The Classroom Compromise: Preserving Mother Tongue Languages in African Schools

Did you know that one language disappears on average every two weeks, often taking with it the correlating cultural heritage and traditions? Today, February 21st, we celebrate International Mother Language Day, started in 2000, to promote mother tongue-based multilingual education and preserve linguistic diversity. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, governments, schools and scholars across the African continent are torn over language usage in education.

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Many African governments have taken a strong stance on the language of instruction, amidst a global debate over its’ role in primary education. Some governments have opted for public schooling to be entirely in English meanwhile other have establish policies that are more inclusive of a diversity of languages. Liberia, for example, decided that all public schooling should be completely in English, whereas the Government of Zambia pushed for early primary grades to be in local languages while English language instruction starts in grade 5.

Studies have shown that students greatly benefit from learning in their mother tongue, especially in the early years of education. According to the United Nations, “To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired.”

On the other hand it is hard to argue against the importance of English and the opportunities its mastery opens up for young people. In African countries where job opportunities are few, English has become not only a competitive advantage but a necessity to obtain paid employment.

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The debate also trickles down to community level where parents, students and teachers are in two minds over what language their children should be taught in. “There is a divide between parents who want their children’s schooling to be in English and those who want their schooling to be in local language,” says Daniel Mwanza, who works for education NGO, Impact Network, in Zambia.  “This is usually a split between those parents who are literate and those who are not.”

“Literate parents see the opportunities that speaking English brings to their children and communities, therefore they want them to learn it from a young age. Meanwhile illiterate parents can feel disconnected to school life that is conducted in a foreign language, being less inclined to send their children to school on a regular basis or at all.” Mwanza says.

He goes on to underscore that “a complete emphasis on English takes away from local culture. There is so much of our Chewa culture in Eastern Zambia that cannot be described or understood through English. If instruction was only in English students might disengage from the culture that has made them who they are.”

As International organizations are heavily involved in education across the African continent, the debate on language of instruction also relates closely to wider questions of participation, inclusiveness and the agency of communities in shaping education initiatives.

Chinelo Nwosu, Program Manager for Impact Network explains: “I have seen the true importance of one’s mother tongue in an educational space. While developing community-based programs in Rwanda while I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I found that participation and engagement drastically increased when activities were conducted in the local language instead of English. When assessing the status of education and potential interventions in countries where English is not the first language, many believe that a child’s access to English will be a cure-all; completely disregarding the students’ most useful resource for agency; their mother tongue.”   

Impact Network focuses on providing access to quality education in rural Zambia using students’ mother tongue language as well as frequent exposure to English. Impact Network developed the eSchool 360 model, a technological solution that delivers high-quality, low-cost and sustainable education to children in under-served areas. In partnership with Mwabu, they provide teachers with tablets and projectors to deliver class lessons taught in the mother tongue of students and teachers.

“I feel proud of Impact Network schools because we find a good balance between honoring our culture and being more inclusive to the community. At the same time we also emphasize the importance of English, were we are connecting that very community to further opportunities and capabilities,’ says Mwanza.

So in time for International Mother Language Day, Impact Network is taking the time to appreciate the importance of bridging the language debate and finding a compromise in the classroom to benefit everyone. As one of their teachers, John C. Lungu says, “Confidence in English will undoubtedly open up much needed opportunities for young people later in life. But we cannot forget about our local African languages that are integral to honoring our cultural diversity and setting students up well in the early years for success in life-long learning.”

- Felicia