Redhill Junior School pupils

The Bilingual Advantage

When asking ourselves what constitutes an approach to teaching and learning that supports transformation and builds community in the classroom and beyond, we at Redhill Junior School in Johannesburg, started to think about transforming our approach to languages, (so often cited as the core to cultural understanding), and what and how we teach them.

Taking a bold stance to address a changing demographic in South African private schools, and already aware of the academic advantages bilingualism offers, we have chosen to take responsibility for building cultural unity and trust at Redhill Junior School and have launched our first bilingual programme (English and isiZulu) in Grade 2 in January 2022.

The bilingual classroom is an international phenomenon present in, for example, America, France, Wales, and China. However, it has not been trialed formally in South Africa with any African language. We looked at the research and different models and realised quickly that our programme would beunique in terms of our school culture, our philosophy and brand.

There is evidence to support the claim that bilingualism has a significant effect on intellectual development and specifically on executive control, which is understood as:

… our ability to manipulate and control our attention: to inhibit responses, ignore irrelevant stimuli, and flip between tasks. It’s thought that bi- (or multi-) lingual children are better equipped for this because of experience with two things: firstly, flipping between languages as they speak to different individuals; and secondly, using a word in one language while simultaneously ignoring the corresponding word in their other language (or languages).

Additional advantages are the ability to understand the intention behind others’ cultural behaviour, as expressed concisely by academic Benard Odoyo Okal:

The experiences gained from learning different languages automatically tend to change the attitudes, skills, [and] beliefs of the people… and create an expansion of [their] world view.

This implies that a bilingual capability improves the individual’s problem solving and creative faculties.

Launching the programme

We launched the bilingual class concept for parents and staff in July 2021, using a live webinar and a detailed information session for staff. We then advertised the position of a bilingual teacher. Once the staff that would be responsible for implementing the programme had been identified, we began to consider students who would thrive, for admission to the programme, supported by their parents.

The detailed daily implementation of this programme, which begins in Grade 2 and continues into Grade 3 with the same teacher, encompasses the following:

  • Learning concepts and content in isiZulu, and acquiring the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in another language.
  • Having a classroom teacher that uses isiZulu primarily as a means of communication.
  • Having a classroom teacher that instructs students in isiZulu in all their classroom subjects including literacy, mathematics, social studies, and science.
  • Support for the primary teacher by the literacy and mathematics co-ordinator throughout the school day. These teachers will continually collaborate with one another to give the students the best opportunity to learn in both languages.
  • All other subjects, such as art, drama, music and education technology, will be taught in English, by specialist teachers.
  • IsiZulu will be taught by the primary teacher.
  • Physical education will be taught in English and isiZulu.
  • As students move into Grade 4, they will continue to have
  • English as the first language of instruction with isiZulu as a first additional language.

Redhill school campus

What we have achieved

During the initial stages of the implementation, we have successfully placed 19 children in the class, none of whom are isiZulu speaking. We recognise the incredible diversity of these students. We have also implemented a timetable that includes the literacy and numeracy co-ordinators in the classroom and have created planning time with the Grade 2 team to support curriculum expectations and outcomes. This allows the educators to conduct further weekly planning sessions to manage expectations of the isiZulu programme and the transfer of skills and knowledge into isiZulu specifically.

In order to address any further challenges, we provide a ‘push-in’ speech and hearing therapist to support and alleviate any processing issues, articulation concerns, or auditory discrimination and memory challenges as needed. Likewise, we have employed the in-class support of a full-time isiZulu speaking intern.

To enrich the learners’ experience, we have started to build important resources such as readers, classroom libraries, mathematics workbooks in isiZulu, ‘big books’, games and flashcards, etc. Lastly, we have looked at the school report card and made appropriate changes to accommodate the goals of the programme.

We look forward to seeing not only the success we can achieve, but what more comes out of this approach as far as diversity and inclusion, and academic success is concerned.