Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Misdiagnosis: Mother Tongue Policy and Poor English in Malawian Schools

There are good reasons why many Malawians are happy with the new policy for English to be the language of instruction in Malawian public schools. We Malawians use proficiency in spoken English as a product of a good education. If somebody speaks good English, they are seen as being educated. In many cases that is quite true. The more years one spends in Malawian schools beyond primary and secondary schools, the better one's English becomes. 

But there are cases when that can be misleading. The test lies in knowing when it is accurate to equate English proficiency with good education, and when it is misleading. It is accurate to equate good spoken English with good education when the substance of what one is speaking shows reasoning and problem-solving skills. English can also be an accurate measure of one’s education when one is able to read and write proficiently, analyse information, and make informed decisions from that information.

In this very rare class every student had a textbook. 
But it should be pointed out that every language of the world has these same attributes that can be an accurate measure of a good education. That is why most successful countries continue to invest in their local languages. A good education should enable one to put one's education to meaningful use in their individual life and in contributing to society. A country can only develop when the majority of the population have access to the knowledge that matters in changing their lives and their communities. When that knowledge is tucked away in a language only a tiny elite can understand and utilise, society stagnates. There can be no meaningful, equitable development.

In the current debate on the language of instruction in Malawian schools, we are misdiagnosing the causes of what we see as low standards of education. We think education standards are low because students come out of the system not knowing how to speak English. And we think this is happening because in Standards 1-4 students are being taught in local Malawian languages, instead of English. This is a false analysis. Malawian students are unable to speak good English not because they use local languages in Standards 1-4, but rather because English, which is taught as a language right from Standard 1, is not being taught well enough. 

There is one main reason why government schools are failing to teach spoken English well: schools do not have enough textbooks. And this is a problem across all the subjects. Most Malawian students in government schools go through the entire primary school cycle without adequate opportunities to interact with books. Those who spend enough time studying Malawian classrooms in the public schools know that there are very few copies of prescribed textbooks. Many students spend the entire year without touching a textbook. And this is worse in the early grade years, Standards 1-3, where class sizes average 150-300 per teacher. 

Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that in 2013 there were 1,030,834 students in Standard 1 across the country. There were only 350,095 English textbooks. That's a rough average of three students sharing one textbook. But the reality is that many classrooms have far less textbooks due to inefficient distribution at the national level as well as at the school level. It is very common in Malawian schools to find textbooks locked up in a cupboard because the head teacher is afraid that the books will get damaged, and there will be no replacements the following year. There cannot be a worse paradox than this. It is simply not possible for a child to learn how to read and write without touching a book.

In this school these boxes of textbooks
remained unopened in the headteacher's office for a whole year while in the classrooms twenty students shared one textbook
In deciding that the solution should be the use of English for all subjects from Standard 1, we have misdiagnosed the problem and we have prescribed the wrong medication. The problem of overcrowded classrooms and inadequate teaching and learning resources has been going on since 1994. It has become such a chronic problem that it has created a generation whose spoken English, and whose general knowledge for that matter, does not measure up to previous generations. Worse still, it has affected the English proficiency of many primary school teachers themselves.

Unfortunately the misdiagnosis has created a fertile ground for insults and innuendo. Those arguing for mother tongue instruction have been labelled hypocrites who want English for their children only. When some Malawians hear "mother tongue" their minds understand that to mean "no English." It is a huge misunderstanding and Malawian language researchers have a lot of work to do to clarify the issue in a way that the public would understand and appreciate what is meant by mother tongue.

Malawian private schools use English as the language of instruction for every subject. Malawian languages are effectively banned. Most children in urban private schools speak very good English, something parents are rightly proud of. Children in urban areas are exposed to English, that is why they are able to pick it up at school. They are also exposed to multilingual contexts. Parents of children in rural Malawi would no doubt want their children to also be fluent in English as a global language of power and prestige. Nobody should deny them that desire. There is need for research into whether the good spoken English of children in private schools is translating into good reading and writing, reasoning skills, and problem-solving capacity.

Last year we learned that Chancellor College expelled nearly one third of its first year class, and LUANAR expelled close to one fifth. Some university lecturers commented that students were coming to university with perfect spoken English, but very poor reading, writing, reasoning and problem-solving skills. Strangely, these students were able to make it past the University Entrance Exams. The government’s statistics show that 91 percent of Malawian university students come from the top twenty percent of the wealthiest families. This means most of them are coming from expensive private schools.

This is a fertile area for language researchers. Most Malawians speak more than one language. We are a multilingual nation. It has been proven many times over that children who are proficient in more than one language show superior intellectual performance compared to monolingual children. But there are also many monolingual people who have superior skills in their field. Their societies have invested in their languages. Most countries invest in the development of mother tongue languages because there is a direct correlation between knowledge and development. While privileging one language of prestige is important, it should not be done at the expense of local languages, spoken by millions of people. We need to develop long term thinking for the future of the country with knowledge production as a central concern.

We need to improve the way we teach English as a subject right from Standard One. But we should invest in multilingualism as well. That is the practice in most countries where education is truly contributing to development. We need to make sure there are enough textbooks for both students and teachers. We need to make sure there are enough resources for teaching not only English, but all subjects. And we need to improve the teaching of English in the teacher training colleges. We need to think more broadly about the millions of Malawians in rural areas who are craving knowledge that would transform their lives and their communities.

* A version of this post first appeared on the 'My Turn' page of The Nation of 5th and 8th September, 2014 as part I and II respectively, under a different title.

Malawi at 50: Song & Dance, Tears & Laughter

These students had fun composing songs and dances improptu
In June this year I accompanied a team of educationists visiting a school in the eastern part of Dedza. I observed a Standard 4 Expressive Arts lesson in which students composed and enacted an impromptu song and dance. I would have thought this impossible, but not the students, nor their teacher.

It was clear from the expressions on the students’ faces that they enjoyed the lesson. The absence of a larger social meaning in the activity was more of a fault with the curriculum design than with the teacher’s purpose for the lesson. The lesson had achieved its purpose by giving students an opportunity to express their artistic skills in composing, singing ad dancing.

The children in this school came from a remote  part of Malawi. They were using a powerful medium of expression and knowledge-making. Although such performances of theatre, song and dance have become universal ways of disseminating what has come to be described as “civic education”, they also serve as a way through which communities engage and interact with social change. Communities use such performances to talk to authorities, subvert unequal power relations, and celebrate a vibrance and vitality that is easily missed in the top-down, one-way discourse of officialdom.

While Malawian artists have exploited these forms of expression in music, poetry, film, painting, and pottery, among others, aid workers and government departments have also used these art forms to disseminate civic information and development messages. The comedy duo of Chindime and Samalani  appear at public functions, on TV and in radio sketches to make Malawians laugh while conveying public service messages. Sadly, Samalani, real name Elias Chimbalu, passed away at the end of June. He was aged 40. Chindime ndi Samalani perfected the art of theatre for development in an arena whose other great performers include The Story Workshop, Timveni Arts,  and Theatre for a Change.

The current sensation on the Malawian music front this year has been Lawi. With Francis Phiri as his real name, Lawi adopted his nickname from ‘Malawi’ (Lawi singular, Malawi plural). The genius of Lawi’s music is expressed in the everyday persona whose mass collectivity accumulates into the many flames that shine the Malawian path.

His song Amaona kuchedwa burst onto the scene early this year, and has enjoyed playtime on practically every radio station, entertainment joint, engagement parties and weddings. But it is his other songs that capture the warm heart of Africa that is Malawi in a range of childhood memories, images of the capital city Lilongwe, and the beauty of rural livelihoods. Lawi’s golden voice has charmed the Malawian ear in a way no other musician of his Afro-soul genre has done in recent memory. His is a phenomenal  addition to a tradition trailblazed by Wambali Mkandawire three decades ago.

In poetry, there is a new generation of performers who have taken over the mantle from the generation that fought the one party dictatorship. That generation was represented by scholar poets such as David Rubadiri, Felix Mnthali, Jack Mapanje, Steve Chimombo, Frank Chipasula, among others. They mostly wrote in English and taught in universities. Today the poetry that is telling the Malawian story is in Chichewa, and is performed by young poets. Many of them follow Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga in intonation and voice deflection, in deference to a poet who pioneered a genre.

As was with the earlier generation, there are still few women poets, but they pack an intellectual punch. Ovixlexla Bunya is a multi-talented artist who dabbles in TV, poetry and is also a student of philosophy. Days before the general elections on 20th May she released a recorded Chichewa poem that subtly laid bare the shenanigans of the major political parties that were contesting. Titled after a campaign slogan, ‘Dzuka, Malawi, Dzuka’ (Wake up, Malawi, Wake up), it is a rapid-fire narrative crafted in a powerful, moving lexicon that brings sobriety to the inebriation of blind partisanship.
Ovixlexla Bunya, poet, artist, TV personality

Malawian artists tell all. They have seen governments come and go. They have given artistic interpretation to scandal, crime and vice. They will continue reflecting the kind of society Malawi is. They will keep imagining and re-imagining the future. They will tell more Malawian stories through song and dance, tears and laughter. That is why the arts and the humanities need to continue being an integral part of the school curriculum from primary through to university, including teacher education.

* A version of this post first appeared as an article under a different title in The Malawi News of Saturday 26th July, 2014.