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.
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 this very rare class every student had a textbook. |
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
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.
Labels: Chancellor College, language in education, language of instruction, LUANAR, Malawi, mother tongue, textbooks, University Entrance Exams