A Capability Approach to Understanding the Intersections between Language, Educational Opportunities, and Identity in South Africa: A Xhosa Speaking Youth Perspective

Master Thesis


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The education system is a source of language discrimination and exclusion for many young people in South Africa. In South Africa, African languages are spoken by more than 70% of the population, while the colonial languages English and Afrikaans represent less than 25%. However, most South African schools use English or Afrikaans as the main language of instruction. Learners' transitioning to using and learning in a colonial language, and the role languages plays in youth education and development are the root cause of many challenges, including poor academic performance, unequal access to opportunity, social exclusion, and challenging identity formation. This qualitative study aimed to explore the intersection between language, educational opportunities, and identity from an isiXhosa speaking youth perspective in Cape Town, Western Cape. In depth individual interviews were conducted with 12 black African Xhosa youth, between the ages of 18 and 29. The researcher sought to examine the effects of the language challenges faced by isiXhosa speaking youth during their education journey and to gauge the perspective of isiXhosa speaking youth regarding the role of language in their academic performance, opportunities, and social identity. The researcher adopted the following three concepts as a framework for analysis: Sen's capability approach (1999), social identity theory by Tajfel and Turner (1979), and Soudien's work on language in post-apartheid education (2012). This study was important in order The findings revealed that participants faced various challenges in relation to language use in education, specifically transitioning to English as the main medium of instruction. The participants' experiences differed depending on the age at which they transitioned to using English in the education system, but the outcomes of this transition were similar. Their academic performance was negatively impacted by needing to learn in a different language. They had unequal opportunities throughout their education compared with native English speakers, putting them at higher risk of social exclusion and impacting negatively their access to higher education and employment. The participants' advocated for the need to decolonise education, specifically in regard to perceptions and use of languages, because of the prejudices and judgments based on their ability to speak English rather than their actual skills and capabilities. Participants tended to compare languages and look down on isiXhosa, then facing identity crises when returning to their Xhosa families. They had to navigate multiple identities depending on the language and context in which they found themselves. This study recommended reducing inequities by implementing inclusive language policies and measures to accommodate learners with non-colonial first languages, provide support through their transition to a new language, and not weighting incorrect English against them in non-English class. The recommendations also included the need to adapt national exams and grading systems to ensure all learners' have the opportunity to perform to their best ability. The government must also increase its investment in South African languages to promote their use in professional and public spaces. Finally, institutions must be encouraged to use multiple languages in schools, universities, and workplaces.