In a democratic South Africa, English has, especially in suburban schools, come to be the preferred medium of instruction despite the majority of South African learners being mother tongue speakers of other languages. As a consequence, South African teachers are preparing lesson content according to a national curriculum which assumes native-like proficiency in English yet many of the learners do not have full mastery of this language. This mismatch between official documentation and actual learner proficiency is problematic for both teacher and learner.
This study seeks to describe the actual target audience seated in the so-called English Home Language class and explores the profile of junior secondary school learners whose mother tongue is not English yet they take English Home Language as a school subject. Quantitative data were collected through a survey questionnaire completed by 642 grade 8 and 9 respondents at three suburban schools in Gauteng. Cross tabulations were then used to compare different variables investigated in the questionnaire. Key findings based on the data indicate that respondents – although multilingual - are often more proficient in English than their mother tongue and that the role of the caregiver as initial source of learning English has been underestimated.
The significance of the study lies in providing a guideline for language teachers on how to ascertain the linguistic profile of their learners and thus reflectively adapt their teaching to their particular classroom context. The implications for policy may be heeded by the national education authorities as there is a mismatch between the skills of learners and what the policy documents expect learners are capable of doing. Further research could be conducted by drafting a standardised test which determines the linguistic profile in order to align policy documents with classroom reality, and to encourage language teachers to focus on the linguistic strengths and weaknesses of the learners enrolled at schools where English is the medium of instruction.