Africa: Foreign Tongues’ Woes

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Education through the medium of European languages depresses school achievement in sub Saharan African countries. Education through the medium of a second language normally works under certain conditions, which are not fulfilled in sub Saharan Africa. In contrast, education through European language limits levels of individual and school achievement. Bilingual education, can deliver school achievement generally, higher second language ability, cultural enrichment and community involvement in education

Learning and teaching through the medium of European languages depresses school achievement on the African continent, a new study shows. According to a study unveiled at the 7th international language and development conference that was held recently in Addis Ababa, the failure in the second language was mainly reported to have depressed school achievement in sub Saharan African countries. Delegates to the conference noted that bilingual education is appropriate for Africa than putting influences to educate students in the European language. John Clegg, a UK-based educational expert who presented the findings, was quoted saying that students have to learn in their local languages throughout schooling.

"Education through the medium of European languages depresses school achievement in sub Saharan African countries. Education through the medium of a second language normally works under certain conditions, which are not fulfilled in sub Saharan Africa. In contrast, education through European language limits levels of individual and school achievement," he said.  Bilingual education, Clegg says, can deliver school achievement generally, higher second language ability, cultural enrichment and community involvement in education.

University of Zimbabwe linguist Jairos Kangira concurs with the findings of the study.

"In the formative years of learning (grade 1-3) it is highly recommended that learning should be in the mother tongue," he says. "I come from Shurugwi, where a child has never spoken English, has never come into contact with the English and how else can they learn English apart from using Shona as a medium of teaching. At this stage, the child has not acquired communicative competence in a foreign language. When you introduce concepts using that language, obviously you will retard grasping of concepts and this will frustrate the child. The medium of instruction must be the child's L1 –mother tongue," Kangira says. "That is why I tend to agree with the findings to a great extent."

Prof Herman M Batiboh, the head of the African language and literature at the University of Botswana was quoted saying that only a few African countries adopted an endoglossic policy promoting one or some of the major indigenous languages to play certain important national functions.

"In most African countries the national linguistic resource remained under-exploited, mainly because of lack of proper language planning," he says. Language rights is an emotive issue for Africans whose languages have never recovered from deliberate Western maneuvers to marginalize them. European settlers ordered their colonies to adopt a single national language to emulate their home countries something that led to the marginalization and near-extinction of countless dialects in Africa.

Linguists blame the lack of political will as well as aid agencies for not understanding the gravity of the problem. "Governments and aid agencies do not know enough about the question of instructional medium in Africa. Policy making debate avoids the limiting effect on achievement of education through European languages," says Clegg.

"Populations are uneducated about language choice in school. Teacher education largely avoids questions of medium of instruction." In an article titled: 'Parents actually force children to speak English through the nose,' Kangira bemoaned the colonial mentality disease that still afflicts the black population and influences them to wrongly place English on a higher pedestal than indigenous languages.

"It’s not their problem, it's the problem of the language policy," he says. "A diglostic situation still prevails in Zimbabwe and puts English at the top of all the indigenous languages. "People find it more prestigious to speak English than Shona and Ndebele. Our own languages play second fiddle to English.

"My heart bleeds when I see young children being forced to speak English by their parents," he adds. "What they don't know is that it doesn't determine the status nor achievement later on in life. Many students who excel in life come from schools in rural areas. They do better at university than those whose competence in English was very high from childhood."

Kangira says the route Botswana is taking is encouraging and paves the way for all other African countries to follow.  In Botswana, he says, television programs are mainly in the Tswana language, including public signs, passports and many other public documents.

"I'm impressed by the widespread use of Tswana in almost everything," he says. "Here it is disturbing that you can have a program titled 'Talking Farming' when the language used are Shona and Ndebele. Why not find a suitable Shona or Ndebele term."

Zimbabwe has a language policy that calls for teachers to use the mother tongue when teaching children at the elementary level. In many parts of Africa, government documents, traffic signs and television and radio programs are still being produced in English, French and Portuguese with little or none in indigenous languages.

Linguists say indigenous languages can be preserved by providing adequate financing for language policies, political will, official recognition, translation of books from one African language to the other and doing away with colonial language entrance requirements at universities (French, Latin, Greek, Afrikaans) in favor of other African languages like Zulu, Xhosa, Bemba, Swahili, Setswana, Shona or Ndebele.

They say using indigenous languages in various media will help retain the indigenous flavor at a time when there is growing concern over the over riding influence of English in all corners of the world. And, without sustained linguistic and cultural revival programs to reclaim the tradition and heritage of the indigenous languages, then African languages will continue to disappear leading to the loss of the linguistic and cultural heritage embodied in the collective memory of these languages.

Sifelani Tsiko is The Black Star News’s Southern African correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe. To comment send messages to
letters@blackstarnews.com

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