Sunday, 23 March 2014

When the language of home has no place in school

Speaking your own language in the playground or - God forbid - the classroom, speaking the language of home - how can that be so dreadful? However, in schools across the world, it has been, and in some, still is a punishable offence.

In Scottish schools a hundred years ago, a common punishment for lapsing into your 'mother tongue' was a board hung round your neck announcing your crime, for other children to scoff at. I used to hear of this old punishment in rural areas of North East Scotland. Doric, the local dialect, had no place in the classrooms of the past, so I was told. Indeed, during the 1980s and 90s, when I was working in development posts across the then Grampian Region, considerable efforts were being made to bring the language of home back into schools.

Similar tales of public humiliation and disgrace used to be told of the use of Gaelic in schools in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Even in the western isles, the Hebrides, where the Gaelic language was, and remains, the native language, were similar stories heard. It is only relatively recently that Gaelic has taken its place alongside English as the official language of Scotland.

I never thought I would hear of such demeaning punishments again. It is almost universally accepted these days that the best way for young children to learn is for their teachers to use as the medium of instruction the language the children have heard around them from their earliest years: their home language, their 'mother tongue'. UNESCO's report stated this clearly in 1953.

In Britain, the introduction of bilingual teachers and classroom assistants into nurseries and schools has been a key tool in language development for those children who come to school speaking languages other than English. Research has shown that conceptual development may lag behind if children are introduced too early or too precipitously to the use of a second language as the sole medium of instruction. On the other hand, nurturing bilingualism may help children develop fluency in 'foreign' languages as well as the various languages which are spoken in the British Isles and beyond, a major priority in our tongue-tied nation.

That is not to say, of course, that use of the 'mother tongue' in primary schools is always a straightforward process. In Scotland, major investment has had to be made in the training of Gaelic-medium teachers and in providing attractive good quality resources for children to use.

In order to respond to evidence that Ugandan children were falling behind their East African counterparts, that country recently introduced mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the first three years of basic education. The fourth year is a year of transition to English, the main official language. The other official languages are Luganda, spoken by those who live in the central region around the capital Kampala, and Swahili, the common language of East Africa, which hardly anyone in Uganda speaks.

However, in a poor country like Uganda, which has getting on for 70 different languages, most of which do not yet have a written form, resourcing mother tongue tuition has been fraught with problems. Language panels must develop written forms, textbooks must be written and teachers trained. Centralised appointments of teaching staff often result in infant classes being assigned teachers from a completely different language group. So, many many challenges, but the rationale remains: children learn better when they are not faced, during their first experience of formal learning, with a teacher speaking a completely alien language.

So, what about Malawi then?

Well, Malawi has fewer languages than Uganda. The official language is English and the national language is Chichewa, which is spoken by 57% of the population. In addition, there are between 7 and 10 other languages, some with more, and some with fewer, speakers.

As in most colonised countries, the language of the colonisers has dominated as the language of education, with English being the medium of instruction until the early 1990s. However, that was before universal basic education was introduced, in the days when classes were smaller, schools better resourced and teachers better educated. Since then, the medium of instruction in government-aided schools has been Chichewa.

No longer, however. Section 78 of the Education Act of 2013 has quietly changed the language of instruction to English, and people are just noticing. The news was announced just last week, leaving six months to prepare.

What is the background to this decision? The answer is simple even if the remedy isn't. It is the desperately low levels of education of children in many of Malawi's government-aided primary schools.

Malawi has lingered at the bottom of 13 countries in the southern African education league tables of English reading and numeracy (SACMEQ). More than 20% of children repeat classes in Standards 1-3 and there is an overall dropout rate by the end of Standard 8 of more than 50%. That is the average, of course. Of the 200 children in Standard 1 in a rural primary school, only 40 may reach Standard 4, let alone Standard 8.

There are all sorts of reasons for children to drop out of school, many of which may be financial and/or domestic. However, the official view is that children need to learn English earlier, because that is the language used further up the school. The earlier they learn English, the better they will do academically. This doesn't just mean learning English as a subject. It means reintroducing English as the medium of instruction. Some people add that that is what worked in the 'good old days' - though one would hesitate to attach that term to the colonial era.

And of course, we mustn't forget that the the legislators themselves, the middle classes who fifty years ago were themselves educated in English-speaking government-aided schools, now send their own children to private schools. In private schools, the language of instruction is English.

The new regulation may have appeared almost by stealth, and subsection 2 does still allow for the Minister to prescribe the language of instruction, so it is not entirely mandatory. However, it does mean that in a matter of months, in September to be precise, all pupils from Standard 1 will be taught in English. Every infant department will have to change direction. Not quite as drastic as Rwanda's change from French to English, but similarly powerful in its impact on school practice.

Now that the news of the change of language is trickling through to the media, articles have begun to appear about the issue. Charles Gwengwe, Executive Director of AECDM (the African Early Childhood Education Movement) had this to say last week:

'Literacy begins with oral language skills. When an adult reads a story to children, they can follow it and remember the language so that they can reread it, matching the words they see to the words they remember. It is very difficult for children to do this if they do not understand the language of the story.'

He goes on to say that when teachers encourage children to write, they show them that writing is just 'talk written down'. By so doing, children build a vocabulary of important words which they can write. They need to first 'read and write in their mother tongue while they develop oral fluency in the new language.'

Gwengwe makes two further points: that it will be difficult to find teachers with the necessary English-language skills; and that the move will have a significant impact on the extent to which parents can become genuine partners in their children's education.

Benedicto Kondowe, of the Civil Society Education Coalition, made a further point in last Saturday's Weekend Nation: that it was not a case of choosing between Chichewa and English, but of deciding how best to develop English language skills. He suggests teaching English as a subject right from Standard 1, while children continue to develop literacy in Chichewa.

A different tack was taken by Macdonald Thom, writing in yesterday's Malawi News. He states that his previous experience as an Assistant Examiner in English at Malawi School Certificate in Education (MSCE) level had demonstrated to him how poor pupils' English language skills were. He quite rightly notes that there are many other languages other than Chichewa which are not currently catered for in schools. He argues that the use of English from Standard 1 would be a uniting factor and would help these non-Chichewa-speaking children to access the curriculum. He does acknowledge, however, how poor the English language skills are among many current primary school teachers, and how much the government will need to do to ensure they are well prepared for the new expectations.

These all seem good sensible points. There is no doubt that policymakers and officials are even now trying to work out the practical implications of the decision and find the best ways forward. Let us hope that they find a constructive approach. The worse scenario is having 200 poor rural children who have scarcely heard a word of English in their lives, who have walked some distance to get to school and then sat for hours on a mud floor, being confronted with a single teacher who talks at them in a language which is completely incomprehensible.

Last week, I sat listening to a group of senior educationists as they discussed the best ways of punishing children for using their home language in school. Various options were discussed, the favoured being hanging a board around their necks so they could be ridiculed. That, they said, was what used to happen when they were at school and it was very effective. The only point of discussion was whether the board should be hung on a piece of string or a heavy chain. Oh, and also whether, in a system which required the culprit to hand the board onto another hapless child caught speaking his own language, the final victim should be punished even more severely.

At this point I did bleat a suggestion that perhaps rewarding children for speaking English might be a more positive approach. Alas no. Bleeding heart liberals like myself, it was pointed out (though not, I hasten to add, in those words!) do not understand the African ways.

My heart goes out to the children.

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