NewsDay (Zimbabwe)

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.

Read full article on www.newsday.

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.

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Tawanda Matende/ Victor Mugari

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