Government about-turn on student teacher language policy

The Zimbabwean government has come up with a policy making it mandatory for student teachers to learn three local languages in an attempt to address poor pass rates, particularly in Matabeleland in the south of the country, where the isiNdebele language is widely spoken.

The new policy comes in response to complaints that chiShona-speaking graduates coming from the country’s teacher training colleges were unable to communicate with locals, especially in rural areas, due to language barriers.

Under former president Robert Mugabe, the government dismissed calls for the deployment of teachers conversant in local languages on grounds that there was no link between poor pass rates and language differences.

However, Mugabe’s removal from power last November and his replacement by his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has prompted a shift in the ministry’s approach.

Zimbabwe’s state media last week reported that new Higher and Tertiary Education Minister, Professor Amon Murwira, said principals at teacher training colleges had been informed about the new requirement for student teachers to learn three local languages.

He said the new policy takes effect in the coming intake and students will be required to choose among any of the 16 official languages recognised by the country’s constitution.

“All our students … must learn at least three languages so that as a Zimbabwean you can go and communicate with elders anywhere in the country. We are saying besides your mother tongue that you were born with, you must learn three others in the Constitution,” local media reported the minister as saying.

Murwira said the policy shift in terms of languages was meant to ensure diversity and inclusivity regardless of ethnic background.

The president of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe Dr Takavafira Zhou told University World News that the minister had put the cart before the horse in coming up with the three-languages strategy.

However, he said the idea of teaching local languages is appropriate.

“What is needed first is to come up with a language policy and you will then have a language board that decides on these things. What is not clear is how the minister arrived at [the figure of] three languages because we do not have a formula. Some of these things need research,” said Zhou.

“I think there is a need to divide the country into zones and define the local language so that it depends on the zones.”

He said the deployment of teachers knowledgeable in a local language was necessary at primary school level only, but should not apply at secondary school.

Zimbabwe Teachers' Association chief executive officer Sifiso Ndlovu said the learning of local languages should not be restricted to student teachers only because it has the benefit of fighting intolerance and fostering integration and national unity.

“However, this is a good beginning because it’s through language that society would be integrated. The challenge we have been having is that teachers were deployed to where they don’t know the language and they are teaching infants. Children are bound to fail and that is a crime,” said Ndlovu.

During Mugabe’s era, former education minister Lazarus Dokora told parliament in 2016 there was no relation between poor pass rates and language differences. He said this after an opposition member of parliament asked him about the government’s policy on the deployment of Shona-speaking teachers in Matabeleland, where isiNdebele is the most widely-used language. It is also the area where former President Robert Mugabe launched a massive security clampdown in the early 1980s that is estimated to have killed between 10,000-20,000 civilians.

Dokora said then that it was not government’s policy to discriminate against teachers based on language differences.

“To associate language and failure … is misleading and is not educational in terms of an analysis of this phenomenon of pass rates or performance of learners. If it were true that it is on a one-to-one relationship, I would be getting 100% passes in those areas where the teacher is a mother tongue language speaker of that area,” said Dokora.

He said it was unfair for parents to call for the transfer of teachers from the Matabeleland region based on language.

In 2015, seven men were arrested for storming a school in the country’s Matabeleland region demanding the removal of a headmistress claiming she was a Shona.