Of all the poor decisions that set Zambia on its course to become one of the twenty least developed countries in the world, one of the most notable was taken in 1966, when the newly-independent country’s Education Minister chose to endorse the recommendation, made by a group of Western educationalists, that “The medium of instruction should be English, from the beginning of schooling.”
This decision was not unique: virtually every ex-colonial country has continued to use European languages in its schools, despite the fact that most children arrive in school with little or no knowledge of these languages. These countries were following an illustrious tradition. For over a millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire, the old colonial language, Latin, remained the language of education in Europe. Like English in Africa, Latin had many purported benefits: it was a language of prestige, it was the language of the church, it was a lingua franca in an era of dialectal diversity, and a body of fine literature existed in the language. Indeed, in early British grammar schools, education consisted almost entirely of the rote-learning of Latin.
We can only speculate how the minds of medieval children developed as a result of this style of schooling – they were lucky enough to live in an era when widespread literacy and numeracy were not expected – but in modern African schools its effects are appalling. With lessons given in an alien language, pupils have little chance to develop real understanding, and school becomes an exercise in mindless repetition. The extent to which rote learning in a foreign language promotes genuine literacy can be judged from the following observation, made in a Zambian primary school:
“In one classroom a child correctly recalled the sentence ‘They are cooking’ while looking at the ceiling, only to be admonished by the teacher who said ‘When you say the words, you have to look at them. That is what reading is.’” (Williams 1998)
This quote comes from a 1990s paper comparing educational achievement in Zambia, which was then persisting with its English-only policy, and neighbouring Malawi, where pupils are taught in the native language in Grades 1-4 before switching to English. The paper concluded, damningly, that the Zambian pupils’ four years head start in English learning had made absolutely no measurable difference to their level of reading and writing in the language, which was equally poor in both countries. Meanwhile, the Malawian pupils had at least succeeded in acquiring a reasonable level of literacy in their own language.
When the total failure of English-only teaching in Zambia had become impossible to ignore - only 3% of pupils were emerging from primary school with the ability to read at “desirable” levels - the government introduced a new Primary Reading Programme, under which pupils were taught reading and writing in native languages at Grade 1, before moving on to English in Grade 2. The results, according to a subsequent evaluation by the Ministry of Education, were “astonishing”. Test results in Grade 1 improved by 780%, and test results in Grade 2 – in English – improved by 575%.
This was a good start, but Zambia’s educational problems are far from solved. Subsequent investigations have highlighted the struggle that Grade 2 pupils face in switching from native languages to English, in which they must learn to associate letters with new and inconsistent sounds, at an age when reading and writing have not been fully mastered. Overall literacy results in Zambian schools remain among the worst in the world. Meanwhile, evidence accumulates from other African countries showing that the best way to promote genuine learning is to continue using native languages throughout primary school, with the European language as one subject in the curriculum, taught through the medium of a language that the pupils actually understand.
A common excuse for failing to properly adopt local languages in the classroom is a lack of materials. Programmes such as iSchool can help here – not just by disseminating localised and translated materials, but by building the capacity and confidence among teachers to develop and translate materials for themselves, which would be essential if all Zambia’s 73 languages were to be provided for.
The main reason why Zambia and other countries maintain their blatantly ineffective language policies, however, is political. Just as medieval society saw the use of Latin as the defining feature of a good education, many African parents define education as the reading and writing of English. Literacy in local languages is regarded as a pointless distraction from this goal. A recent investigation in Tanzania found that improving the standard of Swahili teaching in schools actually reduced the amount that parents were willing to pay in school fees. Wishing children to learn English, the language of business and higher education, is a legitimate aspiration, but hardly anyone has taken the trouble to explain to stakeholders that this goal would be best served by teaching it through the medium of children’s own languages.
International aid donors and NGOs should do a lot more here: Westerners helped create Africa’s bad school systems, and bear some of the responsibility for fixing them. But a real change in attitudes will only come when parents and policymakers have seen what a genuinely good education is like, and what it can do for a child. Most have simply never experienced the complete effortlessness with which a highly literate speaker can read in a language they are fluent in, or the ease with which technical concepts can be understood when presented in one’s mother tongue.
Once again, iSchool can help. But so long as government policy and parents’ attitudes require that most of its content be in English, Zambian pupils will continue to emerge from school almost as ill-equipped as a medieval scholar of Latin to compete in a 21st century economy.
Non scholae, sed vitae discimus.
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