Mother-tongue education: mother’s milk for accounting students?

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Mother-tongue education is a hotly debated and somewhat emotional topic for many South Africans. The debate is normally centred around the preservation of Afrikaans, whilst the other parties argue that education in only English is the way forward. Those favouring English-only education base their arguments on the fact that the lingua franca of South Africa is English. Those in favour of duolinguistic education (Afrikaans and English), however, argue that since Afrikaans has been developed as an academic language, it should be preserved. In recent years it was seen that Afrikaans students prefer education in English, which led to the abolishment of Afrikaans at the University of Pretoria. Very few universities currently offer education in Afrikaans and English (only Stellenbosch University and North-West University offer duolinguistic education). Government-funded universities that were opened in recent years offer education in English only, even if they are located in a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking area. From an international point of view universities are moving towards English-only education as well, especially to be more competitive for international students. Accounting educators have the further challenge of the reporting standards being available only in English, making it more difficult to teach accounting in a language other than English. Furthermore, students seem to prefer English education, as they believe it will give them a distinct advantage in the workplace.

In South Africa, a skills shortage is experienced, of which accounting is one. There are also high levels of poverty. These two challenges can both, potentially, be overcome by education. Whilst there are many factors contributing towards student success, language of instruction may be one of them.

As this article has the intention of alleviating skills shortages and poverty in general, this study focuses on accounting students who do not necessarily intend to become chartered accountants. Since the inception of parallel education at Stellenbosch University (2014) until 2018, 9 323 registrations for one of the three financial accounting modules were recorded. These students typically study a wide range of commerce degrees, ranging from actuarial science to marketing and business management. The three financial accounting modules these students enrolled in are called Financial Accounting 188 (first-year module), Financial Accounting 288 (second-year module) and Financial Accounting 389 (third-year module). These 9 323 registrations were divided into the respective modules and then into mother-tongue and non-mother-tongue students. The mother-tongue students studied in the same language as their listed home language, whilst the non-mother-tongue students studied in a different language to their home language. This article therefore did not focus on Afrikaans and English as such, but on mother-tongue education versus non-mother-tongue education.

The primary research objective of this article was to determine whether there was a significant difference between the performance of students receiving mother-tongue education and those receiving non-mother-tongue instruction. The secondary research objective was to establish whether the module’s level of difficulty has an impact on the importance (or not) of having mother-tongue instruction. For the primary objective, our expectation was that, in line with previous research, no significant difference between the two groups (mother tongue and non-mother tongue) would exist. For the secondary objective, we postulated that any difference between the two groups would decrease over time or remain the same, as students may become more proficient in their second language the longer they study in said language.

To investigate the differences between the performance of mother-tongue students and non-mother-tongue students, an analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to determine the statistical significance, or not, of the difference between students’ performance from 2014 to 2018 in three BCom Financial Accounting modules. Of the 9 323 observations, 5 590 related to Financial Accounting 188, 2 430 to Financial Accounting 288 and 1 303 to Financial Accounting 389, and 7 501 observations related to mother-tongue students, while 1 656 observations were of non-mother-tongue students. The students who did not indicate a home language and/or language of instruction and were therefore excluded from the inferential analysis amounted to 166. The performance marks were then analysed per module, per year and in total for the module.

In Financial Accounting 188, the non-mother-tongue students did consistently better than the mother-tongue students, but this was not statistically significant per year or for the module as a whole. This result was surprising given the anticipation that there would be no significant difference between the groups, and that the performance of non-mother-tongue students was not expected to be better than that of their mother-tongue peers. This difference could be attributed to a number of factors, one being that non-mother-tongue students may have felt that they are at a disadvantage and consequently studied harder than the mother-tongue students. One of the previous authors on mother-tongue education in accounting found that non-mother-tongue students feel they are at a disadvantage to mother-tongue students, and hence it could be expected that these students studied harder than their mother-tongue peers in their first year.

For Financial Accounting 288, no significant differences were noted between the performance of the two groups. The performance of the non-mother-tongue students was on par with that of the mother-tongue students. In some years, the mother-tongue students fared marginally better than the non-mother-tongue students, and in other years the opposite was seen. Whether the non-mother-tongue students still studied harder than their mother-tongue counterparts is unclear and is also a factor that is very hard to measure.

The performance of Financial Accounting 389 students resulted in the only significant difference. This significant difference was, however, only observed for the module as a whole and not on a year-on-year basis. Noteworthy was that on a year-on-year basis and for the module as a whole, the mother-tongue students fared better than the non-mother-tongue students. If non-mother-tongue students performed better than the mother-tongue students in their first year, the same in the second year, and worse than their mother-tongue peers in their third year, it does seem as though the more difficult a subject gets, the more important mother-tongue education becomes. This is, of course, not taking other factors into account that could have an effect on student performance, but given the large sample size, the results are still regarded as trustworthy.

Both of the null hypotheses (that there are no significant differences between the two groups, and that the observed difference between the two groups will remain the same over the study period) were rejected. Given all other factors remain constant, the language of instruction seems to make a difference in more advanced modules. The difficulty level of Financial Accounting 389 is determined to be higher than that of the other modules, and the pace at which the module is presented is also higher than that of the other modules. Informal discussions with non-mother-tongue students revealed that they unintentionally translate the class presentation into their home languages whilst attending class. It is, then, understandable that in faster paced modules, the non-mother-tongue students struggle a bit more than their mother-tongue peers.

Based on the findings, we make a few recommendations. Given the challenges of the terminology, we advise that universities should teach in English and the prevalent local language, but use the English terminology as a form of standardisation. In doing so, students will get the proverbial best of both worlds: the English terminology and the best possible understanding. An alternative, due to the vast variety of home languages in South Africa, is a translator app that may be useful to translate the lectures from English to the student’s home language. This solution is only achievable if there is terminology available in that student’s home language, or if the English terminology is used. The final recommendation is the use of tutorial groups, where certain language groups have the opportunity to interact with student assistants in their home language, whilst working through questions. At some universities, this solution is already employed to great success but discussions with lecturers at such universities revealed that the overuse of students asking questions in their home language can lead to adverse results during assessments. Students who engage mostly in their home language only can struggle to translate their arguments into English during the assessments.

Keywords: accounting; accounting education; IFRS; language of instruction; monolinguistic education; mother-tongue education; student performance


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