The perils of non-mother-tongue instruction

More than 250 million children around the world have not mastered basic mathematics and reading, costing governments US$129 billion annually in child support. In Africa an estimated 40% of children are in this position, significantly affecting the continent’s economic development.

While it was easy to blame the usual suspects, including poor teacher training and lack of access to schools, these factors ignored the impact of language of tuition, according to Sam Mchombo, associate professor of African languages in the department of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States.

Addressing the 10th annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN, in South Africa, Mchombo highlighted the dire consequences of imposed tuition language on human capital potential.

Colonial legacies

Colonial legacies meant that knowledge was not being delivered in a language that children understood, he said.

“There is no expectation that a Swedish child will enter the schooling system and not be taught in Swedish. That child will learn English later in their education, but not as a first entry. So why is that happening elsewhere?” he asked.

He said this “linguistic incarceration” had a long-term effect on children’s education. Educators should be aware of political motivations behind language choice, he said, describing a government’s call to introduce Mandarin Chinese into the schooling system as a political rather than linguistic move.

Ayo Bamgbose, emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, said while language remained “a burning issue” in South Africa, across Africa language of instruction was an ongoing topic of debate. He said in 1992, when Nigeria embarked on a mass literacy campaign, there was no discussion on the context in which that education would happen.

Given that Nigerians speak more than 500 languages, Bamgbose said this framed the campaign in a negative manner before it had even begun. The adoption of multilingualism further entrenched the practice of using the imported languages of English and French over local languages, he said.

Debunking myths

Bamgbose said the argument that African languages “cannot cope with scientific concepts” underpinned the reason for dismissing them as a medium of tuition beyond the first three years of primary education. Yet, such myths had been debunked, he said.

Bamgbose said the earliest occurrences of African languages in higher education were in the form of linguistic studies by non-native speakers. Thereafter, native speakers researched the subject, but used English or French as the language of description.

“There is an irony in knowing that the visibility of African languages started in higher education with the overall result being a stock of research material such as dictionaries, grammar books and other texts,” he said.

While there have been strides in the teaching of African languages as higher education subjects, there will be a sense of achievement when students can take their degrees in that medium, he said. In this respect, Bamgbose highlighted the measures UKZN has taken in profiling and promoting the Zulu language.

He said universities and higher education institutions cannot be held back merely because they depend on textbooks and knowledge systems delivered in English or French. Had the Chinese or Japanese institutions followed that logic, the two nations would not have achieved what they have in mathematics and engineering.

He added that while there can be concessions in what is discussed, it was important that the whole of African education be delivered to children in their local, home or mother tongue. This was how societies developed and achieved success. Not doing so would potentially hold back African advancement, he said.

Language as a human right

While there were arguments supporting the use of colonial languages, specifically English and French, as support languages in education, they should not be used as the primary medium of instruction. He said the issues holding back the implementation of African languages as primary media of instruction were not “insurmountable”, particularly given the fact that mother tongue language use was protected as a human right.

“The challenge lies in going beyond using African languages informally, to the point at which an entire BSc in chemistry is read in Zulu. However, where there is a weak pre-tertiary language background, you cannot expect a sound grounding in the language to be used for tertiary study,” he said.