THE POL­I­TICS OF LAN­GUAGE AS A MEDIUM OF DE­LIV­ERY IN ED­U­CA­TION

Observer on Saturday - - Analysis & Opinion - With: Thulani Lushaba

duca­tion is cru­cial in the world’s ef­forts to re­alise the as­pi­ra­tions of the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs). It is thus im­per­a­tive for ev­ery coun­try to pro­vide in­clu­sive and eq­ui­table ed­u­ca­tion for its cit­i­zens.

This en­tails not only that there be ad­e­quate schools, rel­e­vant cur­ricu­lums, ap­pro­pri­ate and suf­fi­cient learn­ing and teach­ing ma­te­ri­als, as well as prop­erly trained teach­ers, but the lan­guage of in­struc­tion should also be in­clu­sive. This ar­ti­cle dis­cusses fac­tors that im­pact ad­versely on the achieve­ment of in­clu­sive and eq­ui­table qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion in South­ern Africa. Th­ese fac­tors in­clude the use of un­fa­mil­iar lan­guages in the de­liv­ery of ed­u­ca­tion; sex­ist lan­guage use in schools; and cul­tural be­liefs that re­in­force the marginal­i­sa­tion of fe­males and of dif­fer­entlyabled per­sons. The ar­ti­cle fur­ther rec­om­mends mea­sures to be taken to en­sure in­clu­sive and eq­ui­table qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion for ev­ery child, re­gard­less of their so­cio-eco­nomic sta­tus or gen­der. The fi­nal sec­tion briefly de­scribes the role of in­ter­na­tional lan­guages in Africa.

EIn Africa, lan­guage poli­cies for ed­u­ca­tion are based on of­fi­cial lan­guages in­her­ited from former colo­nial mas­ters. Th­ese of­fi­cial lan­guages in South­ern Africa are English in the An­glo­phone coun­tries, French in the Fran­co­phone Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo (DRC), and Por­tuguese in the Lu­so­phone coun­tries An­gola and Mozam­bique. More­over, even in South Africa, where the con­sti­tu­tion states that there are 11 of­fi­cial (and equal) lan­guages, the Gov­ern­ment of South Africa, 1996, in prac­tice, English and Afrikaans re­main the dom­i­nant of­fi­cial lan­guages. The lan­guage of in­struc­tion in African coun­tries mir­rors the of­fi­cial lan­guage pol­icy. Thus, English, French or Por­tuguese are mostly used in the de­liv­ery of ed­u­ca­tion, de­pend­ing on the coun­try’s colo­nial his­tory. The use of colo­nial lan­guages for in­struc­tion disad­van­tages chil­dren from fam­i­lies who do not speak th­ese lan­guages. This is par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing in the for­ma­tive grades of school­ing. The choice of the lan­guage of in­struc­tion in South­ern Africa varies from coun­try to coun­try but gen­er­ally favours the use of colo­nial lan­guages. This is baf­fling be­cause it has been em­pir­i­cally es­tab­lished that chil­dren learn best when they are taught in their mother tongue, or at least in a fa­mil­iar lan­guage. Stud­ies on the mer­its of mother-tongue ed­u­ca­tion date back to 1953 when UN­ESCO spe­cial­ists on the use of ver­nac­u­lar lan­guages in ed­u­ca­tion em­pha­sised its im­por­tance as fol­lows:

“It is ax­iomatic that the best medium for teach­ing a child is his mother tongue. Psy­cho­log­i­cally, it is the sys­tem of mean­ing­ful signs that in his mind works au­to­mat­i­cally for ex­pres­sion and un­der­stand­ing. So­ci­o­log­i­cally, it is a means of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion among the mem­bers of the com­mu­nity to which he be­longs.

Ed­u­ca­tion­ally, he learns more quickly through it than through an un­fa­mil­iar lin­guis­tic medium” (UN­ESCO, 1953, p. 11).

African coun­tries that have at­tempted to im­ple­ment mother-tongue ed­u­ca­tion have not demon­strated full com­mit­ment as they have con­fined it to the first three or four years of pri­mary school.

This is con­trary to UN­ESCO’s (2003, p. 31) rec­om­men­da­tion that mother-tongue in­struc­tion “should be ex­tended to as late in ed­u­ca­tion as pos­si­ble.”

South­ern African coun­tries that have in­tro­duced mother-tongue ed­u­ca­tion in the first three, four or five years of school­ing in­clude Namibia, Zam­bia, Mozam­bique and Zim­babwe.

In Namibia, some na­tional lan­guages are to be used as lan­guages of in­struc­tion from pre-pri­mary to Grade Five (Namibia min­istry of ed­u­ca­tion, 2014).

At the be­gin­ning of 2014, Zam­bia de­cided to im­ple­ment a 2013 rec­om­men­da­tion for the use of se­lected in­dige­nous lan­guages for in­struc­tion from Grade One to Four (Zam­bia min­istry of ed­u­ca­tion, sci­ence, vo­ca­tional train­ing, and early ed­u­ca­tion, 2013).

Pre­vi­ously, English was the sole lan­guage of in­struc­tion from Grade One to the ter­tiary level in Zam­bia. In Mozam­bique, 16 lo­cal lan­guages have been used for in­struc­tion up to Stan­dard Three since 2003 (UNICEF, 2016). With re­spect to Zim­babwe, “the clos­est doc­u­ment on which one can make in­fer­ences on lan­guage pol­icy is the Zim­babwe Ed­u­ca­tion Act of 1987, Chap­ter 55” (Khu­malo, 2003, p. 175).

Zim­babwe’s Ed­u­ca­tion Act (1987) states that Nde­bele, Shona or English may be used as a medium of in­struc­tion dur­ing the first three years of pri­mary school, de­pend­ing on which lan­guage is more com­monly spo­ken and un­der­stood by the pupils, while English shall be the medium of in­struc­tion from the fourth grade (Khu­malo, 2003).

Lan­guage-of-ed­u­ca­tion poli­cies in other coun­tries are less en­cour­ag­ing. For ex­am­ple, in 2013, the Malaw­ian Gov­ern­ment aban­doned a draft pol­icy which would have made lo­cal lan­guages the medium of in­struc­tion dur­ing the first four years of pri­mary school.

In­stead, the Ed­u­ca­tion Act of 2012 was adopted, which stip­u­lates English as the medium of in­struc­tion in schools and col­leges (Gov­ern­ment of Malawi, 2012). In Botswana, Setswana, the na­tional lan­guage, has been used only in Stan­dard One since the early 2000s.

From Stan­dard Two, English is the only lan­guage of in­struc­tion (Botswana Gov­ern­ment, 1994). The use of English as the medium of de­liv­ery in ed­u­ca­tion causes chil­dren from homes where English is not com­monly spo­ken to ex­pe­ri­ence chal­lenges, not only when they start school, but through­out their ed­u­ca­tion ca­reer.

They have dif­fi­culty grasp­ing the sub­ject mat­ter be­cause new knowl­edge is pro­vided in an un­fa­mil­iar medium. The sit­u­a­tion for the girlchild is more chal­leng­ing for she faces gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in ad­di­tion to lin­guis­tic marginal­i­sa­tion.

Lan­guage, gen­der and dis­abil­ity

We have noted above that chil­dren who do not know English, French or Por­tuguese are dis­ad­van­taged when they start school. Fur­ther­more, girls are more dis­ad­van­taged than boys as they ex­pe­ri­ence two forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

The sit­u­a­tion is more se­vere for the girl-child who is dif­fer­ently-abled, for ex­am­ple, in the case of a girl who is deaf.

The chal­lenge for such a child is not just that she does not know English, but that she does not know any spo­ken lan­guage since her only means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is Sign Lan­guage (if she has been taught Sign Lan­guage). More­over, not many teach­ers know Sign Lan­guage. As Chindimba (2011, p. 99) puts it, “girls with dis­abil­i­ties are likely to find ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion more lim­ited than girls in gen­eral, and in turn their op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­ploy­ment.”

Even when they get a place in school, the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion deaf girls re­ceive is rel­a­tively poor due to the com­mu­ni­ca­tion bar­rier be­tween them and their teach­ers, as Chindimba and Hara ar­gue later in this is­sue. What fur­ther frus­trates the deaf girl-child is the lan­guage used in re­fer­ring to her.

In many African lan­guages, the word for a deaf per­son takes a pre­fix used in words that re­fer to non-hu­mans. Derog­a­tive terms must be re­placed with ones that the deaf them­selves pre­fer. Fur­ther­more, teach­ers must be taught Sign Lan­guage and should be trained to use it in teach­ing the Deaf. The deaf are not the only dif­fer­ently-abled per­sons dis­ad­van­taged by ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems in South­ern Africa.

Equally marginalised groups in­clude the vis­ually chal­lenged, the phys­i­cally chal­lenged, and per­sons with al­binism. Spe­cial ref­er­ence is made to the deaf in this ar­ti­cle only be­cause their sit­u­a­tion has di­rect rel­e­vance to lan­guage use which is the main theme of the present dis­cus­sion.

What is com­mon for all dif­fer­ently-abled per­sons is that women and girls face more chal­lenges than their male coun­ter­parts.

The de­vel­op­ment The de­vel­op­ment of in­dige­nous of in­dige­nous African lan­guages African lan­guages

One of the rea­sons given by those who are against the use of in­dige­nous African lan­guages in the de­liv­ery of ed­u­ca­tion is that the lan­guages are not de­vel­oped enough.

Al­though this is cur­rently true, the fact is that African lan­guages are de­vel­opable, and it is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of gov­ern­ments to en­sure that their lan­guages are de­vel­oped. Stages in the de­vel­op­ment of African lan­guages in­clude the fol­low­ing:

Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion and har­mon­i­sa­tion of or­thogra­phies;

Pro­duc­tion of gram­mat­i­cal de­scrip­tions of African lan­guages;

Pro­duc­tion of mono­lin­gual dic­tio­nar­ies in African lan­guages; and

De­vel­op­ment of spe­cialised ter­mi­nol­ogy in African lan­guages for var­i­ous pro­fes­sions.

Th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties are al­ready be­ing un­der­taken by re­search cen­tres such as the Cape Town-based Cen­tre for Ad­vanced Stud­ies of African So­ci­ety (CASAS), the Cen­tre for the Pro­mo­tion of Lit­er­acy in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa (CAPOLSA) based in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Zam­bia, and by other uni­ver­si­ties such as the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Na­tal, the Univer­sity of Malawi and the Univer­sity of Zim­babwe.

Be­sides pro­duc­ing orig­i­nal texts in African lan­guages, in­dige­nous knowl­edge which ex­ists only in oral forms should be writ­ten down and pub­lished.

In the course of record­ing this in­dige­nous knowl­edge, as­pects that are harm­ful to women and girls should be dropped al­to­gether.

Once writ­ten down, in­dige­nous knowl­edge found in one African lan­guage should be trans­lated into other African lan­guages. In this man­ner, Africans from dif­fer­ent lin­guis­tic groups will share knowl­edge.

They will also be­come aware of sim­i­lar­i­ties in their be­liefs which will, in turn, lead to greater in­ter-eth­nic and in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion.

It is of­ten ar­gued that Africans should study Eu­ro­pean lan­guages, such as English and French, be­cause they are in­ter­na­tional lan­guages used in com­merce, gov­er­nance and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. Al­though this is true, it does not mean that th­ese lan­guages should be used in the de­liv­ery of ed­u­ca­tion.

English and other Eu­ro­pean lan­guages should be taught prop­erly as sub­jects from as early as the first or se­cond grade but need not be lan­guages of in­struc­tion for learn­ers with other home lan­guages. English and the so-called mod­ern lan­guages have roles to play which the in­dige­nous African lan­guages do not ful­fil yet.

How­ever, th­ese colo­nial lan­guages can­not to­tally re­place African lan­guages be­cause African in­dige­nous knowl­edge is con­ceived in and con­veyed through the in­dige­nous lan­guages. Fur­ther­more, what are to­day in­ter­na­tional lan­guages may not be in­ter­na­tional for­ever.

As the economies and in­ter­na­tional power of more coun­tries grow, Africa will have to teach the lan­guages of the emerg­ing world pow­ers.

Al­ready, a num­ber of African coun­tries have started teach­ing Chi­nese in their uni­ver­si­ties. It would not make ped­a­gog­i­cal sense for Africa to in­tro­duce Chi­nese as a lan­guage of in­struc­tion in schools in ad­di­tion to English, French or Por­tuguese.

Ar­ti­cle was writ­ten by Lazarus Miti who is cur­rently Ad­junct Pro­fes­sor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Ap­plied Lan­guage Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Venda. He holds a PhD in Gen­eral Lin­guis­tics from the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies, Univer­sity of Lon­don. He has taught lin­guis­tics at the Uni­ver­si­ties of Zam­bia, Eswa­tini and Venda.

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