Mother tongues, racialized belief systems, and self-destruction
Yesterday, February 21, was International Mother Language Day. The day was proclaimed as such by UNESCO in 1999, and was first observed in 2000. In Malawi, The Nation newspaper used the occasion to seek the views of a number of educational authorities on the government's forthcoming policy for lower primary school students to learn in the local language of the area they live in. The news report from The Nation, and the reactions to the report on the Malawi internet listserv Nyasanet, both demonstrate the difficulty of the issue, and the passion it raises amongst not only Malawians, but in diverse societies all over the world. At the bottom of the issue is the question of the role languages play in the efforts to understand local and global problems, a debate that has attracted an enormous amount of attention in scholarly books, journals and conferences. Outside the academy, however, the debate is dominated by views that betray the hierarchical lenses of race and class through which people see the world, and declare which side of the divide they are on. To put it shortly, most Malawian elites use the opportunity of such debates to declare their allegiance with the triumphant white, middle-to-upper-class, EuroAmerican view of the world.
Talking to The Nation newspaper, the secretary general of the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM), Lucien Chikadza, singles out three reasons why the policy for Malawian children in lower primary levels to learn in local languages is not advisable. First, "Malawi does not have a specific language", he says. Second, the policy would entail the transferring of teachers based on areas where they come from, which could lead to unequal distribution of teachers. Third, says Mr. Chikadza, Chichewa "has a shallow vocabulary to reflect actual meanings of words and terms in English." For George Jobe, communications director for the Creative Centre for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM), despite a survey indicating the suitability of the policy, the policy poses what he calls "transition" problems if Standard 4 children will suddenly have to begin learning in English as late as Standard 5. The director of the Inspectorate in the ministry of education, Matilda Kabuye, says in the urban areas English will be sandwiched with a local language early on, while in the rural areas the sandwiching will begin in Standard 3 to prepare students for Standard 5.
On Nyasanet, one view has been that Tanzanians regret their Swahili policy when they end up struggling with English once they are outside their country, according to Bona Mkandawire, a Malawian living in Canada. Mkandawire points out that the policy would also mess up children who move from one part of Malawi speaking one language, to another speaking a different language. Timothy Nundwe, another Malawian, has been outright brunt, asking who needs mother tongues in "these modern days." He points out that most well-to-do Malawians send their children to private schools due to the poor standards in the public schools. Writes Nundwe: "This is a lunatic policy. These policies work in countries like TZ or Kenya where everyone else speaks swahili but in malawi where my mum in Hewe struggles to communicate with his [sic] workers in Chichewa and then now they want to introduce vernacular languages."
There's no doubt that this is an important debate to have, at the national level. However I have always been of the opinion that there's a communication gap amongst three groups of Malawians: Malawian linguists and language researchers, Malawian elites, and the general Malawian public. Linguists and researchers in Malawi and all over the world have consistently, over several decades, found that local languages are the best medium for education. All the rich, industrialized countries of the world teach their children using their local languages. This makes it possible for children to participate in their own learning, and to develop intellectual depth and conceptual breadth with what they are learning. This intellectual depth and conceptual breadth easily translates into innovation and creativity in society, opening up new possibilities for local and global solutions to problems.
In formerly colonized countries like Malawi, where the languages of instruction have remained the inherited ones from the European colonizers, the consequences of colonial educational policies manifest themselves in the elitism that divides our societies. All the major institutions of national importance are dominated by the tiny minority elite who speak English, and the rest of the population, upwards of 90 percent in Malawi, are blamed, ignored, ridiculed, and pushed out of the national development process. An illustration of this is the dominance of English in government, in parlimanent, in the daily and weekly newspapers, and in the education system itself.
There is an underlying racial and class belief system at work here, leading to excuses like those expressed by Mr. Chikadza that Chichewa has a shallow vocabulary not suited to educational practice, and by Mr. Jobe that introducing English at a later stage could deter the acquisition of the language. Both Mr. Chikadza and Mr. Jobe have valid points concerning the problems of teacher distribution, and the need to produce new learning materials in various languages. However Chichewa and Tumbuka are spoken widely enough in parts of Malawi that we would not need to develop materials in more than four languages. The revival of the other languages would be done through other civil society programs.
The ministry's suggestion to sandwich English with local languages needs a bolder step that considers full bilingualism in which children use BOTH English and a local language from Standard 1 onwards. Such a bilingual program, continued up to Standard 8, through secondary school and into the university, would serve the purpose that well-to-do Malawian parents want, the early acquisition of English. It would also serve the purpose of demonstrating the depth and capacity for complexity and sophistication that all language systems are endowed with. (For more on how this would work, see Benson, 2005. Malawian language researchers, including Dr. Hartford Mchazime, Henry Chilora and others have done extensive research on these issues).
Such a sustained, long-term and thorough bilingual program would not only revive local languages, it would also promote knowledge production and dissemination, which would allow ordinary Malawians to contribute to the revival of the country's progress, at no cost to the acquisition of English language skills.
What needs to be overcome is the self-defeatist notion that African languages are innate and unchanging. English did not start out as the dominant language of the world. It achieved that status only in the last three hundred or so years, before which it too was considered shallow, and subservient to other languages. But English has been an open language, devouring words and terms from other languages and enriching itself. We Malawians are very good at wanting to learn from rich, industrialized countries. But we learn the wrong things by, instead of emulating how the rich and industrialized countries teach their children in their own languages, we teach our children in the languages of our former colonial masters. Instead of trusting and investing in our languages to revitalize our societies, we kill our languages and shut out 90 percent of our society by privileging foreign knowledge, and destroying our local knowledge.