“Some of them are afraid of the language”: Perceptions of TVET college staff about the relationship between English language proficiency and academic performance among Engineering students

Keywords: Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), English Language Proficiency (ELP), Academic Performance (AP), Engineering, Language of Learning Teaching, National Vocational Certificate (NC (V))


Despite the fact that Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges are seen as instrumental in addressing South Africa’s labour market skills shortages and high youth unemployment rate, the extremely low throughput and certification rates at these institutions prevent colleges from achieving this goal. The vast majority of students enrolled at TVET colleges come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and speak English as a second or additional language, yet English is the language through which teaching is conducted at all South African TVET colleges. Prior research has shown that there is a definite relationship between poor academic performance (AP) and learning in an additional language. Existing research of this nature has focused on schools and universities, but there is a dearth of research about the relationship between AP and English Language Proficiency (ELP) in the TVET sector. In order to address this gap, a mixed method study was conducted at one Eastern Cape TVET College to investigate whether the poor AP of National Vocational Certificate (NC (V)) Level 2 Engineering students can be related to their ELP. The initial quantitative phase of the study confirmed prior research by showing that NC (V) students’ ELP is indeed significantly associated with their throughput rate and their performance in each specific subject. This article reports in particular on the second qualitative phase of the study, which was based on interviews with TVET college staff involved in teaching Engineering students. The most significant finding is that teaching staff, who daily work at the proverbial coal face of TVET training, are from their practical experience, very well aware of the fact that there is a crucial link between the ELP and AP of their students, that they employ a variety of strategies to address associated problems, but that they feel these are often insufficient and ineffective in the face of students trying to learn in a second language. This study extends the research about the role of language as a cognitive tool in learning in the Engineering disciplines. It also provides an opportunity to rethink the hegemonic, normalised position of English in Engineering studies and consider possibilities to mobilise indigenous languages as resources for epistemological access in higher education.

Author Biographies

L. Stander, Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha

Master's Student

Education Faculty

Nelson Mandela University

B. Du Plooy, Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha

Senior Manager: Engagement

Engagement and Transformation Division

Nelson Mandela University

E. Scheckle, Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha

Senior Lecturer

Education Faculty

Nelson Mandela University


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How to Cite
Stander, L., B. Du Plooy, and E. Scheckle. 2021. “‘Some of Them Are Afraid of the language’: Perceptions of TVET College Staff about the Relationship Between English Language Proficiency and Academic Performance Among Engineering Students”. South African Journal of Higher Education 36 (1), 296-311. https://doi.org/10.20853/36-1-4541.
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