Addressing language barriers is key to student success

By focusing on the quality of their note-taking in and out of class, researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand or Wits, South Africa, have established that poor English language competence is hindering the academic performance of a significant number of undergraduate students for whom the language is not their mother tongue.

However, the study found that with early interventions aimed at using writing to promote critical thinking, significant improvements in grades for second-language students is possible.

Lead researcher Shalini Dukhan from the school of animal, plant and environmental sciences at Wits told University World News that taking account of the language barrier that many students face when they move into universities should be part of the process of constructing a “decolonised curriculum”.

The need to improve student performance comes against the backdrop of a 2013 study by the Council on Higher Education which found that 55% of the students who enter university drop out during their undergraduate years.

According to Dukhan, most students find the transition from school to university challenging. However, compared to their peers, first-years who are accustomed to being taught in a language that is different to the medium of instruction at university experience even more challenges, she told University World News.


The language issue in South Africa is complicated. The country has 11 official languages but English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial public life. While learners have the right to be taught in their mother tongue up to Grade 3, English is the official medium of instruction in schools and most universities.

When educational opportunities were extended to previously disadvantaged populations in 1994, following the end of Apartheid, the numbers of black students gaining entry into universities increased.

Many students came from ‘black’ schools where teachers – right up to high school – often used code-switching, which refers to the practice of alternating between learners’ home language and English in order to make complex concepts more accessible to learners. As a result, many learners failed to develop English competency, the medium of instruction critical for academic success.

The study, published last year in the South African Journal of Science, analysed the note-taking of students enrolled in a biology course and extended from the second semester of 2009 to the first semester of 2011. In each year of the study, between 43% and 60% of the participants were second-language students.

One of the findings was that second-language students failed to understand that lecture slides were merely a base they needed to expand on rather than learn verbatim. Students said they struggled with copying content from the slides and noting material from the lecturers’ verbal explanations while also decoding biology and English vocabulary, which impacted on the quality of their notes in class and the depth of the notes they made after class.

Student-driven learning

Dukhan said that the study showed that while learning is teacher-driven at school, it is student-driven at university. Many second-language learners, however, reported having been provided with comprehensive notes by their school teachers which they then memorised, a practice that reduced the opportunity for 'generative learning' opportunities or the formation of connections between the new information and a student’s prior understanding of related content.

“The move to becoming an independent learner requires a shift in mind-set and practice. Thus it is important for learners to be aware of the challenges in their transition so that they can prepare themselves, and seek the necessary support, to meet the needs of the academic world at university,” she said.

“For undergraduates, this [research] highlights the importance of self-regulated learning, and shows how students could use their lecture notes to deepen their learning actively and independently,” Dukhan said.

“The students’ level of reading proficiency when they enter university necessitates that some scaffold be provided so that undergraduates can effectively and independently learn to decode and comprehend content,” she said.


The research showed that when second-language students attended workshops that focused on writing as a means to promote critical thinking, and where note-making was used as a means to deepen comprehension, there was a general increase in the standard of notes that second-language students made and in their academic performance.

Dukhan said the findings presented in this study would be useful to lecturers who wish to understand how students use and reconstruct their class notes during the process of learning, and how language influences learning within and outside the classroom. The findings could also be of benefit to student support programmes that seek a practical tool to deepen the students’ approach to their learning.

Language as a constitutional right

Providing support in English-medium institutions is one approach to improving student performance, but others have been proposed.

According to Dr Langa Khumalo, introducing mother tongue or indigenous African languages at universities is a “constitutional imperative”.

Khumalo, who is linguistics director in the Language Planning and Development Office at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said: “The introduction of African languages at universities improves the quality and quantity of academic engagement. The students engage more actively in knowledge production.”

In 2011 the University of KwaZulu-Natal implemented a language policy centred on the bilingual use of isiZulu (the main indigenous language of the province of KwaZulu-Natal) and English which required that isiZulu be developed as a language of teaching and learning, and that students start to use the language in selected modules and programmes.

“Students think more innovatively in their mother tongue. This initiative must be encouraged if we are to successfully combat the very high attrition rate at our universities,” he told University World News.

According to Khumalo, the university has shown through research that students do better when their mother tongue, isiZulu, is used in teaching and learning in their tutorials.

“Critical thinking is difficult if students are ‘cognitively incarcerated’,” he said. “Language plays a huge part in knowledge generation, acquisition and dissemination. It is helpful that this takes place in a language the student is most comfortable and most conversant in,” he said.

“The tragedy though is to assume that by introducing African languages to improve the learning process we are tacitly advocating the removal of English in higher education institutions. It needn’t be so.

“The role of English is very clear and its hegemonic status makes it undesirable, nay impossible, to dislodge,” he said.

However, innovation was not possible in a foreign language, he said. “African students must access knowledge in the languages with which they are most familiar in order to enhance their understanding and allow them to think more critically and innovatively.”

In modules where undergraduates are not able to use their mother tongue, he said, the university had various intervention strategies.

“Some disciplines have access programmes, some have English language courses that seek to improve academic writing in English… These are all well and good. However, high attrition rates have persisted nevertheless. The elephant in the room is language,” he said.