Since African countries achieved their independence, they have been debating whether indigenous African languages can play a role in formal education – and, if so, how.
This debate still haunts intellectual and political discourses today, mostly in the context of development and globalisation – to use the current terminology.
A case in point is the Zimbabwean medical researcher Aceme Nyika’s article, Mother Tongue as the Medium of Instruction at Developing-Country Universities in a Global Context, in the South African Journal of Science earlier this year.
The journal’s Highlights of the Latest Issues captured Nyika’s salient points as follows: “Vernacular languages as the medium of instruction at universities: Are we shooting ourselves in the foot?”
The use of various vernacular languages as the medium of instruction at universities in South Africa could inadvertently limit the ability of graduates to participate in mainstream national and global economies. This limitation could affect even the best graduates, as Nyika has argued.
Universities in developing countries should foster the development of knowledge-driven economies by producing graduates who are competitive, not only in some provincial or national localities but also around the globe. Although the international use of English and French can be attributed to colonisation, spending scarce resources on efforts to replace colonial languages with vernacular languages, although politically plausible, may be at the expense of socioeconomic development.
This development is badly needed within previously disadvantaged populations, most of whom are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, resulting from inadequate education or skills and limited participation in national and global mainstream economic activities. This marginalising of millions of people in turn perpetuates poverty from generation to generation.
Nyika’s polemic against the introduction of African languages into secondary and tertiary education in Africa adds no new facts to the political pros and cons regarding the empowerment of indigenous African languages.
His article remains caught in a number of well-known misunderstandings about sociolinguistic and pedagogical facts.
Interestingly, why this should be such a matter of concern and fervent dispute in Africa but not in Asian countries that have a comparable colonial past, for instance, is never raised. Who in those countries would question the natural role that Hindi, Thai and Korean, not to speak of Japanese and Chinese, must play in the education of globally competitive university graduates?
The generally negative attitude of many African intellectuals towards African languages has almost no parallel in other parts of the world.
Reviewing a list of constantly repeated arguments against the use of African languages in education beyond lower-primary school grades, Nyika’s position perpetuates British colonial practice. It is a position that remains unaffected by the results of half a century of empirical sociolinguistic and pedagogical research in Africa and beyond.
But widespread misunderstandings of this research have often been used to undermine almost all these arguments. Nyika is not alone in taking such an uninformed position: he shares it with a large number of scholars from the social sciences and economics, who lack professional sociolinguistic competence.
Here are the four most widespread basic misunderstandings:
The ‘either-or’ fallacy
The strong position that anti-colonialist and early anti-imperialist activists took was to replace colonial languages with vernacular languages for obvious symbolic political purposes. But such activism has long been put to eternal rest.
Rather, it is mother tongue-based bilingualism that is on the agenda. This means that education systems must provide access in at least two languages to meet the goals of 21st-century education and for all learners to compete with graduates in developing countries, and to close the economic and language gaps between them and the so-called developed countries.
Of these two languages, one must be a language of optimal learning and individual intellectual and cognitive development, and the other must be a language of social and professional upward mobility and global economic interaction – that is, it needs to be also a language of science, global knowledge and rich educational literature.
Only in exceptional cases will these two languages be the same. It is the case only in countries where a global language is the mother tongue of the majority of the students; in other words, this only applies to the formerly colonial languages.
‘The longer the better, the earlier the better’ fallacy
Most nonexperts believe that successful language learning in education depends on the length of time that pupils and students are taught the language concerned.
But there is no empirical evidence for this; rather, it is the quality of teaching that matters.
The decisive factor for learning English, for instance, is the linguistic and pedagogical qualifications of the teachers. Secondarily, it is the linguistic habitat of the learners, for example, whether English plays any role in their daily lives outside the classroom and the school compound.
Language teachers in Africa tend to suffer deficiencies because of underperforming training institutions, both in terms of proficiency in the language of teaching and also in how to teach a foreign language. In African schools, English is taught according to the colonial model, as though it was the mother tongue of both the teachers and students.
This approach works in the largely monolingual motherland of the language, such as the United Kingdom, but not in African post-colonies, where almost no mother-tongue populations speaking ex-colonial languages exist, although South Africa is an exception.
The ‘teaching content matter helps to acquire the language of instruction’ fallacy
Language students must be taught language itself professionally, and not, for example, through mathematics or geography, in the naive hope that exposure to new content matter will mysteriously also increase the linguistic competence of students.
Rather, the language of instruction and content matter are linked: examination marks in maths and science, for instance, do not reflect the students’ grasp of the content matter, but simply their proficiency regarding the language of instruction – that is, English.
The ‘total immersion’ fallacy
The reckless immersion of learners in a foreign-language education system will, admittedly, leave a few survivors, but most will drown. That there will be some survivors provides no good argument in favour of a system that neglects all those who don’t make it.
Education must proceed from the known to the unknown. Language must be taught through language, and everything is best taught through a familiar language. Between six and eight years of professional foreign-language teaching are needed before a language can be used profitably to acquire new knowledge.
But African children are forced to exit their mother-tongue medium of instruction after two or three years, with English taking its place, and this immediately results in dramatic failures in teaching and learning.
Where to go
Two strategies are needed to overcome the persisting academic mediocrity in underperforming education systems in Africa:
- African students must be educated at all levels of formal education in a language they have already mastered when they start school. This will make them globally competitive in terms of intellectual, cognitive and creative development with their peers who are privileged by being educated in their own mother tongues; and
- African students need to be exposed to global languages by professional and properly equipped teachers in order to compete with those who have been exposed to the professionally sound teaching of additional languages such as English.
For both these strategies, African education systems are ill-equipped. For example:
- Only a few universities in Africa are involved in curriculum development and the intellectualisation of African languages, such as isiXhosa at Rhodes University, and so to create the basis for teaching in African languages at all levels of formal education, and to enhance the training of language teachers for these languages; and
- African teachers remain devastatingly ill-trained to teach both African languages and foreign languages professionally. The few who are able to do so are drawn into private institutions. This has a detrimental impact on mass education and the necessary societal transformations.
In Africa, monolingual foreign language-based educational systems have failed across the board: African societies are essentially multilingual, and African students are, as a rule, individually multilingual.
Education systems must build on this. Not to do so is a waste of human, intellectual, cognitive, creative and cultural resources – and this is what Africa cannot afford.
Critics are right when they say there is no empirical evidence to prove that the use of African languages at universities and at other educational levels, together with the professional teaching of nonindigenous languages, will unleash the individual cognitive and creative potential of graduates, as well as advance the learning of global languages.
No African government or African university has ever dared to try. But it is high time they did so – to help Africa catch up with global competitors who do exactly that.
H Ekkehard Wolff is emeritus professor and chair of African linguistics at Leipzig University in Germany and a visiting professor in African language studies at Rhodes University