Language, Identity and (Subverting) Assimilation in a desegregated South African Girls’ school

Carolyn McKinney

University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa


This paper discusses data drawn from a larger research project which explores the relationship between language, identity and conditions for learning in four urban, racially desegregated schools in Johannesburg, South Africa. Data were collected over two school terms using an ethnographic approach: non-participant observation in the classroom as well as participant observation and semi-structured group and individual interviews were conducted. The previously white suburban secondary schools that are the focus of this study are typically positioned on the elite end of the continuum that represents South African public schooling. While in all four schools, English is the official medium of instruction and is hegemonic in the school environment, the learners themselves are typically multilingual with few learners speaking English as a first or home language.

The paper focuses on a girls’ school, and explores how African girls are positioned within the school both by discourses within and outside of the formal learning context. Recent research on school desegregation in South Africa has convincingly uncovered a dominant assimilationist approach (Soudien, 2004), which suggests that learners from subordinate groups give up certain cultural resources or ways of being and take on those that are dominant. However, while assimilation implies that learners adapt to a ‘superior’ culture, the paper aims to uncover the extent to which learners are transforming those cultural resources and constructing new identities. In doing so, it particularly focuses on the learners’ language practices as a productive site for the exploration of their contradictory positioning (Weedon, 1997) and of the processes in which they both resist and accede to the assimilationist project.


Soudien, C. 2004. Constituting the class: An analysis of the process of ‘integration’ in South African schools. In Changing class: Education and social change in post-apartheid South Africa, ed. L. Chisholm, 89--113. Cape Town: HSRC.

Weedon, C. 1997. Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory. Oxford:Blackwells.

Session: Paper session
Youth Language 2 / Attitude
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 13