Mother tongue education fosters inclusion
THE theme of the 2021 International Mother Language Day, “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society,” recognises that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion, and the sustainable development goals focus on leaving no one behind. UNESCO believes education based on the first language or mother tongue must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning. The use of the mother tongue, Zimbabwean sign language (ZSL) by children who have hearing impairments in schools for those with hearing impairments has largely been sidelined and there is a continued insistence on the use of the “oral” method of communication that puts emphasis on teaching children with hearing impairments how to speak or decode speech. This continued disavowal of the use of ZSL in schools for those living with hearing impairments is tantamount to obliteration of language and a violation of the deaf children’s rights that fundamentally undermines their ability to acquire appropriate education. This is in direct contravention of article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights, and section 6 of the Constitution.
Similarly, by denying the hearing impairment community in Zimbabwe the use of ZSL-their mother tongue, we are actually squandering a linguistic resource that can be used to impart knowledge and skills necessary for their survival, development and community involvement. Nelson Mandela, the late former President of South Africa said: “If you talk to me using my language, you will be speaking to my heart”. Children who struggle to understand lessons in an unfamiliar language are more likely to skip school, repeat grades, drop out and fail to learn than those taught in their mother tongue.
Students with hearing impairments in Zimbabwe are a good example. According to Swanwick and Marschark (2001), teachers of students with hearing impairments are not using sign language as a language of instruction, but only as a means of communication with students. This is, indeed, a cause for concern. The spoken language, be it English, Shona or Ndebele is a limitation to the students with hearing impairments in Zimbabwe. Education, when imparted in a second or foreign language, causes difficulties in learning and understanding, leading to their failure in subjects or drop out from the schools, which is a big loss to a country and even to humanity at large.
Linguists have argued that, based on modality alone, children with hearing impairments’ first language will always be sign language irrespective of whether they were exposed to sign language or English first. The reason for this lies in the restricted access that children with hearing impairments have English as a spoken language (Berent, 2004). For the reason that children with hearing impairments may be born with damages to the speech organs or never receive speech training, their abilities in the majority languages are always measured in reading and writing, and not speaking or listening.
While monolingual education systems are often adopted in States with cultural and linguistic diversity, of ethnic rivalries or social conflicts with the intention of promoting national unity, they can also add to widespread grassroots anxiety about the status of endangered and minority languages. Such anxiety has become apparent enough in UNESCO member countries to prompt UNESCO to promote initiatives such as “International Mother-Tongue Day” and “International year of Languages” to change public perception about the importance of languages. There is increasing evidence of the benefits of mother tongue and multilingual education (Cummins, 2000) and, at the same time, an increase in the use of English as a medium of instruction across various levels of education globally. Mother tongues and local languages are often viewed as having value as languages of cultural identity whereas international languages such as English are perceived as valuable for social and economic mobility (Crystal, 2003).
A very small number of children with hearing impairments are born into signing families in Zimbabwe. Children with parents with hearing impairments are estimated to constitute only 10% of the world’s deaf population (Goldin-Meadow, 2003). Signing parents will communicate with their children using sign language, and the children naturally acquire sign language very much in the same way as hearing children acquire spoken languages. A huge majority (90%) of the world’s deaf children is born into families with hearing parents. By learning sign language and using it at home as soon as the hearing loss is discovered, hearing parents can offer their children the same language development and language acquisition skills as hearing children with hearing parents and children with hearing impairments. The fact of the matter is that Zimbabwe’s sign language has suffered by virtue of being a minority language used by a group who are marginalised due to their disabilities. However, those with hearing impairments suffer double marginalisation since their disability results in linguistic disadvantage which has been a conduit for exploiting hearing impairments over the years, leading to what (Tonkins, 1983) calls oppression, isolation or discrimination against an individual, a community or State. In the case of hearing impairment, a whole community is condemned to this discrimination.
The importance of a mother tongue cannot be gainsaid. For the hearing impaired child in Zimbabwe, the language problem is big. Parents who do not understand the hearing impaired child’s mother tongue often insist on the child learning their (parents) mother tongue, which is audio-based as opposed to their naturally preferred visual language. To compound the matter, a majority of children with hearing impairments can neither acquire Zimbabwean sign language at home nor can they acquire the “language of outside” which the hearing child acquires. Only 10% of children with hearing impairments are fortunate enough to be born in an environment that permits them to acquire their mother tongue naturally as it should be. Either their parents have taken time to learn sign language or they acquired it naturally in their homes where their parents are deaf and therefore, use sign language as the language of the home. However, this unique scenario is responsible for the fact that only a few of these children with hearing impairments who go to schools of those with hearing impairment end up learning their mother tongue from fellow children with hearing impairments if a conducive learning environment exists. In many cases, this does not happen because of other problems within the school system like the insistence on oralism and the “assimilationist policies”in education which discourage students from using their mother tongue.
The importance of sign language as a mother tongue in the life of the hearing impaired is captured in the words of Nduramo (1988) when he asserts that sign language is the principle catalyst in the child with hearing impairments to various values and opportunities in the hearing world such as education, professional development, social integration and psychological adjustment. Hence, the use of sign language in different domains in Zimbabwe will open up the world of the hearing impaired in many ways-in the field of education where, if used as a language of instruction, then it will enable the hearing impaired develop their full potential. It will also enable people with hearing impairments to access information which oftentimes is in deaf unfriendly media; it will empower the deaf to access services which they cannot access at the moment among many other advantages. The use of sign language enhances their linguistic competence in both sign language and spoken language in the sense that people with hearing impairments will learn sign language skills just like hearing people learn spoken language skills. People with hearing impairments have the potential to learn any spoken language.
However, they only learn a spoken language mainly for purposes of reading and writing and not speaking it as reading and writing are visual and not sound-based.
Through the use of sign language, therefore, deaf people are able to live a normal life. Sign language as a mother tongue for the hearing impaired will promote both the development of the mother tongue itself and the child’s ability to learn any spoken language.
To reject a child’s language in the school or anywhere is to reject the child. This is the biggest violation of any person’s rights since it fundamentally denies one the access to society.
The government cannot be left out in hearing impairment education since it has an obligation through its policymakers to establish realistic policies in as far as hearing impairment education is concerned. It must be prepared to fund hearing impairments education fully on the understanding that its previous policies have sidelined the deaf population and thus majority of parents cannot afford to pay for their deaf children.
Thus, a form of affirmative action for the deaf in terms of education would be in order.
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Tawanda Matende is a sign language linguist and a PhD student at the University of Venda.
Victor Mugari is an associate professor of linguistics and the deputy dean of the faculty of arts and humanities at the University of Zimbabwe. They write here in their personal capacities.