot of nonsense. It does not make sense.”

Philosophy lecturer: “I like it. I would give it a good mark. A bit flowery.”

Second PE lecturer: “He has imagination. Creative. A good effort.”

(One other lecturer’s – outside Fort Hare – comment on the text was “celebration” – it seems that there are two broad ways of looking at text/life: celebral or cerebral).

I discussed the above student’s passage with the first Practical English lecturer and the philosopher together. Here are two quotes, one from each of them:

First PE lecturer: Both of you are philosophers. You are used to extending boundaries. I like to impose them. My training is different to yours. I look for the limits of things. You look beyond the limits of things.

Philosopher: If you think this passage is meaningless you should try Derrida for size.

The “limits of things” needs closer inspection. According to Popper (1977:268), creative thinking is characterised by the ability to break through the limits of the range – or to vary the range…This ability, which is critical ability, may be described as critical imagination. It is often the result of culture clash, that is a clash between ideas, of frameworks of ideas.

Perhaps “clash” is too strong a word, because it connotes not only intensity and passion, but also confrontation, agitation, frenzy. However, a term like the “meeting (of cultures”) suggests that all that is required is a cordial invitation to enter into one another’s cultural space, which, in the context of my topic, is ” African spaces of culture” (Diawara in conversation with Mudimbe, see Mudimbe, 1992:382). Unfortunately people (cultures) not only do not dance to the same tune, they are very often contemptible of songs that differ from theirs. So, I settle for clash.

What I am going to argue is that much thinking-and-talking especially in the academic domain, involves a clash of cultures. The term “culture” requires definition.

For me, culture means what a person thinks/talks (about), and does about what s/he thinks/talks (about). Such a general definition might cause someone like Segal (1984) to remark that my definition signifies so much that it signifies nothing at all. Someone else will ask where is the concretisation of these thinkings and doings in a tradition? Rohner (1984) defines culture in a non-behaviourist way, as a “system of symbolic meanings”. The emphasis for Rohner is not on social “behaviour” (in the materialist, behaviourist sense; see Johnson-Laird, 1988:17), but rather on how people conceive their behaviour. Rohner’s definitions highlight two things: 1. Culture is systematic, i.e. it is concretised in a group; 2. Culture is a way of representing one’s world through thinking, i.e. through cognitive functioning. I shall define cognitive functioning presently but first I would like to remark that these definitions of culture above (including my own), resemble museum pieces in that they do not capture the dynamic clashings of culture. Manton Hirst, anthropologist and Principal Curator (Human Sciences Division) of King William’s Town Museum (Eastern Cape, South Africa) has a more dynamic view of culture (personal communication):”I tend to opt for a dynamic conception of culture.” Here is Hirst’s definition:

Culture is a mode of communication that expresses and addresses the self and the world, involves both verbal and non-verbal behaviour and not only has a logic, but a dialogic of its own.

In my way, this description fits in with what I want to say in the rest of the paper. I have deliberately avoided the term “dynamic” in my descriptions, because it, like “culture” – which I couldn’t avoid – is too gooey for words.

I now return to cognitive functioning in culture. Cognitive functioning is basic to culture, because it plays a central role in the constructing and sharing of symbolic meanings (Rohner above). For Cummins and Swain (1986:7), cognitive functioning refers to “measures involving general intellectual and linguistic skills such as verbal and non-verbal IQ, divergent thinking, academic performance and metalinguistic awareness.” Intelligence, as part of cognitive functioning, tends to be overlooked, nowadays, in definitions of culture, owing to its links with opinions about racism. But if culture is what people think and do, then surely, how well (intelligently) they do it is also important.

Bohm (1983:50) makes a distinction (within cognitive functioning) between two broad spectra of energies: thought and intelligence . Thought is defined here as the “intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses to memory” (Bohm, 1983:50). Thought is basically mechanical (conditioned) in its operations, but may at times perform in novel ways. However these novelties are likely to be nothing more than the kind of fortuitous (irrelevant) interplay displayed in a kaleidoscope. Intelligence, on the other hand, perceives new order and new structure. It is able to combine things together in fresh ways, creating new abstract patterns and relationships such as “identity and difference, separation and connection, necessity and contingency, cause and effect, etc.” (Bohm, 1983:50). These new patterns do not have to be new to the world, but new to the person’s mind. What we need to consider now is how these abstract patterns and relationships are made, and how they are concretised into a system; in other words, how people do what they think.

Much thinking-and-talking especially in the academic domain, involves a clash of cultures, namely different ways of either (1) perceiving the world or (2) constructing the world. These two “views”, represented by the reality construction view and the mapping view respectively, are based on different epistemological assumptions, which lead to two different ontological interpretations of reality. In other words, the way we (assume we) know the world is the way we accept it to be.

The reality-construction view

In the reality-construction view, there is no direct access to the outside world. Grace (1987:3-6) makes the following observations:

1. The effective environment of human beings is based more on the cultural than the natural.

2. The three major uses of language is to construct, preserve and transmit this effective reality. For this reason we can refer to the linguistic construction of (effective) reality (the creation of our view of things).

3. Since our reality construction is carried out by language, our best prospect for understanding the workings of reality construction is most likely to be through studying how language works.

4. It is important to keep in mind that our customary way of viewing language is itself the product of our reality construction.

In a given language-cultural community, established frameworks (whether scientific or social) which may remain fixed for a long time, are eventually restructured in terms of new ideas, which in turn leads to the restructuring of meanings, which may then either lead to changes in the meanings of established words, or to the creation of new words (Arbib and Hesse, 1986:144). The group and the individual are both involved in the symbiotic renovation of culture.

However this renovation does not mean that the models of reality that we construct are purely random, because the outside world does seem to impose some constraints on the inner world.

The mapping view

There are different and sometimes contrary views on what mapping means, all of which may be correct, depending on how one uses the term. In my mapping view, different cultures-languages share a pre-established common world, and languages are analogous to maps of this common world. Each language cuts up (classifies or maps) this common world in different ways. To use an analogy, the map of Eastern Europe is completely different to what it was four years ago. And in the present political negotiations in South Africa, there are five proposed ways of slicing up the new South Africa; a “cartographer’s nightmare” (South African “Sunday Times, 11 July, 1993). The proposed maps, not the terrain, cause the nightmare. When it comes to languages, the mapping view of language claims that different languages are different “maps” of a common world. The more cognate the map, the more similar the languages will be. Mascher (1991:3) defines cognate languages as belonging “to the same family of languages and so have a similar grammar and vocabulary because they share a common origin [ a common history/culture]”. Let us consider the grammatical component for the moment, i.e. morphology and syntax. In terms of the mapping view, the Sotho sentence Mosimane o mokgolo o ile o ithuta puo e and the English sentence The big boy had learnt this language may be claimed to be merely two different maps of the same reality. This means that maps as maps have no reality in themselves, but are merely two ways of looking (two different representations of) at the same terrain.

Non-cognate lexis and background knowledge

Owing to the fact that lexis is often culturally based, lexis is regarded as the main stumbling block in learning a non-cognate language. The problem is not just the quantity of new words that have to be learned, but also the quantity of new concepts attached to each new word, especially “abstract” concepts (I use the term “abstract” reservedly), which do not “come” singly attached to each word, but rather in knotty, gluey bundles, each a cultural conglomerate of meaning. (One cannot separate lexis from the building of discourse as a whole. Therefore I include here the infinite generation and combination of sentences in discourse).

Here are a few examples from the academic domain: Four of my Xhosa speaking informants tell me that in Xhosa there is only one word for mind and brain, namely Ingqondo. Therefore they translate “Psychological construct” by “Ukubona kwengqondo [kwengqondo = kwa ingqondo] (to see of brain/mind). Does this mean that a “mental operation” will turn out in Xhosa to be a “brain operation”? No not necessarily; because it is quite possible to use the same word to express different concepts (and use the context to create meaning). What could cause problems for the Xhosa speaker in such a case is learning fitting his/her concept to the different English forms (sometimes misleading referred to as “vocabulary”). However, there is no doubt that concepts differ from culture to culture. For instance, in the physical sciences, there is no adequate way of translating such “knots” as “atom”, electron “molecule”, “mole” into an African language. Each of these terms consists of a complex networks of concepts, which many non-mother tongue speakers of English find difficult to master. Indeed mother tongue speakers as well.

In the non-academic domain, tensions over translation can cause more than inconvenience. Two situations come to mind: 1. A Xhosa speaker with low English proficiency fails a driving test, because s/he had to learn the rules of the road from treacherous Xhosa translations of the original English; 2. Mistranslations in the South African Law Courts have evoked “gasps of horror” (Crawford, 1993:19).

I have given a few examples to show that English and Bantu languages are non-cognate languages, and therefore their linguistic-cultural maps differ quite radically. Now I find most astounding the following statement made by Gregersen (1977:2): “…African languages differ in no essential way from the languages of Europe, Asia, of the Americas”. What exactly does “essential” mean here? The Vedanta, Zen and a few quantum physicists would say that there is no essential difference between an arm and a leg, between a verb and a noun, between and beneath, between essence and existence. The fact is that Gregersen (1977:2) is just not interested in African languages as linguistic phenomena:

It is not linguistics, but a variety of nonlinguistic considerations – notably geographical, political, and anthropological – that has focused interest on the 1000 or so African languages as a group.

I might agree that languages such as Greek and English have a common base of background schemata (of course their grammars, I would think, are quite distant from one another) owing to the fact that they share a common European heritage. However, the same schemata are not shared by English (or Greek) and the Bantu languages. If there is a problem (and I think there is, firstly in translating one Greek (e.g. Aristotle) into another Greek (e.g. Plato), and secondly Greek into English (there are certain lexical differences as well), the problem of translating Plato into Zulu (or Zulu into Plato) can only be – notwithstanding a glorious transformation – a treacherous translation (TRADUTTORE, TRADITORE “to translate is to betray”). And of course this does not mean that Zulu – or Greek – is not a rich language in its own right.

Not only is it preposterous to think that we could have a Chinese Heidegger and a Sotho Tolstoy sharing a common conceptual framework, it is just as preposterous (and mythical), within the context of African languages, to think that we could have a Zulu Luo, or a Xhosa Akan; or a Luo Akan, or an Akan Luo (I shall come back to West African languages of Luo and Akan later). According to Appiah (1992:229) and Hountondji (1983), there just isn’t such a thing as an African system of concepts. Appiah (1992:229) suggests that we should also distinguish between the shared conceptual frameworks or assumptions of a specific society or culture and the beliefs of the individuals of that society. My view is that each person is a conceptual framework, as I tried to show earlier on.

Derrida’s position is “radically” different to Appiah as well. Derrida’s main concern in translation/interpretation is not the translation between natural languages, but rather within natural languages (i.e. between people using the same natural languages), i.e. “between Greek and Greek”, where translation (of meanings) deals with “nothing less” than the “problem of the very passage into philosophy” (Derrida, 1981:71-72). The first part of this paper was concerned with this “between Greek and Greek” issue.

The role of background knowledge in the learning of English in Africa

Many of the problems of learning English are related to poor background knowledge. Problems occur when the background (old) knowledge of the learner cannot connect up with the new knowledge, either because the old knowledge has not been made available, or because the new knowledge is culturally (culture = symbolic meanings) so gooey that it gums up the understanding. There are two important concepts that stand out in what I have just said.

1. Availability of concepts.

2. The cultural relativity of concepts (i.e. cultures that are conceptually impermeable to one another).

An appreciation of the difference between the above two concepts is crucial to understanding how the threads of language, culture, thought and intelligence are woven together in our brains. I discuss these two concepts in the following paragraphs. The context of my argument will be the South African educational context, but I also weave into the story threads from other parts of Africa.

Hartshorne (1987) mentions four reasons for the low standard of English among South African black learners and teachers:

1. The effects of Bantu education.

2. The DET, staffed mostly by Afrikaners, lacks the dedication to promote English.

3. The majority of English teachers are black or Afrikaans speaking, many of whom cannot teach English for communicative purposes.

4. English mother tongue speakers and English second language learners are generally racially segregated into different schools.

Mascher (1991) does not deny that these factors play a role in poor English performance, but his view is that none of these factors can compare with the fact that “the medium of instruction from Std 3 onwards is a language which is non-cognate to the learner’s first language” (Mascher, 1991:2). He complains that the ability to learn a second language in a tutored situation, especially a non-cognate one, requires special linguistic gifts of an analytical nature. To add to the difficulty, the child from Std 3 onwards has to learn through the medium of English, a task which s/he is generally wholly inadequate to do. The dilemma is that on the one hand there is the spiritual/ cultural dimension of the mother tongue and on the other hand there is the economic necessity of learning English. In the ensuing discussion, I consider Mascher’s claim that only the linguistically gifted can learn successfully through a second language learnt in an artificial situation.

I discussed earlier the relativity of meanings within the same linguistic group, namely English speakers. What I would like to do now is look at some of the problems between different language-cultures in terms of the mapping view and reality construction view of language. Consider Van Niekerk’s (1993:32)view, which seems to be a mapping view. He states (1993:32):

Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework not remarkable? And does not that reveal something of a type of conceptual commonality or constant that is ab initio denied by social relativists?

Contrast the above statement with the following statement by Van Niekerk (1993:34), who is describing Western culture versus “Azande” culture:

The contrast between Western and Azande culture is that the latter is unfamiliar with the theoretical approach to problem solving and rather represents a residue of the mythical thought pattern with its entwinement of knowledge and action.

(The meaning of “myth here is “a story that conveys a system of values and meanings”).

This latter statement implies that different cultures “have different views of the world” (Van Niekerk, 1992:33). But, Van Niekerk also maintains that it is wrong to argue that the “practice of argumentation, that is of establishing relationships between beliefs by means of logical rules… does not obtain in certain cultures”. There are two points I would like to make:

Firstly, there are many who would disagree with Van Niekerk’s view that “conceptual frameworks” are easily translatable. One of these is John Sallis (1992), who like Derrida (1985) and many others find grist for their mill in the Tower of Babel story. One of the messages of the Tower of Babel story is essentially this: In order to build or construct (POIESIS “construct”) successfully, one has to move smoothly between the paradigm (plan) and its exemplification (the building). Architecture as paradigm is disrupted by its limitation to a site; a limitation that distorts the paradigm (image). Similarly, in translation it “goes without saying, translation is anything but a smooth and efficient circulation between signifiers [paradigms] and signifieds [exemplification, site]” (Sallis, 1992:30). [My square brackets].

Secondly, it may be true that the “practice of argumentation” obtains in all cultures, but this is a far cry from the claim that “conceptual frameworks are intertranslatable. For example, how does one translate this page into an African language? Or into someone else’s English? According to Verster (1986:15) “some, if not most executive processes (I identify this with Van Niekerk’s “conceptual frameworks”) may be culturally relative and hence not represented in all populations”.

Millar (1988:157) goes further than Verster by claiming that courses in skills development pursue the “impossible” because processes such as classifying and hypothesising cannot be taught, but can only develop (i.e. they are part of inborn intelligence). The upshot: Van Niekerk, maintains that all cultures have got much in common; Verster says that (non-cognate) cultures have not got much in common; and Millar says if you haven’t got it, you’ll never get it.

Here are the three views in summary:

1. Van Niekerk – concepts are translatable across languages.

2. Verster – concepts are culturally relative.

3. Millar – conceptual development is dependent on innate ability. I call this innate ability intelligence or deep language.

There are two broad categories of concepts, those that come through the level of perception (the “physical” world) and those concepts that Van Niekerk, Verster and Millar seem to be referring to, which belong to the relatively more (gooey) “abstract” level. The terms cognate and non-cognate refer to the degree of similarity between languages in both levels, though the lion’s share of the problems of translation belong to the disparate ways that different languages/cultures put together (generalise) the isolated bits entering the brain-mind;.whether through perception or through reasoning (I have simplified grossly).In trying to find my way through this multicultural maze of ideas, I came across the work of the philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu (1992). Here is Wiredu’s (1992:331) paragraph:

[L]et me point out that no sort of conceptual relativism is intend…Conceptual disparities among peoples and cultures, even among individuals in limited environs, are a brute fact of the human situation. Doubtless, this is the source of all sorts of complications in translation, particularly across cultures…But overriding all such problems is the fact, which is surely one of the most remarkable facts about language, that we can understand even what we cannot translate. This is due to the fact that we can learn languages other than that (or those) in which we were brought up. The fundamental fact here is that, because of the biological unity of mankind, any human being can participate or imaginatively enter into any human life form, however initially strange.

Wiredu’s distinction between cultural “relativism” and cultural “disparities” is of interest. By “relativism” Wiredu means that one culture is impermeable to another, and thus never the twain can meet. By cultural “disparity”, Wiredu means that differences exist between cultures, and no matter how non-cognate (I am using Mascher’s term above) the cultures/languages, it is possible for them to enter into one another’s cultural/linguistic space.

The meaning Wiredu gives to “relativism” is not, I think, the same that Verster gives to the term. Verster is arguing that concepts are culturally mediated; I don’t think that Verster’s “culturally relative” necessary means that one culture – Wiredu’s “human life form” – cannot enter into another (“strange”) “human life form” (Wiredu). Verster seems to be merely arguing that deep conceptual disparities exist between cultures, and is not arguing that it is impossible to overcome these conceptual disparities. Therefore, Verster’s cultural relativity seems to be similar to Wiredu’s cultural disparity.

The term translatable now requires more attention. I compare Wiredu’s use of the term with my use of the term in my description of Van Niekerk’s views described above. I said above that “there are many who would disagree with Van Niekerk’s view that ‘conceptual frameworks’ are easily translatable”. Van Niekerk does not mention the term translatable in his analysis, but I would think that this is the correct term to use to describe what he means when he asks the question (see above): “Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework not remarkable?”

Let us now turn to Wiredu’s (to me remarkable) statement that “we can understand even what we cannot translate”. In order to understand another person or culture, one has to have the ability to move from one conceptual framework to another (Van Niekerk above), i.e. to translate one conceptual framework into another. So frankly I don’t know what Wiredu means.

After a consideration of some of the issues we may be able to better understand the informant that started us off on this journey. To recap, firstly, he 1. questions the bona fides of anyone who assumes that mother tongue education is a sound principle. Secondly, he does not believe in conceptual differences between cultures. My informant, I learnt at a later stage , was educated from early childhood through the medium of English. Therefore, in Wiredu’s terms, he likely found it (relatively) easy to “participate or imaginatively enter into [the] human life form [of English culture], however initially strange” (Wiredu above). This means that, for him, mother tongue education is not a sound principle, because he was educated, from his early years, in English. The problem is that most of the children in Africa have not had the good fortune of early childhood education through English. Therefore, the problem of overcoming conceptual “disparities” looms large in a African societies in general and South Africa in particular, where it was an “immoral[ity] act” for ONE to inseminate the conceptual spaces of the OTHER.

With regard to differences (“conceptual disparities”) between cultures, Wiredu distinguishes between two broad kinds:

1. Scientific concepts.

2. Humanities.

Wiredu’s view is that there is no big problem in introducing concepts like “electron” (and its accompanying term, of course) into a language like Akan, or any other African language. He maintains that the introduction of the word electron would “have to be part of a pedagogic package in which the Akan listener is led to form the concept electron through ostensive or periphrastic means”. Actually, I think that this is the way all concepts are developed (I am careful not to use the term “acquired” – remember Millar) in one’s mother tongue. The English-speaking child who is learning what an electron is, has to go through the same process. The difference between the English child and the Akan child is firstly that the English child does not have any interference from a previous “effective environment” (reality construction – see Grace, 1987), and secondly that he/she has been previously exposed to the “pre-conceptions” (background knowledge; an efficient goo remover) that predispose him/her to affiliate with the new knowledge.

However, a major conceptual problem arises, according to Wiredu, in the areas of the humanities, e.g. art, literature, sociology, philosophy, theology. There is a wide cultural disparity between European the (“Northern”) and African concepts such as substance, mind, punishment, retribution and African. According to Okot p’Bitek (Wiredu, 1992:308), the concept of creation (ex nihilo) does not even exist in the Luo language. The closest a Luo speaker can get to the transcendental metaphysics of “the word was God (Logos) of John’s Gospel is “News was the Hunchback Spirit”. Akan does, in Platonic eyes, a vastly superior job: “The Piece of Discourse was God”. Though, if there was a choice between Luo and Akan (neither less metaphysical than the other), I’d go for the pictorial Luo rather than the dull (but by no means less metaphorical) Akan version (Actually St John’s version is not very useful to most aplatonic Christians; happily, Christ’s descriptions of mansions, banquets and widow’s mites do help to fill in picture).

Before looking at a different topic in Wiredu’s thought, I just want to slip back very briefly to mention Appiah’s and Hountondji’s view that there is no such thing as a unanimist (un-animist?) system of African thought. Imagine combining the Luo’s “News was the Hunchback Spirit” (Lok Aye ceng Lubango) with the Akan’s “The piece of discourse was God” (Asem no ye Onyame). I gather from the surface forms of these two languages plus their widely different translations that a Luo-Akan equivalent of the English “The piece of the Hunchback was God” would not serve the holistic cause of pan-African unanimity – or of equanimity.

I would now like to take a critical look at Wiredu’s distinction between science and the humanities. It seems to me that it is not possible to make clear distinctions between the two kinds of knowledge in the modern world view of things. For example, some science authors (granted this does not occur at elementary levels of scientific writing, yet) do not invite their readers on a scientific discourse but rather take them on a poetic/philosophical excursion. Compare the following two passages, the one from David Bohm (1983), the quantum physicist, the other from Alan Watts the Vendantist, who both reject the Aristotelian slicing up of reality into subject, verb and object).

For Watts (1989) and Bohm all is “wholeness”, and they therefore advise that we get rid of the nouns and use verbs instead.First Bohm (1983:29-30):

Is it not possible for the syntax and grammatical form [Bohm – oddly – separates syntax from grammar] of language to change so as to give a basic role to the verb rather than the noun…for the verb describes actions and movements, which flow into each other and merge.

Then Watts (1989:95): “Why can’t we think of people as “peopling”, of brains as “braining”, of an ant as an “anting.”

Watts and Bohm seem to have more in common with some African cultures than with cultures in the “North”. However, I need to be cautious in saying this because some members of the Luo and Akan groups are Christians, and the fact is that the split between the Bohm-Watts schema of universal flux, of “I is IT” and the ex nihilo creator, for a Christian (Moslem and Jew) is (or should be) total.

What conclusions can I come to in this appraisal of Wiredu? I think the important thing is that it is not possible to prove or disprove cultural relativity (impermeability). Both views are “incorrigible” (Grace, 1987:7), i.e. they are not subject to correction in the light of subsequent experience. What we can say is that certain individuals belonging to whatever culture are able – providing conditions are right – to enter into any other culture. The question is why some individuals are better at it than others. Here we are touching, what I think is a neglected issue in multicultural studies. And this is where Millar comes back into the picture.

Wiredu maintains that it is much easier for a “non-cognate” (Mascher’s term, not Wiredu’s) culture to penetrate the enclosure of the physical sciences than to penetrate the enclosure of the human sciences. (I have already mentioned by objections to this cleavage). He also maintains that culture is an historical, not a biological, phenomenon. The problem is how to explain the large disparities in academic ability between individuals belonging to the same culture. Millar maintains that one can develop concepts, but cannot acquire them. This seems to mean that there are innate capacities that must have something to do with biology. Some people have stronger constitutions than others. They are born that way. How long they are going to live, how angry they are going to feel (not necessarily get), how talented they are going to be, depends to a large extent on their genetic makeup. One of these innate capacities is intelligence. Exactly how intelligence, biology and environment work together is not clear, but there is no doubt that ability is related to inborn capacities, which are different in each person (I’m talking about individuals, not about groups, ethnic or other wise). I am not suggesting a (purely) deterministic order, but merely that each individual is “set up” in different ways.

There are two further considerations of importance in intelligence. First, there is the question of opportunity; of being free to develop one’s potential, of being able to have a fair share of social, political and economic resources. These freedoms and sharings have been tragically lacking in a country like South Africa. Secondly, people only think/assume/believe/feel, i.e. construct, what they want/need to.

There are two broad kinds of motivation that are relevant here. There is integrative motivation, which is the desire to enter into the OTHER’s effective environment, in order to improve one’s own. But also important, is instrumental motivation, namely the desire to acquire the “information” of another language/culture in order to improve one’s economic, social, intellectual and political standing. Instrumental motivation raises the interesting question of the role of information exchange in the modern world. Unfortunately I cannot deal with this question here.

Conclusion
I have tried to tease out some of the problems of multiculturalism from my perspective, in which I considered the cultural disparities between languages. I considered two views of knowledge acquisition; the reality construction view and the mapping view of reality. I lean towards the reality construction view – which may have little to do with my beliefs. What seems to occur is that preconceived theories drive experience rather than the other way around. In the sense that theories are pre-conceived, their driving force must be pre-conceptual, a force that is generated on the edge of awareness, on this side of which erupts the urge for preservation, and on that side of which is nurtured the desire to avoid pain.With regard to the reality construction view, Arbib and Hesse (1986:58) maintain that:

There is no reason that schemas developed in one culture should be fully translatable into patterns and schemas in another language. Even for persons raised in the same society, the differences in genetic constitution and individual experience provide “individuality” and “personality” as is constituted by a distinctive network of schemas for each person.

This does not mean that cultural or individual networks of schemas cannot criss-cross one another. At the nexus of these criss-crossings is language. It is these linguistic criss-crossings that Freud calls verschlungenheit. Jacques Lacan (Miller, 1978), in his seminars on Freud, explains this verschlungenheit:

Verschlungenheit [Freud’s term] designates linguistic criss-crossings — every easily isolable linguistic symbol is not only at one with the totality, but is cut across and constituted by a series of overflowings, of oppositional overdeterminations which place it at one and the same time in several registers. This language system, within which our discourse makes its way, isn’t it something which goes infinitely beyond every intention that we might put into it, and which, moreover, is only momentary?

With regard to Wiredu’s observation that culture is an historical, not a biological, phenomenon, it may be true that culture, in the narrow sense of mores and values and so on, is historically, and not biologically, transmitted, but in the sense that I have defined culture, namely, as something an individual thinks and does, I would say that the basis of academic success has to do with inborn intelligence, which is influenced by crucial factors such as health, mental stimulation, self-concept and fair access to resources, while still granting the fact that instruction through the medium of the mother tongue would be, in many cases, relatively easier than instruction in a non-cognate language. Concepts come in gooey bundles (whether in a first or second language), which have to be unstuck and reassembled. What helps to unstick the goo is intelligence. And much of intelligence, like talent, is a gift. What matters is what we (choose to) use it for. A potion or a poison.

References

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Arbib, M.A. and Hesse, M.B. 1986. The construction of reality. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Barkhuizen, G. 1993. Preparing teachers to teach English in multilingual settings. Proceedings of the 12th Annual South African Applied Linguistics Association Conference, 28-30 June, 1993.

Bloch, M. 1991. Language, anthropology and cognitive science. Man (New Series), 26:2:183-198.

Bohm, D. 1983. Wholeness and the implicate order. London. Ark Paperbacks.

Chomsky,N. 1972. Language and mind. New York. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Cummins, J. & Swain, M. 1986. Bilingual Education. London: Longman.

Derrida, J. 1985. La Tour de Babel, trans. J.F. Graham, in Difference in translation, ed. J.F. Graham (Cornell University Press, 1985).

Derrida, J. 1981. Dissemination. (trans. Barbara Johnson). Chicago.

Edge, J. 1993. The dance of Shiva and the linguistics of relativity. Applied Linguistics, 14(1):43-55.

Fodor, J.R. 1980. Fixation of belief and concept acquisition. In: Piatelli-Palmarini, M.Language and learning: The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.

Fodor, J.A. 1986. Psychosemantics. Cambridge, Mass. The MIT Press.

Gamaroff, R. 1993. The Tower of Babel and the wandeRRing Jew. Proceedings of the Association of University English Teachers of South Africa Conference, 12-16 July, 1993.

Grace, G.W. 1987. The linguistic construction of reality. London. Croom Helm.

Graham, J.F. (ed.).Difference in translation. Cornell University.

Gregersen, E.A. 1977. Language in Africa. New York. Gordon and Breach.Groddeck, G. 1977. The meaning of illness. London. Hogarth Press.

Hartshorne, K. 1987. Language policy in African Education in South Africa, 1910-1985. In Young, D. (ed.). c Bridging the gap. Cape Town. Maskew Miller.

Hountondji, P. 1983. Myth and reality. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. In Mudimbe, V.Y. The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

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Jacobs, B. and Schumann, J. 1992. Language acquisition and the neurosciences. Applied Linguistics, 13(3):282-301.

Johnson-Laird, P.N. 1988. The computer and the mind: An introduction to cognitive science. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.

Lewis, C.S. 1965. On obstinacy in belief. In Screwtape proposes a toast. London. Collins.

Locke, J. 1947[1690]. (edited by Raymond Wilburn). Essay on human understanding. London. Everyman’s Library.

Mascher, D. 1991. The disintegration of an education system based on a non-cognate medium of instruction. Paper presented at the South African Applied Linguistics Conference, July 1991, University of the Witwatersrand.

Millar, R. 1988. The pursuit of the impossible. Phys. Educ. 23:156-159).

Miller, J.A. (ed.). 1978. The seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book I [trans. J.Forester]. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Mudimbe, V.Y.The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Popper, K. 1977. On hypotheses. In Johnson, P.N. and Wason, P.C. Thinking: Readings in cognitive science. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Rombaut, M. 1992. The politics of “othering”: A discussion. In Mudimbe, V.Y. The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Rohner, R.P. 1984. Toward a conception of culture.Journal of Cross-cultural psychology, 15(2):111-138].

Sallis, J. 1992. Babylonian captivity. Research in Phenomenology, 22:23-31.

Segall, M.H. 1984. More than we need to know about culture, but are afraid to ask. Journal of cross-cultural Psychology, 15(2): 153-162.]

Van Niekerk, A. 1993. Relativism versus ethnocentrism. South African Journal of Philosophy, 12(2):31-37.

Verster, J.M. 1986. Cognitive competence in Africa and models of information processing. Pretoria. HSRC Report 411.

Watts, A. 1989. The book on the taboo against knowing who you are? New York. Vintage books.

Wiredu, K. 1992. Formulating modern thought in African languages: Some theoretical considerations. In Mudimbe, V.Y. The surreptitious speech Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

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Indiscriminate Advancement and the Matric Pass Rate

Related post: South African Matric results of 2013: Who says I need more than my pineal gland to pass?

South African Journal of Education, 19(3): 197-206, 1999.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

See “A horrendous timebomb. (Mail & Guardian, January 30 – February 5, 2004)

1. Introduction
2. Historical and educational context
3. Criteria for admission to MHS (Mmabatho High School)
4. Method
5. Results
6. The prediction of academic achievement
7. Generalisability of the findings
8. Conclusion
9. References

1. Introduction

The former DET (Department of Education and Training) Grade 12 (“matric”) results have been disappointing for a number of years, and usually required substantial adjustments upwards. There was a decline in the DET pass rate from 48% in 1985 to 41% in 1991 to 38% in 1993 (Calitz, 1998:14). The results have not been much better since the dissolution of the DET after the democratic elections of 1994. The overall South African Grade 12 pass rate (i.e. not only the DET results) of 1995 was 55,2%, which was almost 3% lower than 1994 (St Leger, 1995a:1). The overall university exemption rate for 1995 was 17,9% for all races. Of this 17,9%, 78% was for Indians, 55% was for whites, and 11% was for blacks (St Leger, 1995b:4). The overall 1997 Grade 12 results were worse than 1995, with an average 49% pass rate for the country, with some provinces as low as 35% and 45%.

Various reasons for the low pass rate have been suggested in academia and the media. Reasons given in academia were: the low level of English proficiency of learners (Young, 1987), Bantu Education (Hartshorne, 1987), the medium of instruction and learning from Grade 5 onwards (English) is a language which is non-cognate to the learner’s first language (Mascher, 1991), and low academic ability (Gamaroff, 1995a, 1995b, 1997a). Reasons in the media were: the irrelevance of the contemporary school system to real life, the absence of a culture of learning and teaching, an impoverished primary school and preschool background, a pass-one-pass-all mentality, the demoralisation and disillusionment of teachers, the irresponsibility of teachers, the poor administration by the Minister of Education and by the provinces, a lack of commitment from the business sector, strikes encouraged by teachers’ trade unions, and a general breakdown in society.

Without doubt all these factors have contributed in some way to academic failure. There is one other factor, however, that has not been mentioned, namely, automatic promotions through the grades. According to the editorial in Educamus (1990:3) and Calitz (1998:14) the educational casualty figures would have been much higher if automatic promotions, or indiscriminate advancement, had not occurred in individual schools from one grade to the next. The report “Investigation into the causes of the unsatisfactory 1989 Std 10 [Grade 12] results chaired by R.R. Motau states:

At some of the schools visited, there was the view that it was not necessary to have condoned marks/results approved officially. A decision was taken by the school or teacher on whether a pupil should pass or fail and the marks were adjusted accordingly. No criteria existed in terms of which marks were condoned. (Educamus, 1990:3)

This indiscriminate advancement, Educamus maintains, started in the primary school. Educamus (1990:3) cites the following data to substantiate its claim:

In November 1988, approximately 84 per cent of the pupils in Primary School passed their final examinations, as did approximately 66 per cent of the pupils in Std 6 to Std 9 (Grade 8 to Grade 11). The pass rate for Std 10, however, was only 40,6 per cent. The sharp decrease in the pass rate of the Standard 10 pupils in comparison with the rest of the standards is an indication that promotions in the lower standards leave much to be desired.

These statistics indicate that much appears rosy in the garden until harvest time – the matric examination. One would think that if the Grade 11 results were a true reflection of the learner’s worth, a Grade 11 pass (an internal examination) would be a good predictor of success in Grade 12 (an external examination). As far as I am aware there exists no empirical evidence to substantiate the claim that indiscriminate advancement occurred through the Grades at former DET schools. This article investigate this matter, where English proficiency tests and Grade 6 reports are used to predict the Grade 12 (matric) pass rate.

In previous research (Gamaroff, 1997b), I investigated the predictive validity of English proficiency tests where academic achievement from Grade 7 to Grade 12 were used as the crierion variables. In this article, a comparison is made between the predictive validity of the English proficiency tests and the Grade 6 reports. The results strongly suggest that the Grade 6 reports were highly inflated, which in turn suggests that indiscriminate advancement through the grades occurred at former DET schools.

The tests were conducted at Mmabatho High School (referred to henceforth as MHS) in the North West Province of South Africa were I spent over seven years (January 1980 to April 1987) as a teacher of second languages (English and French) and researcher in the learning of English as a second language (Gamaroff, 1986).

Learners at MHS wrote the JMB matriculation examination, whose results were regarded as a better predictor of tertiary academic achievement than the Senior Certificate examinations offered by the DET and the examinations offered by the other education departments in South Africa (Mitchell & Fridjhon, 1988; Mathonsi, 1988; Peirce, 1990; Simpson, 1987). In recent years the predictive validity of the DET matriculation results has been reinvestigated, where some researchers confirm the poor predictive validity of the DET matriculation results (e.g. Yeld & Haeck, 1997) and others disconfirm the poor predictive validity of the DET matriculation, in particular with regard to the mathematics and science results (e.g. Zaaiman, 1998).

Culture, Conceptual Frameworks and Academic Ability: A Biocultural Perspective

Proceedings of the International Conference on The Principles of Multicultural Education, Vaal Triangle Technikon, Vanderbijlpark, South Africa, 5-7 April, 1994.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

This article overlaps with Multiculturealism in Education – An African View

1. INTRODUCTION

2. CULTURE

3. CULTURAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS

4. CONCEPTUAL DIFFERENCES, CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND CULTURAL DISPARITIES

5. EQUALITY AND EGALITARIANISM

6. CONCLUSION

REFERENCES

1. INTRODUCTION

The two general aims of the South African education system is to regard linguistic/cultural diversity as a resource to be cultivated and to provide a high standard of education that approaches international norms.

Underpinning the whole painful process of the restructuring of education in South Africa is the biocultural commonalities and differences between individuals. In this paper, I emphasise the differences, not in order to undermine the social order nor to provoke those who genuinely suffered under apartheid and/or colonialism, but in order to show some of the problems that have received scant attention in contemporary education theory in South Africa. These problems are closely related to the biocultural variability of individuals.

I describe one of the views expressed in discussions I had with a Xhosa speaking South African educationist at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, where I teach English for academic purposes to second language speakers of English. The discussions occurred during the first few months of 1993. His views are shared by many other black South African academics, some of whom work in the same educational institution as I. I mention the opinion of my informant that is relevant to my topic: conceptual differences between cultures, e.g. western culture versus African culture, one African culture versus another, are a myth (i.e. an exaggeration, fabrication).

The question is whether the view of my informant reflects a grasp of educational realities or is rather a misguided (but understandable) reaction to the injustices of apartheid ideology. In this section I argue that concepts are culturally mediated. This applies not only to cultural groups but also to the “cultural” individual. Individual behaviour is a biocultural phenomenon, i.e. the ramifications of culture have their roots in genetic predispositions. Within the notion of conceptual differences, I make a distinction between ‘”conceptual disparity” and “conceptual relativism” (Wiredu, 1992).

2. CULTURE

There are many different conceptualisations of culture, which cause wide disagreements within the human sciences. These disagreements need not be incompatible, owing to the fact that they may serve different yet complementary purposes (Van de Vijver and Hutschemaekers, 1990). For example, consider two schools of thought, at opposite extremes. The one school sees culture as a “gestalt”, a “superordinate organiser” (Van de Vijver and Hutschemaekers, 1990:5), where the emphasis is on the conceptual systematisation of behaviour. The other school takes a molecular perspective and regards culture as a summary label of variables such as education, economic and political factors, and so forth (Van de Vijver and Hutschemaekers, 1990:5). Both of these schools should be regarded as complementary, just as in physics (if not in biology) the mole and the molecule are two ways of looking at the same thing.

Bloch (1992:183) defines culture as what needs to be known to operate effectively in a specific environment. Rohner (1984) is more specific than Bloch and defines culture in a non-behaviourist way, as a “system of symbolic meanings”. The emphasis for Rohner is not on social “behaviour” (in the materialist, behaviourist sense; see Johnson-Laird, 1988:17), but rather on how people conceive their behaviour. Rohner’s definition highlights two things:

1. Culture is systematic, i.e. it is concretised in a group;

2. Culture is a way of representing one’s world through thinking.

These definitions resemble museum pieces in that they do not capture the dynamic clashings between cultures. Consider the following definition of culture (from the Curator of the King William’s Town Museum, South Africa, Manton Hirst, 14 June, 1993; personal communication). Hirst remarks: “I tend to opt for a dynamic conception of culture.” Hirst’s definition:

Culture is a mode of communication that expresses and addresses the self and the world, involves both verbal and nonverbal behaviour and not only has logic, but a dialogic of its own.

For my purposes I shall use Rohner’s (1984) definition of culture, (“a system of shared symbolic meanings”) because it is directly related to academic ability.

The emphasis in my definition of culture, as Rohner’s is on thinking. I want to focus on that part of thinking that Cummins and Swain refer to as “cognitive functioning”, which they define as measures involving general intellectual and linguistic skills such as verbal and non-verbal IQ, divergent thinking, academic performance and metalinguistic awareness” (Cummins and Swain, 1996:7). Intelligence, as part of cognitive functioning, tends to be overlooked nowadays in definitions of culture, owing to its links with opinions about racism. But if culture is what people think and do, then surely, how well (intelligently) they do it is also important.

3. CULTURAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS

I now want to consider cultural differences (i.e. differences in the way one symbolises and constructs one’s world) in the educational domain. I present one example of how academics who share the same mother tongue (in this case English) can disagree. The example is of lecturers’ judgements in the evaluation of a student’s writing.

When I asked some of my Practical English students at Fort Hare to write a definition of culture, they invariably came up with rote textbook descriptions culled from their other subjects: “Culture refers to the norms and values…” etc. Now, norms and values are the kind of “objective” things that do indeed belong to specific groups, which an individual has to conform to. But let us for a while suspend this traditional definition of culture and consider it anew.

Here is an (uncorrected) extract from an essay of one of my more imaginative Practical English students. The title was “Home is where the hope is”. I have substituted “culture” for “home” in the student’s text:

In a universal perspective home [culture] may be defined as an individual continent or world, where its inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness created by freedom of religion, personal custom, uncramped dignity, norms and values. The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually by called by the name is evanescent as a dream.

I asked (separately) two Practical English lecturers and one philosophy lecturer for their judgements. I quote:

First Practical English lecturer: “What a lot of nonsense. It does not make sense.”

Philosophy lecturer: “I like it. I would give it a good mark. A bit flowery

Second Practical English lecturer: “He has imagination. Creative. A good effort.”

(One other lecturer’s comment on the text was “celebration” – it seems that from these lecturers’ comments above that there are two broad ways of looking at text (and life): celebral or cerebral).

I discussed the above student’s passage with the first Practical English lecturer and the philosophy lecturer together. Here are two quotes, one from each of them:

First Practical English lecturer (addressing the philosopher and me): Both of you are philosophers. You are used to extending boundaries. I like to impose them. My training is in the legal field. It is different to yours. I look for the limits of things. You look beyond the limits of things.

Philosophy lecturer: If you think this passage is meaningless you should try Derrida for size.

The first practical English lecturer’s “limits of things” needs closer inspection. According to Popper (1977:268), creative thinking is characterised by the ability to break through the limits of the range – or to vary the range. . This ability, which is critical ability, may be described as critical imagination. It is often the result of culture clash, that is a clash between ideas, of frameworks of ideas. [Original underlining].

Perhaps “clash” is too strong a word, because it connotes not only intensity and passion, but also confrontation, agitation, frenzy. However, a term like the “meeting (of cultures”) suggests that all that is required is a cordial invitation to enter into another’s cultural space (see ” African spaces of culture”, Mudimbe, 1992:382). Unfortunately people (and cultures) not only do not sing the same tune; they very often dislike or are contemptible of songs that differ from theirs. So, I settle for clash.

What I am going to argue is that much thinking-and-talking, especially in the academic domain, involves a clash of cultures, namely different ways of 1. perceiving (“receiving”) the world or 2. constructing the world.

What part of reality is received, i.e. what is “out there”, and what part is constructed, is the big epistemological question. Whatever our assumptions, the fact is that the way we (assume to) know the world is the way we accept it to be.

4. CONCEPTUAL DIFFERENCES, CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND CULTURAL DISPARITIES top

What I would like to do now is examine some of the translation problems that arise between different language-cultures. Consider Van Niekerk’s (1993:32) view on the translation of conceptual frameworks.

Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework remarkable? And does not that reveal something of a type of conceptual commonality or constant that is ab initio denied by social relativists?

There are many who would disagree with Van Niekerk’s view that “conceptual frameworks” are easily translatable. One of these is John Sallis (1992:30) who maintains that it “goes without saying, translation is anything but a smooth and efficient circulation between signifiers and signifieds”. According to Verster (1986:15) “some, if not most executive processes may be culturally relative and hence not represented in all populations”. Millar (198H: 157) goes further than Verster by claiming that courses in skills development (e.g. the development of executive processes) pursue the “impossible” because processes such as classifying and hypothesising cannot be taught, but can only develop (i.e. they are part of inborn intelligence). The upshot: 1. Van Niekerk maintains that cultures can adapt with ease to one another’s conceptual frameworks; 2. Verster maintains that many cultures find it difficult to enter into one another’s conceptual space; and 3. Millar’s view is that concepts can only be developed, not acquired (the emphasis in Miller is on the cultural individual).

In order to try and clarify the problem of the translatability of conceptual frameworks, I introduce Wiredu’s distinction between “cultural relativism” and “cultural disparities”. Wiredu (1992: 331) in his description of cultural differences points out that

no sort of conceptual relativism is intended… Conceptual disparities among peoples and cultures, even among individuals in limited environs, is a brute fact of the human situation. Doubtless, this is the source of all sorts of complications in translation, particularly across cultures… But overriding all such problems is the fact, which is surely one of the most remarkable facts about language, that we can understand even what we cannot translate. This is due to the fact that we can learn languages other than that (or those) in which we were brought up. The fundamental fact here is that, because of the biological unity of mankind, any human being can participate or imaginatively enter into any human life form, however initially strange.

By “relativism” Wiredu means that one culture is impermeable to another, and thus never the twain can meet. By cultural “disparity”, Wiredu means that differences exist between cultures. He argues that owing to the biological unity of mankind, it is possible for members of any culture to enter into the space of another culture, no matter how disparate the cultures involved.

Let us now turn to Wiredu’s (to me remarkable) statement that “we can understand even what we cannot translate” (see his description above). The point is that in order to understand another person or culture, one has to have the ability to move from one conceptual framework to another (Van Niekerk above). And this ability means in fact the ability to translate one conceptual framework into another.

I understand translation to mean the (criss-)crossing from one conceptual framework/language to another, which means that translation and understanding hang to together. But for Wiredu, whose understanding of English makes the crossing over from his African language-culture to English language-culture an easy affair, translation has nothing to do with understanding. What Wiredu seems to mean by “translation” is not the entry into, i.e. interpretation of, a different culture/language, but something else, which is not clear to me; perhaps he means the production of a translated text.

Wiredu, a West African, finds It easy to understand “English”, namely because he learnt it (well), and thus presumably from am early age. With Wiredu in mind, we may now be able to understand a little better the Xhosa informant from Fort Hare mentioned earlier, who was opposed to the idea that conceptual differences exist between cultures. My informant, I learnt at a later stage, was educated from early childhood through the medium of English. Therefore, in Wiredu’s terms, his early entry into English makes it (relatively) easy to “participate or imaginatively enter into [the] human life form [of English culture], however initially strange” (Wiredu above). Unfortunately, the children in South Africa, unlike my informant, have not been able to acquire their early childhood education through the medium of English. Therefore, the problem of overcoming conceptual “disparities” looms large in a society like South Africa, where it was an immoral [ity] act for ONE to inseminate the conceptual spaces of the OTHER. I have met many intellectuals in South Africa like my informant whose abhorrence of apartheid blinded him to the sound educational principle of mother tongue instruction, which was encouraged under apartheid. The result: the scientific baby gets thrown out with the political bath water.

What conclusions can I come to in this discussion of cultural relativism versus cultural disparities? I think it is correct to say that certain individuals, no matter what culture they belong to – providing conditions are right – are able to enter into and feel at home in another culture, as Wiredu has done with “Western” culture. However, there are many who have not had the opportunity to enter at an early age (early age is the key in most instances) into a culture that is (radically?) different from their own. Consequently they will not be able to adjust to it, and certainly not be able to thrive in it.

For this reason I find the following passage by Appiah (1992:230) unrealistic:

we have reason to hope that a conversation among discourses, between occupants of this position that, offers the best hope that we shall create as a species the rich intellectual landscape that is essential if we are to understand our universe and our place in it. The multiple discourses of mankind, brought, now by history into mutual consciousness, are not Babel but a chorus (Appiah, 1992:230).

Appiah seems to be talking to and on behalf of his philosophical/literary colleagues, certainly not on behalf of the majority of the children in Africa.

Appiah’s “as a species” implies the same causal connection between Wiredu’s biological unity of mankind (above) and the ability to enter into the conceptual space of any other culture, and to feel at home in it.

Appiah’s comment above elicits the following question: why are some individuals better choristers than babblers? Here we are touching, what I think is a neglected because a sensitive issues in multicultural studies, namely, the biocultural reality of intellectual (academic) variability.

5. EQUALITY AND EGALITARIANISM

What many religions and Marxism have in common is the belief that all men are equal. However equality is not the same thing as egalitarianism, Christian equality, for example, does not mean that all humans are born with equal intellectual gifts. It means that people should be given the opportunity to develop the specific intellectual gifts they are born with. Marxists believe that humans are born with equal intellectual gifts (Marx himself did not preach this). This dreamworld view explains the reasoning behind the nonsense of the Soviet psychologist Lysenko (prodded on by the politician, Stalin) who claimed that all men are born with equal intelligence. Watson and Dewey (and I would think Wiredu, who follows closely Dewey’s system of thought) have a similar view (Pearson, 1991:96-100). For Lysenko and Stalin it is the environment (economic injustices) – manifested in the class struggle – that determines the degree of development of intelligence. And Stalin (‘s environment) exterminated anyone who disagreed with him.

6. CONCLUSION

Harmony among people/s is an ideal that many are striving for. One of the factors that make the achievement of this goal so difficult is the biological and cultural variability of individuals.

Wiredu believes in the biological unity of humankind. And it is because of this biological unity that he believes that anyone can enter into any other cultural space. From the educational point of view, the problem is how to explain the large disparities in academic ability between individuals belonging to the same culture. Are these disparities merely environmental? Millar maintains that one can develop concepts, but cannot acquire them. This seems to mean that there are innate capacities that must have something to do with biology. One of these innate capacities is intelligence. Exactly how intelligence, biology and environment work together is not clear, but there is no doubt that ability is related to inborn capacities, which are different in each person (I’m talking about individuals, not about groups, ethnic or racial). I am not suggesting a (purely) deterministic order, but merely that each individual is “set up” in different ways. And if culture has to do with what one thinks, then culture and intelligence must be built on biological foundations, because the brain and the mind are two sides of the same coin.

Finally, if the new South African order were to reject the reality of the biocultural reality of intellectual (academic) variability, it would be merely cutting off its logical rose to spite somebody else’s political face. Under such conditions the future of South African education, and of social life in general, looks bleak. I hope but must admit that I am very doubtful whether politicians will heed the following warning from the academic Itzkoff (1991:246):

The inability of intellectuals (and politicians] today to think adventurously, thence objectively and dispassionately about the reality of intellectual variability in our world, and about the biocultural implications of this variability for the future lives of innocents yet to be born in our world spells tragedy for the future. (My brackets]. Which reminds me of a political leader from the Eastern Cape who said recently on the television programme “Agenda” concerning the views of his party: “(The party] is only interested in politics, not academics.”

REFERENCES

APPIAH, K.A. 1992. Inventing an African practice in philosophy: Epistemological issues. In Mudimbe, V.Y. The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BLOCH, M. 1991. Language, anthropology and cognitive science. Man, 26:2:183-198.

PEARSON, R. 1991. Race, intelligence and bias in academe. Washington: D.C. Scott-Townsend Publishers.

POPPER, K. 1977. On hypotheses. In: Johnson, P.N. and Wason, P.C. Thinking: Readings in cognitive science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ROHNER, R.P. 1984. Toward a conception of culture. Journal of Cross-cultural psychology, 15(2):111-138.

RORTY, R. 1991. Objectivity, relativism, and truth. Cambridge (New York): Cambridge University Press.

CUMMINS, J. and SWAIN, M. 1986. Bilingualism in education. London: Longman.

SALLIS, J. 1992. Babylonian captivity. Research in Phenomenology, 22:23-31.

GRACE, G.W. 1987. The linguistic construction of reality. London: Croom Helm.

GREGORY, R.L., ed. 1987. Intelligence: The art of good guesswork. In: The Oxford companion to the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ITZKOFF, S.W. 1991. Human intelligence and national power. New York: Peter Lang.

JOHNSON-LAIRD, P.N. 1988. The computer and the mind: An introduction to cognitive science. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.MILLAR, R. 1988. The pursuit of the impossible. Physical Education. 23:156-159).

MUDIMBE, V.Y. 1992. The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

VAN DE VIJVER, F.J.R. and HUTSCHEMAEKERS, G.J.M. 1990. The investigation of culture: Current issues in cultural psychology. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press.

VAN NIEKERK, A.1993. Relativism versus ethnocentrism. South African Journal of philosophy, 12(2):31-37.VERSTER, 3.M. 1986. Cognitive competence in Africa and models of information processing. Pretoria. HSRC Report NIPR PERS 411.WIREDU, K. 1992. Formulating modern thought in African languages: Some theoretical considerations. (In: Mudimbe, V.Y. The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)

African Spaces in Culture and Communication: Implications for Education

Paper presented at the  “Africa in a changing world”, Conference, Institute of Africa , Moscow, 1 – 3 Oct, 1997.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

Abstract

1. Introduction

2. Language, culture and conceptual frameworks

3. Translation between conceptual frameworks

4. Languaculture

5. Is reconciliation possible?

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

Abstract

Many African intellectuals are caught between the Western scientific and African traditional mentality, between the Western way and “our way”. This article poses three main questions: 1. Is there a significant difference between Western and African spaces of culture; between the Western way and “our way”? 2. Is there a homogeneous African space or way – a unanimous African animus? 3. Is it possible to achieve cultural integration, or, failing that, effective intercultural communication? It is argued that there are significant differences between Western  ways and African ways, which make intercultural communication very difficult. Many African intellectuals are caught between the Western scientific and African traditional mentality, between the Western way and “our way”. This does not mean that differences are only of a group-cultural nature. There are also differences that exist at the individual level, e.g. different learning styles. What is required in education is the creative ability to appreciate the fundamental problems of knowledge and interpretation, of the (creative) conflicts between different visions, interpretations, and offerings. It is the value one attaches to the rainbow of individual offerings that characterises the real cultural, political, educational and spiritual crisis in South Africa, in Africa and beyond.

1. Introduction

The story of humanity is a story of similarities and differences – of assimilation and isolation, and the fear of both. In cultural studies there are those who accentuate differences; the cultural nationalists, and those who accentuate similarities; the cultural internationalists.

Senghor’s attempt to assimilate Europe into Africa has been castigated by many Africanists, e.g. Mphahlele, Soyinka and Wiredu. The négritude poets in the Francophone countries distanced themselves from Senghor’s idea of négritude and formulated the notion of difference in which African culture (in the Francophone countries) “could contextualize the clash between tradition and modernity”. For Diawara the “concept of difference…seeks to undo hierarchies and create the possibilities for cultures and nations that are diverse in origin, customs, religions and race to work together.” It is the possibility of reconciling differences that this article is concerned with. Three questions are posed:

1. Is there a significant difference between Western and African spaces of culture; between the Western way and “our way”?

2. Is there a homogeneous African space or way – a unanimous African animus?

3. Is it possible to achieve cultural integration, or, failing that, effective intercultural communication?

I shall argue that there are significant differences between Western ways and African ways which make intercultural communication very difficult. Effective intercultural communication between Western ways and African ways are possible but only to a limited extent.

2.Language, culture and conceptual frameworks

The following question has never been satisfactorily answered: Are concepts language-relative (Humboldt; Whorf ) or are they universal? If universal, they would be only superficially modified by the differences between languages. In other words, is “reality” an objective entity, or is it a construction: a linguistic or a social construction? With regard to the linguistic construction of reality, Whorf’s well-known example comes to mind of the Hopi Indian’s view of time and space being determined by the structure of the Hopi verb system. Pinker maintains that Whorf’s “outlandish claims” are a product of bad analysis and “leanings towards mysticism”. Yet, mystics, unlike Whorf, are supposedly preoccupied with domains “outside” space and time, and would probably be oblivious of the “philosophical nightmare” of culture, which is the human embodiment of space-time.

With regard to culture, Agar relates the following incident: “A few years ago, at the International Pragmatics Association meetings in Antwerp, I stood in the hall and talked with my old teacher, John Gumperz. A colleague came up and said, “You know, this is really an interesting meeting. But how do you tell who the anthropologists are?” Gumperz smiled and answered, `It’s easy. They’re the ones who never use the word culture‘.” I do use it. By culture I understand, with Clark, Hall, Jefferson and Roberts

that level at which social groups [or individuals] develop distinct patterns of life, and give expressive form to their social and material life-experience. Culture is the way, the forms, in which groups [or individuals] `handle’ the raw material of their social and material existence… Culture is the distinctive shapes in which this material and social organization expresses itself. (My square brackets)

Culture is fundamentally a state of mind, a symbolic system through which one reaches out to the world, touches it, expresses it, communicates it, turns away from it, is “ex- communicated” from it.

Rohner defines culture as a “system of symbolic meanings”, i.e. how we conceive our behaviour. Rohner’s definition highlights two things: 1. Culture is systematic, i.e. it is concretised in a group; 2. Culture is a way of representing one’s world through mind. Thus culture is a “collective programming of the mind”.,

What is functionally relevant to one culture may not be relevant to another, as is evident from research into cross-linguistic differences in word learning in different cultures. Children only learn those categories that are functionally relevant and that are significant in the cultures in which they are raised. Thus what is functionally relevant is heavily dependent on the culture into which one has been “programmed”. What is functionally relevant determines the meaning of the words that represents these functions. Consider the following examples from Sawadogo. Sawadogo maintains that adult training in sub-Saharan Africa

is often carried out in Africa in the same way it is delivered in the West and particularly in the United States. The underlying assumption, whether explicitly articulated or not, is that Africans learn in the same way that Americans or other Westerners do.

Sawadogo contrasts the following four “Western principles” of adult learning with the African way: 1. Adults learn best through active participation; 2. Adults are independent learners, or if they are not, should become active learners; 3. Feedback is essential; and 4. Western languages (e.g. English and French) are appropriate for training.

Consider the following comparison of Moore (a language of Burkina Faso) with French and English. French and English share cognate concepts, e.g. apprendre-learn and essayer-try. Moore’s closest concepts to these concepts are zamse (which also means “to teach” and “to imitate”) and makre (which also means “to demonstrate”), respectively. Sawadogo explains the Moore terms zamze,makre and ne bugsego in Mossi culture:

In modern English or French culture, imitate has a negative connotation and excludes the notions of learning and teaching (which might not have been the case in old English and old French), whereas in Mossi culture (modern, and old culture, I would think), one doesn’t learn without imitating. (This is also true of the majority of world cultures). In English and French culture, imitation connotes not only plagiarism but passivity, “a lack of energy”, “sluggishness”. But in Moore passivity means “good heart” (ne bugsego) or a “person who proceeds cautiously” (ne maasgaa).

Thus the concept of passive learning through imitation in Mossi culture is regarded as good, where learner-centredness – a buzzword in modern Western education – would be regarded as anti-educational. In Mossi culture, according to Sawadogo, the notion of feedback is “inconceivable” because of the “negative view of the practice of questioning” or of anything that smacks of criticism (widbo). Sawadogo states:

The lack of cross-linguistic correspondence often leads to differing interpretations between trainer and trainees and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for trainees to develop behaviors corresponding to these [i.e. English and French] concepts or words.

Although what Sawadogo says of Moore may be completely correct, it is dangerous to generalise to other African cultures/languages. (I shall adumbrate on this issue shortly). For example, in Xhosa culture linganisa “to imitate” used to be regarded as purely a good thing, until books arrived on the scene. Without books there was no school; children learnt everything from their elders, and couldn’t even conceive that there existed people who thought differently. In modern Western society one learns mostly through books from the age of about seven years. Further, Western children are encouraged to be critical from an early age, as Sawadogo points out. So it would be correct to say that in the traditional African culture, where formal schooling was not established on Western lines, imitation and its corollary of passivity, e.g. not asking questions, were regarded as virtues. In a school/literary culture, however, linganisa could be good or bad depending on the context.

To chew a little more on that contentious bone of a unanimous African animus, or culture, or worldview. There is nothing that gets an African academic’s goat more than talk of an African philosophy – especially talk of a collective one. As Abrahams puts it: “[t]hat all Africans share the same worldview, both Gyekye and Houtondji reject with the vehemence it deserves. (Abrahams is reviewing Gyeke’s [1987] book on the Akan conceptual system. Indeed African philosophy/culture is not a homogeneous system. In fact there are lots of individual life-forces, vital forces, energies in Africa. The European scientific mind – to generalise – seeks grand unified theories (GUT) and theories of everything (TOE); but this does not preclude the abundant diversity of philosophic, religious, cultural, systems. Science may not be well developed in Africa, but this does not preclude as rich, or even richer diversity of world views and philosophic systems – nor does it preclude a unifying force (?). Similarly, there are many Western philosophies and myriads of Western religions/myths.

3. Translation between conceptual frameworks

Conceptual commonalities between groups or individuals logically imply that there also exist conceptual differences between them:

Understanding a new culture, the argument goes, is about making sense out of human differences in terms of human similarities. The similarities are the ground against which the figure of differences are understood. And the differences, most of them any way, surface out in the spaces between people.

Consider Van Niekerk’s view of translation/interpretation:

Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework not remarkable? And does not that reveal something of a type of conceptual commonality or constant that is ab initio denied by social relativists?

Contrast Van Niekerk’s statement above with his following statement:

The contrast between Western and Azande culture is that the latter is unfamiliar with the theoretical approach to problem solving and rather represents a residue of the mythical thought pattern with its entwinement of knowledge and action. (Italics added)

(The meaning of myth in Van Niekerk is a story that conveys a system of values and meanings).

Van Niekerk’s latter statement implies that different cultures “have different views of the world”. But Van Niekerk also maintains that it is wrong to argue that the “practice of argumentation, that is of establishing relationships between beliefs by means of logical rules… does not obtain in certain cultures”. There are two points I would like to make:

Firstly, there are many who would disagree with Van Niekerk’s view that conceptual frameworks are easily translatable. Quine’s argument concerning the indeterminacy of translation owing to the incompatibility of cultural realities is well known. Sallis also finds the translation between cultures problematic. Sallis, like Derrida and many others, finds grist for his mill in the Tower of Babel story. One of the messages of the Tower of Babel story is essentially this: In order to build or construct (POIESIS “construct”) successfully, one has to move smoothly between the paradigm (plan) and its exemplification (the building). Architecture as paradigm is disrupted by its limitation to a site; a limitation that distorts the paradigm (image). Similarly, in translation it “goes without saying, translation is anything but a smooth and efficient circulation between signifiers [paradigms] and signifieds [exemplification, site].” (My square brackets).

Secondly, it may be true that the “practice of argumentation” obtains in all cultures, but this is a far cry from Van Niekerk’s claim that conceptual frameworks are intertranslatable. According to Verster “some, if not most executive processes may be culturally relative and hence not represented in all populations.” Executive processes could be regarded as an exemplication, or execution, of conceptual frameworks/paradigms.

In the context of schooling, Millar goes further than Verster by claiming that courses in skills development pursue the “impossible”, because processes such as classifying and hypothesising cannot be taught but can only develop. The upshot: Van Niekerk, maintains that cultures share a common conceptual framework; Verster says that conceptual frameworks may differ among cultures; and Millar, in the educational context, says if you haven’t got the wherewithal to develop intellectual skills, you’ll never get it.

Wiredu’s distinction between “conceptual relativism” and “conceptual disparities” is of interest in the “linguistic relativism” debate. Recall that “linguistic relativism” is the theory that language structures reality. Conceptual relativism, which is related to linguistic relativism, is a bit of a chicken and egg situation: concepts structure language, but language also structures concepts. Conceptual relativism stresses the differences between conceptual frameworks. Wiredu prefers to speak of conceptual disparities rather than conceptual relativism:

Conceptual disparities among peoples and cultures, even among individuals in limited environs, are a brute fact of the human situation. Doubtless, this is the source of all sorts of complications in translation, particularly across cultures…But overriding all such problems is the fact, which is surely one of the most remarkable facts about language, that we can understand even what we cannot translate. This is due to the fact that we can learn languages other than that (or those) in which we were brought up. The fundamental fact here is that, because of the biological unity of mankind, any human being can participate or imaginatively enter into any human life form, however initially strange.

By “relativism” Wiredu means that one culture is impermeable to another, and thus never the twain can meet.

The meaning Wiredu gives to “relativism” is not, it seems, the same that Verster gives to the term. Verster is arguing that concepts are culturally mediated; thus I don’t think that Verster’s “culturally relative” necessary means that one culture – Wiredu’s “human life form” – is unable to enter into another strange “human life form” (Wiredu). Verster seems to be merely arguing that deep conceptual disparities exist between cultures, and is not arguing that it is impossible to overcome these conceptual disparities. Therefore, Verster’s cultural relativity seems to be similar to Wiredu’s cultural disparity.

By cultural “disparity”, Wiredu means that differences exist between cultures. He argues that owing to the biological unity of mankind, it is possible for members of any culture to enter into the space of another culture, no matter how disparate the cultures involved.

Wiredu above states that “we can understand even what we cannot translate.” Wiredu’s “translate” is probably referring to the technical know-how of translating texts – spoken and written – from one language to another. There is another sense of translate that Wiredu would probably agree with, namely, in order to understand another person or culture, one requires the ability to move from one conceptual framework to another (Van Niekerk above). (Thus one doesn’t have to be able to translate in the technical sense, in order to understand another culture). This ability is the ability to “translate” one conceptual framework into another. If one could not do this there would be no communication between cultural frameworks/paradigms. Yet, no one doubts that one can and must “translate” across cultures: the issue is the degree of consensus/communication that can be found between cultures/technologies, especially if the distance between them is great, e.g. between Western and African cultures/technologies. For example, although there are commonalities of understanding between ancestor “worship” and Christian worship, there are deep differences.

Wiredu states that “`translation of the language of an untouched people [!]’ can be `de-radicalised’ through sustained cultural intercourse” (the words between single quotes are Quine’s]; the square brackets are Wiredu’s). Whether such deradicalisation is possible depends on the language content and genre involved. It also depends on the ability and creative imagination of the “translator/interpreter” who enters into intercourse with the “untouched” culture. Not easy meat. Wiredu’s description of difficulties in translating the Western concept of mind and other concepts into Akan testify to the fact that much more than sustained cultural intercourse is required. The problem is one oflanguacultural differences.

4. Languaculture

Language and culture are interrelated and inseparable. Owing to the rich connections between language and culture, Agar maintains that the “separation between language and culture makes no sense”. Agar coins the broader label “languaculture”, which is the same concept as Fantini’s “linguaculture”. Agar’s “languaculture” may be preferred to Fantini’s easier to pronounce “linguaculture”, owing to the fact that a common meaning of the term linguistic is “grammatical” (Chomsky’s “linguistic/ grammatical” competence). Language is much more than linguistic structure, i.e. grammar.

It is in the light of these attempts to meld language and culture that I mention a remark made by a colleague at the University of Fort Hare (South Africa) who is a Xhosa speaking South African educationist. His views are shared by many other black South Africans. My colleague stated that “conceptual differences between cultures [e.g. Western science versus African culture, one African culture versus another], is a myth.” (Myth in this context means “exaggeration”, “fabrication”).

Alexander, one of the most active proponents of a national culture in South Africa, expresses a similar view. Alexander has been campaigning assiduously for a harmonisation of the Nguni varieties (Xhosa and Zulu, Swati and Ndebele) and the Sotho varieties (Sotho, Sotho sa Leboa and Tswana). The harmonisation endeavour is understandable in the light of the fact that for Alexander and others the supreme function of language is the informational function.

Alexander maintains that the idea of a language group as the basis of a nation or a national group stems from a “mystique” about language, and from a failure to see this phenomenon in terms of the rise of capitalism. This “mystique”, he claims, is based on the mistaken belief that each language has its own “soul” or “psyche”. Alexander argues that

there is a historical explanation why language groups constitute the basis of nations in Western Europe and that historical explanation has to do with the fact that the development of means of communication was then in a very primitive state.

Alexander adds that the language question leads these (could we call them) mystics straight into the murky, obscure area of culture, to the idea that language groups are not just co-extensive with nations but that nations and language groups are different aspects of cultural groups, that languages and cultures are co-extensive. It leads us on the political plane to the debate in South Africa of whether one should guarantee group rights or individual rights? A debate of almost mystical proportions shot through with mist and schism.

This “murky, obscure area of culture” has developed in the last few decades into what is called multicultural education. Multicultural contexts obviously require Intercultural Communication (IC). If I have interpreted Alexander correctly, he is more interested in another kind of IC: Informational Communication, which brings us to the matter of formal education

“Schools everywhere” versus “our way”

In African cultures a conflict exists between formal education and the “togetherness of the tribe”:

The idea of education had now come to him like a demon, urging him to go on, do more. Even when later he was forced by the Kiama in their extravagant enthusiasm to take an oath of allegiance to the purity and Togetherness of the tribe, he did not stop to analyse if any danger lurked in such a commitment. Kabonyi did not exist. He saw only schools everywhere.

The togetherness of the tribe is not a random collection of individuals following along a random path:

Our way, the way, is not a random path. Our way begins from coherent understanding. It is a way that aims at preserving knowledge of who we are, knowledge of the best way we have found to relate each to each, each to all, ourselves to other peoples, all to our surroundings. If our individual lives have a worthwhile aim, that aim should be a purpose inseparable from the way.The irony, from an African point of view, of Western culture is that Westerners collectively contract (program themselves) to be as individualistic as they can, where self-will, independent thinking, initiative and value-free impersonal truth are given prominence in the “schools everywhere” (Ngugi above). It is in early childhood that children’s habits become fixed.

The clash between “schools everywhere” and “our way” (Armah above) is a crucial problem in education in Africa. These (Western) “schools everywhere” stress according to Kaplan an inductive cognitive strategy (arriving at principles) based on the individual learner’s effort. The African way, in contrast, follows a deductive path, where the principles are imparted by the teacher. An inductive approach requires the speech act of asking questions, which, according to Sawadogo, is deficient in the collectivist, authoritarian cultures of Africa. According to Sawadogo, African cultures emphasise passive participation, which logically excludes independent (individual) thinking.

5. Is reconciliation possible?

At the XIX World Congress of philosophy in Moscow (August 1993), Wiredu presented a colloquium entitled “Man and nature” with R. Balasubramanian. Wiredu was asked by one of the participants, myself, during the subsequent discussion what he meant by his passage on cultural disparities that I quoted earlier. He replied that translation is “a mapping of one language on to another”, and added: “Because I have learnt English, I cannot translate it, but I can understand it.” This seems to mean that Wiredu is better at comprehending a second language than producing it. But this is also true of one’s mother tongue. The observation that one can understand more than one can produce is a universal law of learning and thus applies to both the mother tongue and other languages one may learn. The main issue is that Wiredu, a West African, finds it easy to understand a language that he has (consciously) learnt, namely, English, because he learnt it – and well, and presumably from an early age.

With regard to learning a second language at an early age, I refer to my University of Fort Hare colleague mentioned earlier. To recap, he does not believe that there exist conceptual differences between cultures. The point is that his school education from an early age was through the medium of English. Therefore, in Wiredu’s terms, my colleague probably found it relatively easy to “participate or imaginatively enter into [the] human life form [of English culture], however initially strange” (Wiredu above; square brackets added). The mother tongue issue is a sensitive one in South Africa, because mother tongue instruction was assiduously promoted by Bantu Education. This assiduous promotion is interpreted by many blacks, including my Fort Hare colleague, as a device to keep black ethnic groups politically divided. Yet mother tongue instruction, especially at primary school level, is one of the most well-established educational principles; common sense I would think. I suggest that my Fort Hare colleague’s view would have been quite different if he had not been educated from his early years in English. The issue is that most of the children in South Africa have not had the “good fortune” of early childhood education through English. Therefore, the problem of overcoming conceptual disparities looms large in a society like South Africa, where the insemination of the conceptual spaces across the colour line was tantamount to an “immoral[ity] act” .

Conceptual disparities, i.e. cross-cultural conflicts, according to Wiredu, can ultimately be overcome. Cross-cultural conflicts are optimistically referred to by Agar as “rich points”. Much of the literature on cross-cultural adaptations (see Anderson for a survey) would describe these cross-cultural conflicts not as rich points but as painful punctuations in the turbulence of change. Disparate conceptual frameworks do not only exist between cultures but also within cultures. For example, experts on Akan such as Wiredu and Bedu-Addo (both mother tongue Akan speakers) can’t agree what an Akan means by truth and fact. Wiredu takes these disagreements “philosophically”: he states that the exchange between himself and Bedu-Addo “promises an exciting feast of philosophical controversy which should demonstrate at least that, whatever the peculiarities of African philosophy, unanimity is not one of them.” Thus there is no unanimous African animus (anima?). The problem is that while the people with the necessary literary and philosophical expertise to translate these (radically?) different languacultures are feasting on, or promising to feast on, the meat of one another’s philosophical speculations, the patient Akan student is anxiously waiting in the wings for his or her Akan translation of, say, Aristotle. Likewise the French (or English) student is patiently waiting for a translation of an Akan text – oral, if not written, owing to the paucity of written philosophical texts in Akan: and true philosophical discourse is not viable without written texts.

A society that is not able to criss-cross the conceptual boundaries between and within different languages/cultures is destined to falter. This is not to say that cultures or concepts should be compounded into a potpourri of uniformity:

Culture… always participates in a conflictual economy acting out the tension between sameness and difference, comparison and differentiation, unity and diversity, cohesion and dispersion, containment and subversion.

What is true of a specific culture is also true of individuals. The group and the individual are both involved in the symbiotic renovation of culture. Arbib and Hesse put it this way:

There is no reason that schemas developed in one culture should be fully translatable into patterns and schemas in another language. Even for persons raised in the same society, the differences in genetic constitution and individual experience provide “individuality” and “personality” as is constituted by a distinctive network of schemas for each person.

The health of a culture depends on its creative ability to criss-cross between sameness and difference, unity and diversity, etc. What is required is the creative ability to appreciate the fundamental problems of knowledge and interpretation, of the (creative) conflicts between different visions and interpretations. Without these conflicts, higher levels of learning are likely to remain out of reach. Hence the Piagetian notion that “[a]ll development is composed of momentary conflicts and incompatibilities which must be overcome to reach a higher level of equilibrium.”

Mazrui posits five stages of “cultural integration”: Stage 1 – cultural contact; Stage 2 – cultural conflict; Stage 3 – cultural conquest; Stage 4 -cultural confusion. In Stage 4 the choices for the subjugated culture are surrender, alienation, revival or resurrection. Mazrui asks whether these are the only options. Mazrui’s posits another option, his optimistic Stage 5, namely cultural coalescence or integration, which for Bhabha aims to “transform our sense of what it means to live, to be, in other times and different spaces, both human and historical.” I suggest that the more the contact between Western conceptual frameworks and African conceptual frameworks, the more difficult it is to communicate interculturally on the basis of equality. In this regard, creative thinking is required to make a breakthrough. According to Popper,

creative thinking is characterized by the ability to break through the limits of the range -or to vary the range…This ability, which is critical ability, may be described as critical imagination. It is often the result of culture clash, that is a clash between ideas, of frameworks of ideas.

Although Popper does not mention the individual, I would think that he is concerned with individual creative ability: a very Western idea.

6. Conclusion

One should be sensitive to the cultural and psychological upheavals that may result from trying to impose a “Western” English/American or French cultural system on traditional Africa. One of the puzzles encountered by English mother tongue (usually white) teachers in South Africa is the general bewilderment rather than resistance of black learners when confronted by the cultural demands of white society. What these learners seem to regard as central is not cognitive growth, reasoning, or logic, but rather the social adjustments needed to cope with learning a different language. This is not to say that there is no logic in Africa!.

Cultural imperialism and economic growth work together in making people members of technological civilisation where the existential equilibrium of people is often considered to be a minor concern:

For their part the African people had to adopt and adapt to the unilaterally imposed epistemological paradigms. The challenge for African people is to strive to understand themselves in the light of their existential circumstances.

Feelings and emotions play a determining role in the learning process. Accordingly, feelings of cultural anomie (estrangement) should not be pushed aside in the rush to develop educational programs – which may suddenly appear as “monsters from the new world”. Educationists in Africa are searching for a way in which the African way – “their tricks” – can reconcile with the Western way – “our tricks” – in such a way as to ensure the least amount of pain; the pain of opposing, adapting to or integrating with Western culture (Mauer & Retief 1987). The big question is whether it is possible to find a common way. According

to Sawadogo the African learning mode is not only “less compatible” with French and English languages but the latter “may even interfere with or negate African cultural and contextual meanings and implications.” This is the reason for the strong Africanisation movement in South Africa where one of its main concerns is the endeavour to develop the African languages as the medium of instruction at least up to the end of the senior secondary phase. The irony is that “Bantu Education” also encouraged the use of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction at higher levels of education, but on the proviso that the mother tongue also give a turn to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in some of the school subjects. The history is well known.

Many African intellectuals are caught between the Western scientific and African traditional mentality, between the Western way and “our way”. This does not mean that differences are only of a cultural nature. There are also differences that exist at the individual level, e.g. different learning styles. There are also universal principles. Two of Sawadogo’s universal learning principles are that one learns by trial and error and one learns better what is relevant. The transformational question in contemporary South Africa is deciding what is relevant. It is on the issue of relevance that people differ. The relevance of Western ways clashes with “our way”, where breakdowns in intercultural communication are likely to occur.

For Serote (chief culture spokesperson for the African National Congress) culture is “The manner of making people members of civilisation” (Radio Today, South African Broadcasting Association, 27 April, 1993). Mazrui’s relationship between culture and civilisation is worth quoting:

We define culture as a system of inter-related values, active enough to influence and condition perception, judgement, communication and behaviour in a given society. We define civilisation as a culture which has endured, expanded, innovated and been elevated to new moral sensibilities.Whether we succeed in bridging the gap between the different spaces of civilisations, few would disagree that civilised people regard variation as a gift and not as a poison:

Let every people bring their gifts to the great festival of the world’s cultural harvest and mankind will be all the richer for the variety and distinctiveness of the offerings.

It is the value one attaches to the rainbow of individual offerings that characterises the real cultural, political, educational and spiritual crisis in South Africa, in Africa and beyond.

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Activity Theory, Mediation and Intelligence in Learning

South African Journal of Higher Education., 13(1), 1999.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

1. Introduction

2. Soviet activity theory

3. Intelligence, cognitive abilities and learning

4. Intelligence, cognitive abilities and learning

5. Universal Intelligence

6. Heredity and environment

7. Negotiating the TASC demands

8. Limits of mediation/intervention

9. Conclusion

10. References

1. Introduction

The South African Grade 12 results of 1997 were, as in previous years, very disappointing. More than 200, 000 learners failed – a 47% failure rate. The mass media have been replete with recriminations and explanations for the high failure rate: irrelevance of the contemporary school system to real life, absence of a culture of learning and teaching, an impoverished primary school and preschool background, a pass-one-pass-all mentality, demoralisation and disillusionment of teachers, irresponsibility of teachers, poor administration by the National of Minister of Education and provincial administrators, lack of commitment from the business sector, strikes encouraged by the teachers’ trade unions, indiscriminate advancement through the grades up to Grade 11 and general breakdown in society. This paper looks at one other possible contributory cause for academic failure: a significant lack or underdevelopment of cognitive abilities, specifically academic intelligence. This article is concerned with learners with normal brain functions.

I pursue issues dealt with in previous research (Gamaroff, 1994, 1995a,1995b, 1995c, 1997a, 1997b) by contrasting the “intrinsic” views on intelligence, learning and teaching with the “extrinsic” views of adherents of the Natal School of cross-cultural psychology and of its more well-known predecessor, Soviet activity theory.

2. Soviet activity theory

During this decade an increasing number of educationists and psychologists are arguing that the problem of education can be met by investigating motives, goals and conditions of learning/teaching in terms of Soviet activity theory (Campbell, 1985; Macdonald, 1990a, 1990b, Donato & McCormick, 1994; Clayton, 1995; Wallace & Adams, 1995:16). What is commonly called activity theory is the unique and self-consciously independent nature of the Soviet cultural-historical research tradition which is referred to simply as activity theory. This involves an approach of mediation through negotiating task demands. In Soviet activity theory, one thinks, learns, creates through the historical process of sociocultural interaction (Vygotsky, 1978; Vygotsky & Luria, 1994) where the mediator plays the primordial role in cognitive and educational development.

Activity theory in Soviet psychology has become, “a dominant intellectual force for Western Researchers” (Minick, 1985:iii) because of its belief that the intermental (social mind) is what gives substance to the intramental (individual mind). It is the intramental relationship between a mediator (e.g. a teacher) and a learner that is the grist of this activity. Outside of action, the psychological individual is reduced to a physiological and morphological being. Outside of society, knowledge construction is not possible. On these presuppositions of Soviet activity theory are based “progressive” theories of education such as outcomes-based education (Murray, 1997:28).

The individual is not neglected. Soviet activity theory emphasises the activity of the individual in the world (Minick, 1985:24). This activity consists of momentary conflicts which have to be surmounted in order to attain a higher level of equilibrium. It is the mediator’s role to help the learner surmount these conflicts. The distance (i.e. the difference) between the resultant development and the potential development is referred to as the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD; Vygotsky 1978:86). ZPD theory is based on the Piagetian notion that “[a]ll development is composed of momentary conflicts and incompatibilities which must be overcome to reach a higher level of equilibrium” (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969:78). If the teacher presents contradiction or conflict, and is also mindful to provide the resources for the child to surmount it, then development will occur. The answer to many learning problems for activity theorists lies in the mindful interventions generated by the teacher. In the rest of this paper I shall examine this “extrinsic view” of activity theory and show how it impacts on intelligence and learning.

3. Intelligence, cognitive abilities and learning

Human intelligence consists of the cognitive abilities to assemble, control and execute performance programmes for solving problems (Snow, 1982:5,19). Intelligence is not just one ability but a spectrum of cognitive abilities that enables the mind to learn new things. The mind is able to re-cognise by discovering similarities and differences between previous and new conceptions. This re-cognition is the mainspring of human cognitive abilities. Intelligence creates something new (in structure or content). This something new is not necessarily new to the world, but always new for its creator.

There are two main considerations in understanding cognitive abilities: (1) learners may not have the inborn capacity to achieve in an academically demanding environment, or (2) they may have the inborn capacity, but it may remain underdeveloped or incapacitated by adverse social, economic and educational conditions.

In traditional trait theories (Carroll (1993) psychological constructs are like any other human trait, animal trait, or plant trait, where biological differences between living things are distributed according to a bell curve. Differences in human abilities are also distributed according to the bell curve. Soviet activity theory rejects the notion of traits, i.e. the fixety of psychological constructs (Minick, 1985:13-14).

4. Intelligence, academic achievement and that Stubborn IQ

The notion of intelligenceevokes the controversial and delicate topic of intellectual differences between human beings. Undoubtedly some people are more intelligent than others. The matter for debate is the degree to which culture, schooling and innate cognitive abilities influence intelligence and learning.

The main dispute that arises in discussions of IQ and ability in education revolves around the question: How and how much can one improve an individual’s IQ and learning ability through mediation in terms of historical and social deprivation and inborn abilities? (Detterman & Sternberg, 1982).

5. Universal IntelligenceThe problem is how to explain the large disparities in academic ability between individuals whether belonging to different cultures or to the same culture? Some cross-cultural psychologists (e.g. Campbell, 1985; Macdonald, 1990a) hold the view that differences in academic ability are extrinsic to inborn intelligence and belong to cultural differences, because all humans have the same intrinsic universal intelligence. The facts do not seem to support such universalism:

Experience does seem to support the belief that people do vary in their intellectual capacities and their specialization. It would hardly come as a surprise if this were so, assuming that we are dealing with biological structures, however intricate and remarkable, of known sorts [my italics]…Many people, particularly those who regard themselves as within the left-liberal political spectrum, find such conclusions repugnant. It may be that the empty organism hypothesis is so attractive to the left in part because it precludes these possibilities… But I find it difficult to understand why conclusions of this sort should be at all disturbing (Chomsky, 1988:198).

There are indeed disturbing. So much so that much of state-funded academic research is fuelled by the desire to prove the “empty organism hypothesis”, namely, there is no variability in null endowment (Chomsky, 1988;198). Chomsky (1988:198) distinguishes between (1) the universal endowment of “the ability to acquire and make effective use of human language at some level of detail” and (2) “other cognitive capacities”, i.e. “intellectual capacities”, which differ in quality between individuals. For many, such distinctions evoke racism. Campbell (1985:118) seeks “to undermine apartheid’s insistence on the irreconcilability of racial differences… by the support [her project] provides for the notion of universal cognitive capacities. Campbell (1985:118) suggests that “there seems to be little justification for this obsession with difference, or for the implication that cultural differences cannot be transcended.” On a similar track, Macdonald describes Miller et al.’s (1985) argument for the necessary universality of aspects of intelligence. They conclude their study (p.45): [Macdonald is quoting Miller et al. (1985)]:”The best insurance against cultural, ethnic or racial prejudice is evidence that the apparent diversity of human expression is governed by psychological processes that are demonstrably universal.”

And Wiredu (1992:331) in a similar vein: “because of the biological unity of mankind, any human being can participate or imaginatively enter into any human life form, however initially strange.” Wiredu believes that the biological unity of mankind makes it possible for members of any culture (which subsumes education) to enter into the space of another culture, no matter how disparate the cultures involved.

If Macdonald, via Miller et al., and Wiredu mean that all human beings have the same biologically based cognitive processes, this is truistically undeniable: all human beings have the same basic kind of morphology and physiology. A thorny issue, however, is that humans differ in the degree of innate brain power, as they do in anything else, e.g. height, strength, music ability, metabolism, interests, and so on.

6. Heredity and environmentIn any discussion of intelligence the most prominent issue is the relationship between heredity and environment:

In trying to analyse the relationship between mind and culture, two main positions have been taken. The first, taken by people like Jensen and Arthur (1972) [Arthur Jensen, surely; R.G.] and Eysenck (1971), holds that intelligence is largely accounted for genetically, and that very little variance can be accounted for by environmental influences. Specifically, performance on IQ tests is largely a function of genetics (Macdonald, 1990a:33).

Jensen (1972:136) does indeed put a strong emphasis on genes in intelligence. This is not an idiosyncratic view. A copious literature exists on the genetic basis of intelligence, most of it written since Jensen (1972), which corroborates Jensen. For example, Demetriou, Gustafsson, Efklides, and Platsidou (1992), Jerison (1986), Itzkoff (1991), Jones (1994), Plomin (1986), Plomin, De Vries and Mclearn (1980), Plomin and Mclearn (1991), Plomin and Bergeman (1993); Scarr and Carter-Saltzman (1982), and Winner (1983). Jones (1994) maintains that “new” twin studies have shown that “as much as seventy per cent of the variation in IQ score within a population is due to variation it its genes. This figure seems high but can be accepted for the present.” The new studies do not add much to the old twin studies, except perhaps in refinement of methodology. (When twin studies and IQ are discussed, antagonists of IQ often mention Sir Cyril Burt. Since his exoneration by the British Psychological Society, nothing constructive can come from beating that tedious old drum).

In sum, a large part of the difficulty lies with inborn intelligence, where heredity (genetics) has a vital role to play. This means that some individuals will do better than others because they were born that way. It is also obvious that inborn abilities require a conducive environment for their fulfilment (Hegarty & Lucas, 1978; Kline, 1991), and that healthy living conditions and intellectual stimulation in the home have a major and long-term influence upon children’s scholastic progress (Durojanje, 1975; Cox, 1982:224).

7. Negotiating the TASC demands

I describe a recent South African educational initiative, namely, the “Thinking Actively in Social Context (TASC) model from the University of Natal, which combines the teaching of cognitive skills and the communicative approach to English teaching. TASC, which is embodied in the”Language in my world” series for primary and secondary school, is based on Vygotskyan activity theory and in the neo-Piagetian theory of the Natal school of cross-cultural psychologists, and is thus rooted in the same philosophy as Macdonald’s “negotiating the task-demands” of which the basic tenet is the social origin of adolescent and adult intellectual ability: “On the Vygotskyan view, higher mental processes in the individual (which involve conscious realisation and metacognition) have their origins in social processes” (Macdonald, 1988:117; original emphasis; see also the Vygotskyan perspectives in Wertsch, 1985, 1986). (Macdonald (1988:117) mentions a related and uncontentious claim of Vygotskyan thought, namely that “mental processes can be understood only if we understand the tools and signs that mediate them.”. It is working from this social basis that TASC stresses the importance of the social interaction and real-life experiences in the learning process. Learners need to use what they already know as a springboard to further learning. They are not empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge…Pupils best learn language when they work co-operatively to negotiate meaning and understanding within a communicative context… Vygotskyan theory also stresses that the interaction between learner and tutor (mediation) is all important (Wallace & Adams, 1995:16). [One could perhaps speak of the “negotiating the TASC-demands” approach].Activity theory emphasises mediation and the role of social relations and a psychological approach in teaching in order to achieve the goal of educational activity, i.e. involvement of the student in the subject matter rather than the mere transmission of knowledge. Considering the constraints of the traditional lecturing mode, AD (academic development) practitioners seem to be in the best position to interact with the students in the learning process by bringing out their intuitive understanding and linking it with the specialist terminology (p.1).

There is a substantial difference between (1) the uncontentious, and trivially true, claim of Wallace and Adams and Clayton that “social interaction” is indispensable to learning and (2) Vygotsky’s radical claim that “higher mental processes have their origin in social interaction” (Vygotsky, 1978:46; my italics). Behavioural geneticists, e.g. Plomin & Bergeman (1991) would argue that the origins of “higher mental processes”, as manifested through tools – of which the supreme tool is “signs” – are not merely, or perhaps even mainly, social in origin, though of course the large social/environmental/cultural contribution to the development and use of these tools is unquestioned.

The description of what education should be, as described by Wallace and Adams above, is identical to the description of so many educationists and philosophers centuries and even millennia before Vygotsky e.g. Plato, Comenius and Rousseau. All three emphasise the “communicative” method of acquiring knowledge, which involves a high degree of social interaction. The Socratic method of questioning and eliciting answers is a classic (Greek) example of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development combined with authentic, real-life, direct, dialogue.

Given (1) the “intrinsic” (genotypic) constraints of inborn ability and the (2) “extrinsic” (phenotypic) constraints such as (i) cultural and content knowledge, (ii) intellectual stimulation in the home (before school entry as well as after) – in the formal school situation and in informal social contact – three questions remain: How much can learners improve? How many teach-test-teach sessions are necessary and practically possible And: How can a teacher/tester elicit more, on the supposition that a teacher/tester can indeed elicit more?

8. Limits of mediation/interventionTwo key questions in assessing the effectiveness of mediation/intervention are (Shayer, 1992:112): 1. What effects and what size effects are achievable? 2. To what extent can models of programmes be internalised and successfully used by teachers who are not closely involved with their development. This latter question is related to the validation of mediation/intervention programmes:

With modest resources and one researcher, two teachers may be as many as one can control and support with confidence. Even with substantial resources, such as Feuerstein had in the Hadassah-Wiso-Canada research centre in Jerusalem, five teachers/schools is probably the upper limit for a study of this kind [i.e. of Feuerstein’s Hadassah-Wiso-Canada project, R.G] (Shayer, 1992:114).

Thus,

whether improvement in school achievement can be brought about directly by improvement in instruction, or whether what is needed is a new set of professional teaching skills aimed at accelerating the cognitive development of children, from which improvement in learning would be a secondary consequence. It can be argued…that improved instruction alone, as was attempted in the USA and Britain in the 1960s for science, is likely to affect the achievement only of the upper 30 per cent, on the grounds that only this range of children are realizing their genetic potential (Shayer, 1992:119).

According to Sperber (1980:247), direct instruction plays a minimal role in learning, and each person knows much more than what he or she can be taught. If Sperber is right, the value of mediation by the teacher through “negotiating the task-demands” can only trigger the skills that the learner already has. In other words, one can impart content (information) but not transferringskills. It has been shown that substantial educational interventions may produce positive improvement for some learners, but the usual interventions, it is claimed, hardly do any good at all (Snow, 1982:31)

The picture is rosier when observed through the spectacles of Soviet activity theory: “The teacher may transform a task into a familiar form in which case genuine development will notoccur; however, if the teacher can present a task in a conflicting way and provide the resources for the child to surmount the conflict, then development willoccur” (Macdonald, 1990b:129; my italics). Significant development is never a sure thing: where there’s a will there’s not always a way.

9. Conclusion

Many curricula, some of them explicitly labeled “cognitive”, and lately “outcomes-based education” (Murray, 1997), if intended to improve the cognitive abilities of the disadvantaged, will generally not be of enduring value owing to (1) the mistaken belief that all individuals have the same capacity for higher cognitive processes, specifically those related to academic learning, (2) the dearth of highly trained mediators available to implement sophisticated teaching and support programmes and (3) the lack of money to pay even badly trained mediators.

It has been suggested that one not allow poor performers to sit exams and that one try to ensure that indiscriminate advancement through the grades does not occur (Bundy, 1998). The problem is what to do with those who are not permitted to sit exams – and those who fail when permitted, a problem that Macdonald (1990b:46) has highlighted. The short and brutish fact is that it is futile to promote the idea that all people have an equal share of mental power, and, accordingly, to put most of the blame on extrinsic factors such as cultural differences or poor teaching or political oppression.

Egalitarian philosophies, which reject the notion of inborn intellectual variability, and attribute all educational problems to political, social and economic imbalances, endeavour to change the perspective from those that focus on intrinsic intellectual variability to those that focus on intrinsic intellectual universality and on extrinsic factors such as mediation. Changing the perspective does not shed any light on the problem; it merely buries it in the sand.

True(,) knowledge is uncertain, but what makes the search for knowledge worthwhile is the belief that the object of the search certainly is.

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Academic Failure among Black Learners in South Africa

This article overlaps and complements the article published in Per Linguam,  11(2):15-33, 1995. Solutions to academic failure – the cognitive and cultural realities of English as the medium of instruction  among black learners

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

1.   Introduction

2.   Causes of academic failure

2.1  Bantu Education

2.2  A non-cognate language as medium of instruction

2.3  Intelligence, academic language skills and the mother tongue/first  language

3.   Inborn abilities and cultural factors in learning

4.   Solutions?

4.1  Cognitive programmes

4.2  Taylored parenting

4.3  The mother tongue as the exclusive medium of instruction

5.   Conclusion

6.   Bibliography

1.   Introduction

In this article, I focus on some of the purported basic causes of academic failure in the second language situation, where English is used as a medium of instruction. These causes are Bantu Education and the (exclusive) use  of a non-mother tongue as the medium of instruction. I then present what I believe to be the basic causes of academic failure. I also examine some solutions to academic failure (Gamaroff, 1995). The strengths and deficiencies of these solutions are discussed in terms of linguistic, cognitive and  cultural factors.

2. Causes of academic failure

In this section on the causes of academic failure, I critically examine two causes that are currently believed to be responsible for academic failure, namely, Bantu Education and the use of a non-mother tongue as the medium of instruction, and then present my views on the basic causes of academic failure.

2.1.Bantu  Education

Consider Hartshorne’s (1987) four reasons for the low standard of English among black learners and teachers:

1. The effects of Bantu Education.

2. The DET, staffed mostly by Afrikaners, lacks the dedication to promote English.

3. The majority of English teachers are Afrikaans speaking or black, many of whom do not have sufficient competence to teach English for communicative  purposes.

4. English mother tongue speakers and English second language learners are  generally racially segregated into different schools.

(Hartshorne’s  last three reasons might be considered to be specific examples of the first, because they all comprise the effects of Bantu Education).

The  implication is that once these causes have been removed, there should be a significant improvement in the English achievement and general academic  achievement of black learners.

Hartshorne’s “effects of Bantu Education” would also encompass the economic disparities between black and white education.

Hartshorne puts the blame squarely on the previous government and its apartheid policy  for the disarray in black education. However, there are other possible reasons – and not directly related to Bantu Education – for the high failure  rate. For example, one of the main obstacles for young adults of limited  L2 proficiency is that they often have to gulp down unmanageable chunks of content knowledge and language knowledge in as short a time as possible.  To add to the difficulty are the inadequate academic skills and background  information that they bring to the classroom, which makes it difficult to assimilate new content. In other words, in the English-as-a-medium-of-instruction situation, it is low proficiency in English (language and culture) that  hinders the flow of information and the development of skills.

It might be argued that these very problems that I have described as having deeper causes than Bantu Education are indeed the very effects of Bantu  Education. If this were true, it seems strange that all over Africa, where  there is no Bantu Education, the same problems exist. (These problems were discussed in depth by many speakers at the World Conference of Curriculum Instruction, Lagos; Gamaroff, 1993).

2.2. A non-cognate language as medium of instruction

Besides  Bantu Education, there is another reason offered for the high failure rate among black learners in South Africa. Consider Mascher’s (1991) reasons  for the high failure rate in black schools among many non-mother tongue speakers of English. Mascher does not deny that the factors mentioned  by Hartshorne (1987) play a role in academic failure, but he argues that  none of these factors can compare with the fact that “the medium of instruction from Std 3 onwards is a language which is non-cognate to  the learner’s first language” (Mascher, 1991:2). Mascher (1991:3) defines cognate languages as belonging “to the same family of languages  and so have a similar grammar and vocabulary because they share a common origin” (a common history and culture).

In addition to the difficulty of learning through the non-cognate language, there is also the difficulty of learning the non-cognate language  itself. Mascher maintains that the ability to learn a non-cognate second language in a tutored situation requires special linguistic gifts of an analytical nature. The extensive studies of Macdonald and her colleagues (1990, 1990a) have clearly shown the problems encountered by children  who from Std 3 onwards do not only have to learn English, but also have to learn their content subjects through the medium of English.

Owing  to the fact that failure often coincides with the use of a non-mother tongue as a medium of instruction, some might argue that because of the  implementation of a non-mother tongue as the medium of instruction by the DET, it is Bantu Education, in effect, that is responsible for academic failure. But this would be an extremely naive view. The problem that Mascher  describes goes way beyond Bantu Education, and way beyond Africa as well. It is an international problem.

2. 3  Intelligence, academic language skills and the mother tongue/first  language

Language as a deep semiotic system and fluid intelligence in language proficiency

Although the above factors presented by Hartshorne and Mascher do contribute to academic failure, none of these factors are as influential as intelligence, because it is the level of intelligence that determines the level of CALP.

Barkhuizen warns that care should be taken not to construct a causal connection between limited ESL proficiency and the underdevelopment of academic skills. Barkhuizen  (1991:28) states:

…because ESL speakers are not as competent in the language as first language  speakers, this does not mean that they are intellectually or academically  less competent as well.

(See  also Craig, 1976:150, for the same view).

Although this statement is certainly true (Cummins, 1979, 1980; Collier, 1987,  for the same view), one still needs to explain the findings of this study,  which show that many informants who have limited ESL proficiency also  have poorly developed academic skills, i.e. poorly developed CALP. The  crucial question is whether there is a causal connection between limited  intelligence and limited academic skills in the second language  (namely, English).

The  immediate response by many would be: “Of course not!” Some would  even maintain that there is no direct link between first language/mother tongue proficiency and intelligence either. In the following paragraphs, I try and explain the distinction between BICS and CALP in terms of the symbiotic relationship between first language development and intelligence.

In any discussion of the relationship between language proficiency and academic achievement, one should distinguish between the following three notions; general language proficiency, BICS (Basic Interpersonal and Communicative Skills) and CALP (Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency) (Cummins, 1983, 1984)

By language proficiency I mean the ability to use a language. BICS is the “the ability to acquire and make effective use of human language at some level of detail” Chomsky, 1988:198).

“General language proficiency” does not take the BICS-CALP distinction into account. BICS does not require intelligence (as it has been defined in this study), specifically academic intelligence, but CALP certainly does.

With regard to CALP, various authors (Collier, 1987, 1995; Cummins, 1979, 1980) maintain that if CALP has not been developed in early childhood and/or the early years of schooling through the mother tongue (or at least through the language the child knows best) – and this is Mascher’s point as well  – many disadvantaged children will not succeed in an academic environment, where the medium of instruction is a second language like English, which for many is an alien language(and culture).

One  of the major problems of many learners who enter higher primary and lower secondary school, where a second language is the medium of academic instruction, is that they have gained neither the necessary knowledge nor developed the necessary skills through their mother tongue to learn anything academic – whether it be (CALP in) a second language or some other subject.  The fact is that second language CALP cannot be separated from first language CALP, nor can either of these be separated from proficiency in the “content” subjects, e.g. integrated studies.

In order to attain CALP in a first language, e.g. Chinese, one must first know BICS in Chinese. However, if a Chinese speaker wants to develop CALP  in a second language, e.g. English (ESL), it is not a necessary prerequisite to develop BICS in ESL, because the attainment of a reasonable standard  of BICS in ESL often only occurs after the attainment of a reasonable standard of CALP in ESL (as I have experienced with Chinese immigrants in my community). In these circumstances, CALP in a second language is  developed mostly through the modes of reading and writing.

Many Chinese, in contrast to the disadvantaged people of South Africa (mostly blacks), have had the opportunity to develop CALP in their mother tongue.  In South Africa, many non-mother tongue speakers of English are obliged to develop BICS in English in order to gain a foothold on CALP in English, because they haven’t developed an adequate level of CALP of their mother tongue to enable them to move (relatively) smoothly into CALP in English.  Thus, one of the major problems in South African education is that disadvantaged  learners have not developed a adequate level CALP in their mother tongue,  and consequently are obliged to learn CALP in English. To add to their plight, they have to develop BICS in English and CALP in English both at the same time. Furthermore, a high level of BICS in a particular  language (whether the mother tongue or another language) does not necessarily  lead to a high level of CALP in the same language.

3.   Inborn abilities and cultural factors in learning

In addition to factors such as the early development of CALP, there are two other related factors that affect academic performance, namely, inborn abilities and cultural factors.

With regard to inborn abilities, I suggest that a large part of the difficulty  lies with inborn intelligence, where heredity (genetics) has a vital role to play. This means that some individuals will be better achievers than  others, because they were born that way.

Intellectual stimulation does not operate in a vacuum but is embedded in specific conceptual  frameworks that are part of the symbolic system of a culture. In South Africa there is little cognitive proximity between black culture(s) and “Western” (i.e. international) culture, which often makes it difficult to translate these disparate frameworks into each other.

There  are many other factors that could influence the education process such  as the quality of school leadership (e.g. the School Principal), the quality  of teachers, motivation, health, etc. But I suggest that if the learning  ability exists (in my context, academic learning ability), this ability may in many cases neutralise the negative effects of these other factors.  With learning ability comes understanding, and the greatest motivation  is understanding (if not the desire to show it off). For this reason, motivation is often closely linked to understanding. Indeed, there will be large differences in what learners choose to learn. But in the academic situation, it will have to be something academic, obviously.

4. Solutions?

I  discuss three solutions to academic failure. These solutions are problematic; hence the question mark in the heading of this section.

The  following solutions are discussed:

–  Cognitive programmes

–  The mother tongue as the exclusive medium of instruction

4.1  Cognitive programmes

The  question, which subsumes all the other questions dealt with so far in this study, is: How and by how much can one raise the academic achievement of pupils with limited CALP? In the context of this study, the pupils  concerned would be about 12 years of age. I suggest that for most pupils, not much. It has been shown that substantial educational interventions may produce positive improvement for some learners, but the usual  superficial interventions hardly do any good at all. Snow (1982:31) maintains that

superficial  interventions based on practice, coaching, expectancy changes, and  the like, have little effect on ability development, but substantial educational interventions based on direct training of component skills and metacognitive strategies can sometimes have important positive effects. [My underlining]

Many of the interventions that have been implemented at the School, e.g. a  computer course, do not seem to have had any effect on academic achievement.  I am not attributing any blame to the School, because there may not have  been enough funds or trained personnel available to implement “substantial  educational interventions” (Snow above).

Of interest is the “Programme for educationally disadvantaged pupils  in South Africa”, which originates from the University of Stellenbosch (Botha & Cilliers, 1993). This programme endeavours to raise the cognitive  level of pupils by focusing on the improvement of thinking skills in the  mother tongue as well as in English. Botha and Cilliers (1993:57) comment:

Many students do not acquire the ability to think very effectively as a consequence of their educational experience and, until recently, relatively  little attention has been given to the possibility of making the teaching of thinking skills a primary educational objective.

Botha  and Cilliers maintain that, contrary to other educational programmes, their programme makes thinking skills the primary objective, and consequently  they regard their programme to be superior to similar programmes used in South Africa. Botha and Cilliers (1993:59) are optimistic that

this curriculum on thinking will also achieve very meaningful improvements  in the pupils’ overall scholastic performance. Initial results seemed to support this hypothesis.

The  basic problem with learners with limited academic ability, highlighted  by Botha and Cilliers, is the inability to transfer skills learnt in one kind of subject-matter to another kind of subject-matter. Bridges’ (1993:50) distinction between lower order “transferable skills”  and higher order “transferring skills” is useful in understanding  the nature of the problem of transfer. The problem of transfer refers mostly to the higher order “transferring skills”. EAP is meant to teach transferable as well as transferring skills. The question is whether higher order cognitive skills (i.e. Bridge’s “transferring  skills”) can be acquired at all (whether independently or through teaching). Consider the following claim (highly exaggerated, in my view) made in a publisher’s catalogue concerning a handbook (Du Toit & Orr,  1993) on the teaching of cognitive skills to university students (which I have used in my teaching):

In designing the book the authors were convinced that the acquisition of essential thinking techniques and the best reading and writing skills would help the reader to perfect and enjoy the art of being a good student. Furthermore, the success of the book would be guaranteed only if the readers could be taught these essential skills in an easy way. [My underlining]

For  Millar (1988), with whom I tend to agree, the challenge is rather to find ways of

motivating pupils to feel that it is personally valuable and worthwhile to pursue the cognitive skills (or processes) they [children] already possess to gain understanding of the scientific concepts which can help them make sense of their world. [My square brackets and underlining]

These  cognitive skills, especially the higher order transferring skills  (e.g. a sensitive and intelligent discernment of similarities and differences),  can only be developed if they are based on something that learners already possess, often referred to as “academic potential” (which I  also call “academic intelligence”). It is this potential that  is rooted in the intelligence component of deep language.

4.2 Taylored parenting

Early  childhood is probably the best time to implement compensatory programmes. The question is whether there is any alternative option to previous unsatisfactory early-childhood programmes such as Head Start, which have been shown to  be generally ineffective in the teaching of learning strategies.

Any  significant educational improvement requires a programme far more comprehensive than previous ones such as Head Start. As far as the duration of such a programme is concerned, three years, or even five years, would not be  effective. Locurto (1991:155) proposes that for such a programme to be of any value, it would have to begin with parent training before the birth  of the child, the effects of which should gradually percolate into every  part of the child’s life. Locurto (1991:156) recommends a programme of “tailored parenting”, which will recognise and emphasise the  importance of every individual. Such a programme will design opportunities  for individualised learning that will maximise the realisation of a child’s  abilities and dispositions.

Locurto’s  ideas do make good scientific sense, but – as often happens with worthwhile scientific ideas – I doubt whether they would be implemented in any significant  way by government. Early childhood education is often neglected by governments, because it is too close to the base of the economic pyramid. In simple economic terms, the greater the number of consumers of public funds, the  less the average return. Therefore, without some form of screening, where academic potential is tested (which is taboo in many parts of South Africa), the measurable return on investment in preschool programmes would be relatively  much lower (and slower) than the investment in secondary or tertiary education. At the opposite extreme are those educationists and politicians who may  overestimate the capacity of the state to provide funding for compensatory programmes. To overestimate this capacity would be ruinous.

Locurto  (1991:156) is not sure whether a radical preschool programme of intervention  like tailored-parenting would be successful, owing to the fact that values  or politics may get in the way, but suggests that one try it anyway. The  dilemma is that while one cannot afford economically to try it, one also cannot afford sociopolitically not to try it.

4.3  The mother tongue as the exclusive medium of instruction

Earlier, I referred to Mascher’s argument that the reason for academic failure  among black pupils was the fact that “the medium of instruction from Std 3 onwards is a language which is non-cognate to the learner’s first language” (Mascher, 1991:2). Mascher’s (1991:4) solution is that the medium of instruction should be the mother tongue throughout schooling,  and suggests that the formal teaching of a non-cognate language (as a  content subject) should not begin until the child has attained a reasonable  mastery of the mother tongue, which under normal conditions occurs at  the age of about 12 years. As a practical step in this regard, Mascher  (1991:11) suggests that

It is necessary for people to be working on African languages so that excellent materials in the mother tongue, materials suited to the  real needs of the children, can be developed, published and used in  schools.

There  are three difficulties with Mascher’s solution: Firstly, the economic necessity of attaining a reasonable mastery of English as a medium of learning (i.e the medium of instruction) may make it difficult for the child to develop the mother tongue to the degree that Mascher recommends.  Secondly, Mascher overlooks the following fact: “People do not necessarily  want to be educated in their first language if that language has no cachet  in the broader political context” (Eastman, 1990:3). Thirdly, and most importantly, Mascher (1991) makes a causal link between the lack of sufficient “linguistic analytical ability” (which he distinguishes  from other intellectual abilities) and the high failure rate. I find this causal connection spurious, because, in my view, the main problem is not  the lack of linguistic analytical ability, but the lack of a sufficient level of analytical ability to perform any academic task, whether  it be a linguistic task or any other academic task. Without a “minimum” level of analytical ability, it is not possible to (learn how to) perform in the cognitively demanding and context-reduced environment of academic  study.

Limitations  in analytical ability may have either genetic or environmental causes,  or both. it may occur that one is born with sufficient analytical ability  but that it is insufficiently developed through the mother tongue (or  through the language the child knows best) in the early years of  home-life and school. Another cause of limited academic ability may be  insufficient exposure to the background knowledge required to tap into new knowledge at a later stage. This acquisition of knowledge (background and new) is closely connected to intellectual and cultural factors. Culture,  in turn, is closely connected to a symbolic system; thus, cultural factors are embedded in intellectual factors. (Rohner [1984] defines culture as a “system of symbolic meanings”. The emphasis for Rohner is not on social behaviour, but rather on how people conceive their behaviour).

5. Conclusion

From the discussions of the various proposed approaches to solving the problem  of academic failure, it is clear that from each solution sprouts forth a new crop of problems. I was once asked by a senior educationist – in  the context of Technikon education for the “disadvantaged” (he  meant blacks) – if hypertext was the answer. I doubt it.

A  crucial issue in all the above solutions is the inherent clash between  the “culture of the modern world” and black culture(s), where  the painful struggle is to acculturate all pupils into the “modern  world” view – whatever the philosophical and spiritual merits of  such a view may be. By culture (or as I suggest “bioculture”)  I mean primarily a symbolic system

In a situation where the mother tongue is the medium of instruction, the  role of education (academic as well as non-academic education) is to develop the symbolic system of the mother tongue; but, in a situation where a non- mother tongue is the medium of instruction, and is also a culturally non-cognate language, the role of education (i.e. academic education)  is to “modify” the symbolic system of the mother tongue culture  to fit the symbolic system of the new culture, (i.e to “acculturate” or more precisely to “enculturate” the mother tongue symbolic system into the new symbolic system). Thus, a major educational problem in South Africa, and Africa, is acculturation.

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