The Unique Challenges of Language Education in South Africa

This month we published Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society edited by Albert Weideman, John Read and Theo du Plessis. In this post the editors describe the unique challenges of language education in South Africa and the value the book will hold for a wider audience.

How do language testers respond to the challenges of education in an environment that is in transition, and in many respects unprepared for change? The short answer is that they do so as language testers in most environments would: as responsibly as they can, using the professional tools at their disposal.

South Africa is not alone in respect of the challenges thrown up by rapid massification of higher education since the last decade of the previous century. South Africa’s transition, however, was different from the challenges of massification elsewhere: it was complicated by the difficulties to move from an unjust system to a constitutional democracy. Its past considerably inhibited what needed to be remedied. That was not the only complication: there was also the constitutionally enshrined multilingual character of the country. A third difficulty lay in the degree of preparedness of new students arriving at university to handle the demands of academic language. How, in such a case, does one first identify, and then provide opportunities for language development to those who need it most? Once again, South Africa is not alone in noting that too low a level of academic literacy may be detrimental for the successful completion of a degree. Enough challenges, one would say, for a whole lifetime of work if you’re an applied linguist.

A quarter of a century on, we have now taken stock of the professional response of applied linguists to its transition, and this book is the outcome. The responses of our applied linguists may in certain respects be different from those in other environments, so it is a pity that the international language testing community still knows too little about how these challenges have been tackled. Indeed, the format and content of the innovative solutions of South African applied linguists to these large-scale language problems are noteworthy. Described in Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society, their solutions offer several new insights into how they set about designing them, and are well worth a look.

Unsurprisingly, in an effort to identify and tackle the challenges early, the professional attention of language testers soon turned to the education sector that feeds into higher education: the school system. Here, too, there are language solutions that will interest a wider audience. Fortunately, the professional efforts of applied linguists in South Africa have been well recorded, though thus far mostly locally. This book offers a selection of the most significant innovations in conceptualization and design for the attention of a global readership.

In compiling a volume about language assessment at university level, co-editor John Read was the first international scholar to notice the lack of attention to the designs described in this book, and he was also the first to propose putting all of this together. His diligence and professional approach are evident in the content of the book.

We would welcome enquiries and discussion with colleagues. If you have an observation or an idea to share, please contact the corresponding editor, Albert Weideman: albert.weideman@ufs.ac.za.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like The Linguistic Landscape of Post-Apartheid South Africa by Liesel Hibbert.

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