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Overcoming Language Barriers in South African Classrooms

Overcoming Language Barriers in South African Classrooms

Posted: 10 Mar 2020

By Valerie Shayne


In classes where children have mixed language proficiencies, and the Language of Learning and Teaching (LoLT) is not a child's home language, it can be extremely challenging to convey messages that everyone understands.


In South Africa, English and Afrikaans speaking pupils have the advantage of being taught in their home language from Grade 1 to Grade 12. Others with African home languages struggle with the switch to English-only lessons in Grade 4, which happens in many schools. Three years of basic English, taught only as a First Additional Language for one to three hours a week, is inadequate preparation for African home-language children to be fluent in the LoLT by Grade 4. To compound the issue, there are more and more immigrants from other parts of Africa in South African schools and many First Additional Language teachers are not fluent in English themselves, or in the student's mother tongue (Owen-Smith, n.d.).


As a result, instruction in the primary school years, where critical concepts should be thoroughly consolidated, can happen largely in a language that some children barely understand.


As a teacher, therefore, you cannot assume that one pupil has the same language fluency as the next, and some learners may get "lost" easily if the lesson proceeds too quickly and is too verbally loaded. Some bilingual teachers resort to teaching in English and translating everything back into the predominant home language as they go along, for example, Xhosa. This is very time consuming - and ineffective, as children remain baffled when faced with exam papers that are set in English, creating a lack of confidence in the learner followed by apathy (Nowicki,2019).


There are many contributors needed to implement a solution going forward. In this blog, we now look at what teachers (especially intermediate teachers) can do, in order to be supportive of the huge cognitive and linguistic demands placed on learners, whose mother tongue differs from the LoLT.


According to Dreyer (2017) at Stellenbosch University, we must understand that diversity is a reality when it comes to race, culture, religion, and, of course, language.


Learning a second language or learning in a second language is not easy. There may be problems with pronunciation and both children and teachers may be afraid to make mistakes, so the classroom needs to be a safe space. The teacher should take into account the learner's prior knowledge of language and try to build on what the child already brings into the classroom. The mother tongue needs to be valued and not seen as inferior.


Active language interaction in class is the primary way that new language skills can be transferred.


With reading, the emphasis should not be on making the correct sounds, but on understanding the meaning of the words, in order to increase vocabulary. Before reading with a learner, the teacher needs to ascertain words that will be unfamiliar to the child, have the child name those words in their mother tongue, repeat them in the secondary language, and then try to build a simple sentence in the secondary language using the new word. Thus, when the word crops up in the reading passage, it is already familiar.


While learning a second language, learners should be supported by playing matching games, word games, read-with-songs and reading role-plays. Pre-reading activities, reflection on what has been read, and summarising of major ideas are valuable. Teachers should make use of peers who are more knowledgeable to support the learning process, and also vary their teaching style to accommodate pupils' different learning styles.


Here are some helpful pointers, summarised from Educanda.co.za:


  • Physically model for learners what is expected of them step by step - it is not enough to simply give verbal instructions

  • Speak slowly and clearly

  • Patiently give the learners time to absorb what has been said

  • Give learners plenty of "wait time" before asking questions and while waiting for replies

  • Use concrete examples where possible

  • Keep instructions simple, clear and precise

  • Encourage children to signal when they are not understanding something you have said

  • Encourage continued reading and use of the mother tongue to foster cognitive development and enable "transfer learning," where concepts easily understood in the home language can be transferred to the secondary language of instruction

  • Teach in context, rather than issuing random vocabulary words to learn

  • Practise repetition in a fun and engaging way to consolidate learning at the end of a lesson. For example, play a game of charades to reinforce new vocabulary words, or practise dialogue sessions with partners.

  • Show children that you like and respect them and positively reinforce effort

  • Keep structures, routines and goal-setting a consistent part of the school day

  • Be flexible - be prepared to teach something in a number of different ways to achieve comprehension

  • Use technology as an aid to transfer concepts creatively

  • Encourage dialogue and conversation in pair and group activities

  • Use role playing, songs and rhymes to consolidate new vocabulary




Dreyer, L. (2017). Addressing barriers to learning in First Additional language (second language). In M. Mogano, S. Mohapi & D. Robinson, Realigning Teacher Training in the 21st Century (pp. 203-216). Hampshire: Cengage Learning.

Nowicki, L. (2019). OP-ED: Sudden switch to English leaves African-language learners at sixes and sevens. Retrieved 20 February 2020, from https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-10-08-sudden-switch-to-english-leaves-african-language-learners-at-sixes-and-sevens/

Owen-Smith, M. The Language Challenge in the classroom: a serious shift in thinking and action is needed. Retrieved 20 February 2020, from https://hsf.org.za/publications/focus/focus-56-february-2010-on-learning-and-teaching/the-language-challenge-in-the-classroom-a-serious-shift-in-thinking-and-action-is-needed

Strategies to cope with language barriers | Educanda. (2018). Retrieved 20 February 2020, from https://www.educanda.co.za/news/strategies_to_cope_with_language_barriers




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