Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Keeping African languages out of African schools?

Humiliation of Ugandan students who speak their mother tongue in school, and Malawi's recent decision to move to an English-only instruction policy, reflect the continued low status of African languages in African education. In much of Africa, the first languages of students are formally excluded from African schools by national policies, and/or accorded low or even negative value in school culture. In the extreme, this situation can be seen in terms of denial of human rights (per work by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas), but in any event seems to run contrary to ample research on the benefits of  learning in the mother tongue and of bilingual education.

"Why are schools punishing children for speaking African languages?"

Punishment for speaking Luganda at school.
Image from Facebook via
A recent article by writer and lawyer Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire called attention to ongoing practices in some Ugandan schools of humiliating students who speak African languages. A particular example is requiring students caught speaking a language other than English to wear a sack, until they catch one of their peers transgressing the English-only rule, who will then have to wear the sack.

This is not a new linguistic human rights issue, nor a practice limited to one country. It extends back to colonial rule, though enforcement of "no vernacular" has evidently moved from corporal punishment by teachers to humiliation and enforcement by students. I previously mentioned this in a 2008 blog posting entitled "Burning textbooks, beating schoolchildren."

New "English-only" policy in Malawi

In a decision made last March by then Malawian Minister of Education, Lucious Kanyumba, changed Malawi's longstanding bilingual education policy to one where students will be taught in English only from day one of their schooling. The stated object of the change, which is now implemented, was to improve English language levels of students.

Previous language of instruction policy (per a 2000 paper by Henri G. Chilora) had all students learning in the national language Chichewa for the first four grades, and then shifting to English. However this policy, adopted in 1968, had the effect of eliminating other Malawian languages from schools (see Chilora's paper, and one by Misheck Dickson Issa and Shoko Yamada on perceptions of language of instruction policy).

The decision to move to English-only has been controversial, with arguments against it citing advantages of MTB/MLE, lack of teachers prepared to instruct in English, and questions about equating good English with good education. It elicited an early protest from students of Chancellor College. A good summary of the debate - which begins by acknowledging the students' action - is provided by Steve Sharra (a later version of this article was highlighted by Ndesanjo Macha in his blog).

A study by Helen Abadzi, Radhika Iyengar, Alia Karim and Florie Chagwira of Columbia University's Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development found that even if the goal of education was good English, it would make sense to begin teaching reading in children's first languages (which happen to be written with orthographies where letters have more consistent values than in English).

Language of instruction policy in Malawi has moved away from use of its children's first languages in stages - first using only Chichewa (national language, first language of a majority, and also a second language for some number) in the name of national unity, and now to only English (official language, first language of almost no one, and a second language for some number) in the name of better job opportunities.

Language of Instruction (LoI) in Uganda and Malawi

In the process of researching this blog post, I came across an article (actually a book chapter) that examines and compares language in education policies in the two countries mentioned above: Ismail S. Gyagenda and Wardah M. Rajab-gyagenda, "Examining Ugandan and Malawian Language of Instruction Policies From a Linguistic Human Rights Perspective," in Zehlia Babaci-Wilhite, ed., Giving Space to African Voices: Rights in Local Languages and Local Curriculum (SensePublishers, Rotterdam, 2014). For now I'll just pass on the reference, but one passage from the content available online leaves us with a relevant perspective and question:
"In the human rights approach [to language policy], language is a manifestation of one's identity and cannot be willy-nilly suppressed without deep educational consequences for the students as well as society in general. How do the LoI policies of Uganda and Malawi over the years fare within this human rights perspective?"

1 comment:

Don said...

And then there's this from an article in 2006: "Uganda's state minister for Gender, Isanga Nakadama has advised parents to stop forcing their children to speak English. ... She says there are families where children are beaten because they speak native languages." (Article also available here.)