Thursday, September 08, 2016

Literacy, Language and Power: Thoughts on International Literacy Day 2016

It warms my heart that today, 8th September 2016, Malawi is celebrating the International Literacy Day on its designated day. More often than not, we are jolted into action after seeing what other parts of the world are doing on the day, and then we go “Ah! So today is International Literacy Day? Let us choose a day to commemorate it.” So we end up doing the commemoration in the latter part of the month, or even in October.

This year, a press release was floated in the papers a week or so ahead of the day. Two ministers, for Education, Science and Technology (Dr. Emmanuel Fabiano), and Gender (Dr. Jean Kalilani) are expected to be at Champiti Primary School in Ntcheu district to commemorate the day.

Photo credit: Steve Sharra
This brings back memories of how we commemorated the day in 2010. A few weeks to the day, I went around knocking on people’s office doors at Capital Hill asking if there were any events planned to commemorate the day. I went to the Ministry of Education where the then acting Secretary for Education, Science and Technology was not in office that day. His secretary referred me to one of the directors. The director told me that the Ministry of Gender had traditionally commemorated the day, so they might be better placed to know if there were any events being planned.

I went to the Ministry of Gender, met a director, and learned that there was no event being planned. Shouldn’t this be a Ministry of Education event, actually? Asked the director, rhetorically. As I wrote in a blogpost in 2010, it dawned on me that “literacy” in Malawi’s seat of government, at least as of 2010, was understood as “adult literacy.”

It wasn’t until I met the National Librarian, Mr Grey Nyali, that we managed to put together an event. We went to Zodiak Broadcasting Station, where Winston Mwale, a former teacher turned journalist, jumped at the idea. We pre-recorded a one-hour panel discussion, which aired on ZBS on 8th September 2010.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the International Literacy Day. The theme this year is “Reading the Past, Writing the Future,” according to UNESCO. As is the case every year, the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes are being awarded. They are the King Sejong Literacy Prize and the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy.

The King Sejong Literacy Prize is being awarded to organisations in Vietnam and Thailand. In Vietnam the Center for Knowledge Assistance and Community Development is working to bring books to rural communities. In Thailand the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, at Mahidol University, has a programme that promotes multilingual education.

The Confucius Prize is being awarded to three winners in South Africa, Senegal and India. They are the South African Department of Basic Education, for a mass literacy campaign; the Directorate of Literacy and National Languages in Senegal; and the Jan Shikshan Sansthan organisation, in Kerala, India.

All the five winners appear to have a common cause: promoting literacy amongst marginalised groups. Although the winning organisations seem to be going about pursuing this common interest in various ways, at the core of their endeavours is the role of language in promoting literacy. Two problems continue to pose a remarkable obstacle in the way we think about literacy.

The first problem lies in the way literacy is understood in most societies. Because we see the school as the primary agency for imparting literacy skills, we think of literacy in academic terms only. Reading and writing tend to be the standard markers of literacy. We do not think of literacy in cultural and organic terms, referred to as “vernacular literacies” by the literacy researcher David Barton.

Barton (2007) argues that we enact literacy activities in our everyday lives, many of them hidden from public view, and occurring outside reading and writing. Examples include how we relate with others, earn livelihoods, feed ourselves and our families, and acquire new knowledge, among others. When these activities do not involve overt reading and writing practices, we do not think of them as literacy events.

The second problem is the tyrannical dualism that resides in officialdom and defines language as either official or national. This is particularly the case in countries that were formerly colonised. The ruling elites of these countries think of language in either-or terms, and impose English, or whichever colonial language the country inherited, as the official language. The idea that an indigenous language can be given the same status as the colonial language and co-exist with it is anathema to them.

There has been a plethora of research and advocacy, from universities and international cultural organisations such as UNESCO, arguing for the importance of linguistic diversity in national language policies. Much of it falls on barren ground. The elites have dug in, and have bought into the linguistic monoculture sold by English-only imperialism.

Everyday litreacies. Photo credit: Steve Sharra
In most formerly colonised countries, indigenous languages are not taught in the public school systems. When they are, they are used for the first four years of primary schooling, after which English takes over. In the case of Malawi, the Education Act of 2013 goes as far as prohibiting indigenous languages from the school system, declaring English as the language of instruction from Standard One.

But English imperialism is global. In a 2010 article, Sonia Nieto, now professor emerita of Language, Literacy and Culture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote about the struggle for linguistic diversity in American schools. She wrote about how as a child, she was told not to speak Spanish on school premises because it was “rude.” This was one example, of many, which demonstrated to her the “power of language to either affirm or disaffirm one’s identity.” Nieto argued that for 21st century education, “knowing more than one language is an asset rather than a disability, particularly in these times of globalisation and increased immigration.”

In a 6 September article on The Conversation, Carolyn McKinney and Xolisa Guzula, a University of Cape Town professor and PhD candidate respectively, write about how South African schools “use language as a way to exclude children.” Written in the wake of revelations about South African schools which discipline students for speaking indigenous languages, they point out that recent research in language, bilingualism and bilingual education shows that there are academic benefits to students being allowed to use more than one language in the classroom.  

What I find surprising is that this comes as a surprise, at least in South Africa. In Malawi and in much of the Southern African region, indigenous languages are seen, by the elites, as a burden that needs to be rid of. Almost all private schools in Malawi prohibit students from speaking Malawian languages on school premises. The idea behind the trend is that students will improve their spoken English if they are prevented from speaking indigenous languages.

The imperative for students to improve English proficiency is as undeniable as it is well meaning. English opens doors to advanced knowledge and to careers. The problem arises when this belief is taken to extremes and becomes what Nieto calls an “ideology of exclusion and dominance” that views diversity as a negative rather than a positive. McKinney and Guzula say this ideology sees “language as a problem” instead of a resource. It is an ideology borne of what they term “Anglonormativity”, the perception that if one is not proficient in English, one is deficient.

When I was in secondary school, at Nankhunda Seminary and later at Police Secondary School, my best friend and I made an agreement that we would speak to each other only in English. A few other friends joined us. It helped us enormously, and enabled us to become proficient in English. It was an arrangement we made willingly without coercion from school authorities. As a result, we became creative in how we went about improving our English. We competed in who would read the most novels in one week, and who would write the most fiction.

The problem with schools prohibiting the use of indigenous languages and forcing students to speak English only is that it reinforces everything that is negative and hated about schooling. It curtails students’ motivation to learn, and stifles their creativity. It prevents students from developing responsibility for their own learning, the most important cognitive skill schools should teach.

English becomes associated with fear and a deep sense of inferiority. It becomes one of the reasons many students fail in school and in life. It is important that we encourage students to become proficient in English, but fear and dread and are not the best approaches to achieve this.

Malawi’s abysmal educational attainment statistics are a consequence of these beliefs and vices, carried on into adulthood and perpetuating themselves in our society. Every year close to one million Malawian children enter school. After eight years, only 250,000 survive to sit the primary school leaving certificate. After four years, 150,000 of them survive to sit the secondary school leaving certificate. Of these, no more than 50,000 make it into tertiary education.

Photo credit: Steve Sharra
The verdict on these hundreds of thousands of students that do not make it to the top is that they are failures, a label that becomes self-fulfilling, and life-long. Yet many of them are very bright people with diverse gifts that are neither recognised nor rewarded. As Julius Nyerere put it in 1967, Africans now get the “worst of both systems.” The modern education system fails too many people, who have nothing to fall back on as the indigenous knowledge systems that sustained life before Westernisation have also been destroyed by colonialism.

The challenge of language and literacy educators today is to support teachers, schools, students and communities with intellectual contexts in which multilingualism is seen as practical and beneficial. Such contexts range from personal anecdotes and experiences to research practices and policy imperatives in local and global contexts.

For us in Africa and in formerly colonised parts of the world, Ngugi wa Thiongó (2005) has laid this out as “the challenge of our history.” That challenge is for African intellectuals to “do for their languages and cultures what all other intellectuals in history have done for theirs.” It is fitting that in commemorating this year’s International Literacy Day, UNESCO is calling for “Reading the Past, Writing the Future.”


20 comments:

  1. Interesting and informative article. I too was at Nankhunda Seminary but in the '50s. English was taught intensively but along with Latin and Chinyanja, all of which were Form IV Cambridge Senior Secondary School Examination subjects. There was no preference of one over the other, although non-languiage subjects were taught in English which indirectly gave it primacy. In daily activities one was free to speak in English, Latin or Chinyanja. However, one went to Likulezi Preparatory School befor Nankhunda and there it was compulsory to speak English throughout the day, from sunrise to sunset Monday to Friday. On Saturday, Sunday or public holidays, pupils were free to speak vernaculars. There was punishment for speaking even a single non-English word. Since we were aged 9 to 12, this was a very effective way of transiting from thinking in the vernacular to thinking in English. How much harm did it do? I have seen no studieson this and so I'm unable to say. However, from observing multilingual families, I can also attest to the fact that children's brains are plastic and can learn several languages simultaneously if exposed to a multilingual environment.

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  2. Comment 1 of 1 should not have been anonymous. It should have been signed Louis Nthenda.

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  3. Very interesting that you went to Nankhunda as well, Dr Nthenda. We had Latin in our first year but the teacher fell sick at the end of the year. He went to Italy, and never returned. He used to whip anyone for the slightest mistake in Latin. We barely survived his class without wetting our pants. A classmate once bled from being whipped. I believe that the best learning happens when the learner takes responsibility for it, and becomes intrinsically motivated. The benefits of multilingual education remain unexplored and unrealised, because of the dominance of the English monoculture.

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  4. Very interesting that you went to Nankhunda well, Dr. Nthenda. America had in our first year, but the teacher fell ill at the end of the year. He went to Italy, and never returned. It is used to whip everyone for the slightest mistake in America. They barely survived his class without wetting his pants. A classmate once bled beaten. I think the best learning takes place when the student takes responsibility and becomes intrinsically motivated. The benefits of multilingual education remain unexplored and unrealized, due to the predominance of English monocultures.
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