Connection and identity begin with language
isiZulu and English bilingual instruction at Redhill School
In 1996, Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Over 25 years later, South Africans are more in need of connecting with each other’s hearts than we have been in many years..
To progress together, we citizens – and our children! – must speak each other’s languages.
To put a finer point on it, children intending to become adults who live and work in South Africa must learn to speak at least one Black South African language. This is why the long-term vision for Redhill School is that all students who eventually graduate from Redhill are fluent in a Black South African language.
For the past year, Redhill School has successfully run an isiZulu/English bilingual immersion programme in the Early Learning Centre (Grades 000-1), where both the teacher and co-teacher use both languages in the classroom.
This has paved the way for a different way of thinking about the Junior School years (Grades 2 to 5). It has also involved in-depth research into international best practice and examining both the additional benefits to the brain and the ideal age for bilingual immersion.
Here’s what we learned:
Language isn’t only about information and understanding; it also has an impact on identity and a sense of cultural space.
Professor Emerita Mary Maguire, of McGill University’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education, writes that “places are both physical territories with clearly defined borders and culturally constructed spaces through intricate social networks of social relationships.” Language, she suggests, can contribute to a sense of belonging and identity within a cultural space.
For many Black students in private school environments, school can feel like a place of whiteness. Black students may adapt to the language of the school; communicating in the language that is “required for economic success”; that means “job security and an ability to communicate beyond boundaries”. But this can lead to a sense of alienation or feelings of inferiority. Citizenship remains a core element, with language a primary element of participation within a community.
Enhancing the brain
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to re-organise itself throughout life, by forming new neural connections and pathways. It is the shaping and moulding of the brain, and it is powered by two things: learning and memory. Learning and memory produce new neurons, either by making new synaptic connections or by reinforcing the strength of existing ones – and these form neural pathways.
Many people like to think of neural pathways as the brain’s “wiring system”, but I prefer to see them as roads. As students’ brains take on more information and learn from their experiences, the roads inside their brains evolve — becoming smoother, longer, wider; shifting from sandy paths into multi-lane highways over time.
Students who understand two languages show more cognitive flexibility, creative thinking, and problem-solving abilities than monolingual students of the same age. Plus, students who learn literacy in a second language can transfer their skills to the other language. The bilingual brain gets a heightened workout when it comes to:
- Developing strong thinking skills
- Using logic
- Focusing, remembering, and making decisions
- Thinking about language
- Learning other languages
- Understanding mathematical concepts and solving word problems
Emotionally, there is evidence of better confidence and sense of achievement in school. In fact, the United States of America’s National Education Association (NEA) labels the benefits to self-image, self-esteem and satisfaction as “enormous”.
It’s widely accepted that learning another language during childhood gives the student a more holistic grasp of social and emotional concepts. Neuroscientists from Georgetown University Medical Center have discovered that adults process most neural tasks, including language acquisition, in one or the other of their brain’s two hemispheres, while children use both the right and left hemispheres.
There’s a window in which second language acquisition skills are at their peak. Researchers disagree over the parameters of the window – some say it ends around age 7, while others say it extends through puberty – but, either way, after the critical period of ages 7-12 is over, it becomes harder to learn a new language.
Unpacking bilingual immersion
There are different approaches to bilingual education: the Canadian/ French immersion approach, two-way immersion (Spanish/English) in the United States, “late immersion” in Hong Kong and “Content and Language Integrated Learning” (CLIL) in Europe, with many variants of each practised.
When students are immersed within a language, they learn the language through the need to use it on a day-to-day basis. This kind of “content-based language instruction” holds that people don’t learn language and then use it; rather, they learn language by using it. “Content” in this instance refers to curriculum content, as well as to the students’ expression of thoughts and ideas.
In Canada’s French immersion programmes, for instance, students don’t learn French in isolation; they learn science in French. The result is not simply providing a need for students to use a language, but to use it constructively.
Bilingual immersion at Redhill
In 2022, Redhill parents were able to choose for their child to take part in a bilingual Grade 2 class.
Taught by a fully bilingual teacher – experienced in teaching English, isiZulu and other subjects in multiple grades, in South Africa and Bahrain – this class is taught isiZulu language, Maths and Integrated Studies predominantly in isiZulu. English language, Music, Drama, Art and IT are taught in English, and both isiZulu and English are used for Physical Education and mentor (homeroom) periods.
Support systems are built in. The Junior School has a dedicated Numeracy Specialist to ‘team-teach’ certain Maths lessons together with the bilingual teacher, as well as a dedicated Literacy Specialist to teach English Language.
Will we make mistakes? Probably. Will we learn from them? Definitely. And we urge the educational community to engage in discussions around this topic. Put simply, we believe that our children should speak a Black South African language, we believe in the cognitive, academic and social benefits of bilingual immersion, and we believe that this will enable all South Africans to connect on a deeper level.
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 Monageng, Boitumelo, 2012, http://etd.uwc.ac.za/bitstream/handle/11394/3213/Monageng_MA%28PSYCH%29_2012.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
 Georgetown University Medical Center, 2020, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-09-children-brain-hemispheres-language-adults.html
 Jasinska, K.K, & Pettito, L.A., 2013, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929313000443