By Tony Calderbank

29 August 2013 - 11:05

'The use of mother tongue in the early stages elicits a range of opinions.' Photo (c) Mat Wright
'The use of mother tongue in the early stages elicits a range of opinions.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

In many Sub-Saharan African countries, English becomes the official language of instruction at a relatively early stage in a child’s education, often with confusing effects. The British Council's Tony Calderbank explains the issues and some of the proposed solutions.

The African child normally starts to struggle at school when he is about ten or 11 years old, at the beginning of the fifth year of primary school. Up until then most of his lessons were in his home language except for English (or another ex-colonial language), which is taught as a subject. Then it all changes. All of his classes are taught in English and because he does not use English very much apart from in school, he begins to fall behind, despite working hard. He thinks that perhaps he is just not a very good student, but what he does not know is that his teacher has also started to struggle because she has a limited understanding of English as well.

It’s a story of linguistic confusion played out across Sub-Saharan Africa every day. For decades, it has been known to African academics such as Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose of Ibadan University as a root cause of children not fulfilling their potential, and has been tackled by African organisations such as the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), UNESCO and the British Council.

The usual approach is based on an assumption (or red herring, according to Bamgbose) that, as early as possible, a child needs to be taught in a language that they will need for education at higher levels – particularly in order to access science and technology – to do business in a globalised world, and to engage actively as a citizen in wider society, including taking part in elections. Underpinning these arguments is a perceived need to use an ‘official’ language to unify a nation. More often than not, the official language chosen is an ex-colonial one. However, using a language of instruction that neither the teacher nor learner understands or uses particularly well produces poor results.

Many parents believe in this assumption and do not want their children educated in the local language. Some will say that this is because the parents themselves don’t understand the damage that can be done if a child is educated in a language they don’t understand. Certainly, UNESCO promotes the idea of mother tongue instruction. Indeed, since 1953, they have maintained that language is crucial for the development of individuals and societies, and therefore learning in one’s own language is a fundamental right.

Education and language experts gather to tackle the issue in Africa’s newest country

Last March, academics from across Africa and beyond came to discuss multilingual education in an African context, and to look at the language policy options facing South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation, which had become independent just nine months before. This diverse group of agencies and individuals wrote a closing statement, the Juba Conference Statement, written to reaffirm their belief in a set of common principles that should be applied to language-in-education policies and practices across Africa.

The conference was held in Juba because South Sudan was a new country with a large number of languages, and had a new British Council office. It seemed opportune to meet and discuss language and education policy issues. It was hoped that South Sudan could learn from the experiences of other countries in the region in designing its education policy. The choice of speakers reflected this.

Hamish, who also helped organise the event, had ‘invited speakers who had different views on mother tongue and multilingual education’. He also wanted ‘some of the main organisations, such as the ACLAN, UNICEF and UNESCO, because they have plans, policies and programmes that aim to improve access to education for millions of children across Africa.’

Which language should African children be taught in?

UNESCO believes that the best way to educate children is through their mother tongue or home languages. However, some argue that producing learning materials in a variety of African languages is too costly in economic terms. Then there is the issue of the languages themselves. In South Sudan, for example, many languages are not even written down, and those that are often lack standardised orthographies, or writing systems. The major languages such as Dinka and Bari, which are spoken by 1.5 million and 800,000 people respectively, each have very little written in them. As a result, there is no tradition of written literature or journalism.

Organisations such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and the Ministry of Education have prepared a number of readers and basic text books for some languages, but there is an additional challenge to produce text books for subjects such as mathematics and science.

The new African language programmes in development

Various African initiatives have been developed to encourage governments to make greater use of African languages, including in the education system. ACALAN has identified 12 cross-border languages for use in regions across the continent, together with inherited ex-colonial languages. Examples include Lingala and Beti-Feng for Central Africa and Chichewa and Sestwana for Southern Africa.

The idea is to get African languages being used as a medium of instruction, just as English is in British schools, and Kiswahili is in Kenya. For example, the Bari language in South Sudan contains five or six distinct dialects that are sometimes called ‘languages’. However, all speakers can understand one another and it is quite possible, according to some linguists, to standardise the different dialects to create one written language which could be used by speakers of all the Bari ‘languages’. This phenomenon, not unlike the Scandinavian languages, is common in Africa.

The use of mother tongue in the early stages elicits a range of opinions. Some say African languages should be used as the medium of instruction throughout primary level. Others favour an ‘early exit’ model whereby an African language is used for the first three or four years of schooling and then replaced by the official foreign language, which has previously been taught as a subject. A common problem with this latter approach is that children are rarely able to learn sufficient English to allow them to cope with the transition into English as the language of instruction in the fourth or fifth year of primary school, when most children are between nine and 11 years old.

What’s the solution?

It could be said that no country has got it right. In South Africa, for example, there are 11 official languages and the Ministry of Basic Education is introducing a policy whereby all speakers of English and Afrikaans must learn an African language in school. In Kenya, where Kiswahili is used as a lingua franca, this causes some confusion for some children since it is not their mother tongue. So, many Kenyan children are still being educated in a language that isn’t their own even though it is an African language. Uganda uses an early exit model, but in urban schools English is the medium of instruction in all classes and the local language is taught as an additional language.

Some suggest that the choice of language should be decided at school and community level and that the people themselves make the choice of which languages to use. This approach, it is argued, will most realistically reflect the languages used in the community.

Why the British Council is involved in multilingualism

Some delegates at the conference were confused as to why the British Council would host such an event. Like many, they believe, incorrectly, that the British Council is an organisation concerned only to push English on governments. Recently, however, it has been developing an approach that has much in common with UNESCO’s position on multilingualism.

The conference and the Juba Statement seem to have prompted wider discussion. For example, on May 20 2013, the International Research Foundation for English Language Education announced on its website that their board had voted to endorse the statement. They said: ‘It represents an important milestone in promoting equitable and excellent language education in diverse contexts.’ There are organisations and individuals who agree that people should be educated in their mother tongue. However, the final decisions on this complex issue may be political and based on the current reality on the ground – as in South Sudan, where primary school text books are still only in English.

Our collection of academic papers on the subject, Multilingual Education in Africa: Lessons from the Juba Language-in-Education Conference (ed. Hamish McIlwraith), is presented in Juba today, 29 August 2013. 

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