Original Research

Linguistic liminality in the early years of school: Urban South African children ‘betwixt and between’1 languages of learning

Elizabeth Henning
South African Journal of Childhood Education | Vol 2, No 1 | a24 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v2i1.24 | © 2012 Elizabeth Henning | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 April 2014 | Published: 01 July 2012

About the author(s)

Elizabeth Henning, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

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This article is about an investigation into the English spoken language competence of 144 first graders in two urban (‘township’) schools in the Gauteng Province of South Africa. The study was conducted from an anthropological and a cognitive developmental perspective. In one school isiZulu and Sesotho are used mainly as medium of instruction, while in the other school the language of teaching and learning is English. The inquiry is part of longitudinal panel research in which children’s overall development and school progress over four years is documented by way of growth modelling. This initial assessment of the children’s basic interpersonal communication skills in English found, not unexpectedly, that the children in the first mentioned school know English mostly to the extent of the naming of objects, while the children in the other school are able to use morpho-syntactically more complex language. These findings may shed some light on the phenomenon of school culture liminality in its interplay with linguistic liminality, considering that children’s basic English may scaffold their academic English.


cognitive academic language; linguistic liminality; medium of instruction; school culture; rite of passage; early-exit model.


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