Enabling integration: the Bishop Bavin Language School

| November 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

By the Bishop Bavin Language School Staff

A first day in a new school can always be daunting for any child, but imagine being a child who is starting school, not only in a new environment, but a completely foreign one as well.

Imagine being a child whose family has just moved from a different country with a completely different culture, who lands in a school where everyone speaks, writes and learns in a language that this child cannot understand or speak. This happens daily in South Africa.1 To assist these children and their families, ISASA member Bishop Bavin School in the eastern part of Johannesburg devised an academic plan – and from there, the Bishop Bavin Language School was born. Initially, like many South African schools, Bishop Bavin School was receiving applications on a daily basis from children who had just arrived in our country, but who could not communicate effectively in English. Instead of turning these children away, we felt it would be more appropriate to offer them a solution.

From the margins to the mainstream

The challenges we faced in the creation of the language school had to be approached with care.

From the start, the aim of the school was to equip foreign students with conversational English and writing skills that would enable them to be integrated – once deemed ready – into the mainstream college or preparatory school. Learners accepted into the language school are integrated into a variety of mainstream classes, and are encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities. Once they are confident enough, they are invited to write an entrance test to be fully integrated. However, even after integration, continuous support is offered by the language school staff until learners are fully independent.

Our original approach was to focus on continuous language teaching only, yet we found that our language school learners needed to interact with our mainstream students to practise what we were teaching. They also needed exposure to subject terminology to equip them academically. This led to our partially integrated approach, whereby the language school learners are required to register for five ‘mainstream’ subjects. This ensures the required exposure to terminology, but also highlights problem areas so that we can ensure that the correct support is put in place.

Students’ testimonies indicate early success

This model has proven to be the most effective and as Jordy van Dyk, a Grade 7 learner from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explained: “I have always felt a part of Bishop Bavin School and not just the language school, because I am able to participate in activities and other subjects. I also believe that, without the language school, I would have very little confidence in my English abilities.” Michel Lala, a Grade 6 Mozambican learner, states that since being in South Africa, he has struggled with English and his marks were quite low, but he explains that the language school has given him the confidence to try harder and to work harder. He feels that he is improving every day.

Wanda Xue, a Grade 10 Chinese learner, emphasises how the language school has made a difference in his life: “They give you a lot of work in order to make you practise your language, but this opens our minds and prepares us for our other academic lessons.”

A safe space

For Bishop Bavin School, it is not only the focus on language that matters but, more importantly, providing a welcoming and safe environment for the foreign language child. Our learners with immigrant status are offered a choice between English Home Language or English First Additional Language, as well as an option of French, Chinese or Portuguese as a second language. Our non-immigrant status learners have to do English Home Language, but they may choose from a wide array of First Additional Languages: Afrikaans, isiZulu, Sepedi, Setswana and Sesotho. Languages form an important part of a very strong academic programme at our school.

At Bishop Bavin School, we believe that academic performance is important, but so is developing a well-rounded and confident young person. Most of the language school children have told us that when they arrived, they had felt nervous and confused because they could not understand what was going on around them. It was then up to Wayne Ingram and Ettienne de Vos to put these children at ease. They have to ensure a relationship based on trust is developed with each new student and that the learners do not feel vulnerable. The environment created is very different from a general classroom situation, and is often viewed as more relaxed. The children are exposed to games, puzzles and a wide variety of ‘off-the-wall’ teaching methods. They are encouraged to be themselves and to develop relationships with the other children in the class.

More merging

Our more junior applicants are immersed immediately into the classroom. These children have embraced each other’s cultural backgrounds and, in fact, started teaching each other their own home languages, such as Mandarin, French and Portuguese. They have made this environment their own and they have become confident enough to make mistakes rather than just keep silent.

Ingram and De Vos are experienced Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) teachers, with more than five years’ experience each of teaching in Asia. They are well aware of the challenges faced by young speakers of foreign languages, and liaise continuously with subject-specific teachers to ensure that the required support is offered to the children and that they can adapt to a new culture.

We are proud of the work achieved in our first year at the language school. It has been a privilege to work with these children and to watch how our South African children welcome and integrate with them. Bishop Bavin School has truly embraced our culturally diverse community, and all of our children will be equipped with respect and the ability to work with people of all cultural backgrounds.

Great goals

As with any new teaching and learning initiative, our programme has to be nurtured and tweaked and we have room for growth. Our goal is, in two years, to be recognised as the ‘first-choice school’ in South Africa for foreign learners, and to ensure that innovative teaching programmes are implemented. Our language school teachers are currently learning how to integrate an interactive whiteboard, ‘on-the-spot’ computer use and language learning software into our programmes to allow language school children a to take an even more focused approach to conquering their subject-specific language problems.

With passionate staff on board and with children who are enthusiastic and dedicated, this is a system that should never fail. Every single one of the children in the language school, when asked whether they would change anything about their first year at Bishop Bavin School, all agreed they would change nothing.


1. See, for example: De Waal, M. (2013) “Malice aforethought: SA’s refugee management systems.” Available at: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/ article/2013-06-03-malice-aforethought-sas-refugee-managementsystems/#. VCEbMxZFESA.

Category: Summer 2014

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