• November 13th, 2019

Implementing language policies in Southern Africa: A daunting task (Part 2)


Professor Jairos Kangira

The prestige that foreign languages have over indigenous African language has created social constructs in ways that downgrade indigenous languages. In Seychelles, for instance, parents despise their own Creole, regarding it not a proper language. They oppose it for language teaching as they consider it not prestigious enough for education. 

Studies have shown that some parents resist the use of indigenous languages at school, arguing that their children should be taught in English in order to have a good command of the global language. In 2012, I was in a team of local language experts that carried out a study on language preferences in schools in the Khomas Region. We published the results under the title: Views and preferences of parents, teachers and principals on the implementation of the language policy in primary schools in Namibia: An explorative study of the Khomas region.

We found that the learners’ ability to use English proficiently in both speech and writing has been associated with success and upward mobility. As a language of wider communication, English has opened opportunities for employment across the globe. It becomes natural for parents to demand that their children be taught in English from Grade one onwards fearing that without English, their children will be doomed in life. At least those were the views of the parents, teachers and principals who were interviewed.

Also, some parents worsen the indigenous-foreign language conundrum by advocating for English names for their children at the expense of their beautiful African names. For instance, in Zimbabwe, among the Shona speaking people, the following English names are common: Norest, Loveness, Talkmore, Godknows, Privilege, Nomatter, Surprise, Evidence, Evermore, Last, Takesure, Polite, Pretence, Perseverance, Witness, Peace, Manfire, Hatred, Energy, Pardon, Memory, Praise, Cloud, Sunshine, Eventhough, Editor, Forget,  Pretty, and Hardlife. Some of these names are not only ridiculous, but also funny. 

In South Africa, Ngcobo observes that “the language policy is objectively designed to maintain ethnic diversity and the politics of compromise.” The politics of compromise that led to the formation of a democratic South Africa influenced the decision of making 11 languages, the official languages of the country to be used at all levels. Although this is commendable, the dominance of English in most spheres in South Africa cannot be overlooked.

From a global perspective, challenges include the pressures of globalisation and increased volumes of information in English via the internet. In addition, there are many hurdles encountered in promoting bilingual and multilingual education and literacy, which include increasing the number of multicultural teachers, developing appropriate teaching materials and providing safe learning school environments for the intermixed nature of the population. 

Another major constraint on the implementation of the Language Policy is the unavailability of resources including human resources, funding, facilities, materials and books. This is a prevailing and common feature in the majority of the African countries that are still developing. 

 With many different indigenous languages in most of the countries studied, it is a big challenge to fund all those languages, suppose they are to be elevated to national and official languages. Faced with this problem, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in Zimbabwe is reported to be demanding that teachers must know at least three indigenous languages when they finish training for them to be hired in schools. Whether this is achievable or not remains a question to be answered by the implementers of such a policy. This intended policy has not gone down well with teachers’ unions which claim that such a demand on teachers is unreasonable and punitive.   

The problem is compounded by the lack of a clear policy or direction on indigenous languages and follow up by authorities.  Also, Government agencies advocating for the development of local languages do not receive the necessary funding as they do with social activities like soccer leagues and horse races. In some cases, some Government agencies have been closed down due to lack of funding. This has adversely affected the implementation of language policies in affected countries. For example, the closure of the Zimbabwe Literature Bureau which specialized in publishing books in indigenous languages seriously affected the development of indigenous literature.

The absence of strictly monitoring of the implementation of the policies in domains like primary, secondary and tertiary education, and training poses a major challenge as well. In Zimbabwe for example, most schools prefer to use English from the outset to ensure their students’ proficiency in English, which is considered the language of power and economic wellbeing disregarding the language policy that English language must be introduced at Grade 4 level. 

In most of the SADC countries, the policy on education stipulates that learners from Grade one to Grade three should be instructed in their mother tongue, but this is not strictly adhered to especially in private schools. Also, it is sometimes difficult to find a common language in some schools. In such cases, authorities have no other option but to use a foreign language like English. 

What would be a common language for the cosmopolitan city of Windhoek, for example? May be teachers would be required to know at least three indigenous languages in order to operate well.

The language policy is only feasible in rural schools where indigenous languages are predominantly spoken.
My academic journey to SADC countries in search of the truth and justice about treatment of indigenous languages landed me in Tanzania. My investigation made me conclude that the Tanzanian language policy is the best model which African countries could have adopted and adapted at independence. 

The most significant step that the government of Tanzania took at independence was to promote the development and usage of Swahili by setting up the National Swahili Council. The Council was established by an Act of Parliament in 1967. The Act spells out the functions of the National Swahili Council as: “to promote the development and usage of the Swahili language throughout the United Republic; to co-operate with other bodies in the United Republic which are concerned to promote the Swahili language and to endeavour to co-ordinate their activities; to encourage the use of the Swahili language in the conduct of official business and public life generally; to encourage the achievement of high standards in the use of the Swahili language and to discourage its misuse; to co-operate with the authorities concerned in establishing standard Swahili translation of technical terms; to publish a Swahili newspaper or magazine concerned with the Swahili language and literature; to provide services to the government, public authorities and individual authors writing in Swahili with respect to the Swahili language”. 

I found the following points of great interest as far as Swahili and English are used in education. The points are presented as they appear in the policy to avoid misrepresentation. Swahili is a medium of instruction in primary schools. Kiswahili is a compulsory subject in pre-primary, primary, secondary education levels and higher education.

As the way forward for SADC countries, the following should be done. There must be a change of the attitudes of the ruling elite so that they can see that they are perpetuating linguistic imperialism. African languages’ bodies and organs must lobby governments to promote the development of indigenous languages. There is need to establish African languages’ institutes at universities which will develop dictionaries, grammar books and promote fiction writing in indigenous languages. Governments and non-governmental organisations must fully finance the projects that aim to preserve indigenous languages. The private sector must be involved in the preservation and development of indigenous languages. It has been suggested that the use of the mother language should be extended to secondary school level so that learners can see the link between life at home and at school through their home languages. 

Language specialists should utilize new and technologically-based initiatives to develop and preserve each and every language. Computers can play a pivotal role in corpus planning especially in development of dictionaries and localizing content. Computers are also used in storing a large amount of speech-based and text-based corpora for further research in African languages. In order to ‘catch them young’, there is great need to develop nursery rhymes and songs in indigenous languages in order catch children young in their languages. SADC governments should adopt inclusive language policies. Language planners must give the former colonial languages and indigenous languages equal functional statuses. If indigenous languages are used in teaching and in school subject examinations, they will definitely gain prestige which they currently do not have.

More community radio stations using indigenous languages must be established. On this, Wright correctly argues that “radio services run by indigenous people can also contribute to political, cultural, educational and linguistic awareness.” This goes on to show how important modern technology can be utilized to promote the use and development of indigenous languages. 

There must be awareness campaigns to educate people on the importance of promoting their languages in order to preserve their culture since language and culture are inseparable. Cultural festivals like the Olufuko and Totem festivals in Oshiwambo must be fully supported by both government and the private sector. 

It is advisable for SADC countries to follow the Tanzanian Swahili model. One might even suggest that Southern Africa must just adopt Swahili language as a lingua franca.

In this exploratory article, I have managed to chronicle some of the challenges that SADC countries face in implementing their language policies. Judging from the researches done on this matter and the reality on the ground, there is enough evidence to suggest that governments, linguists, non-governmental organisations and other language practitioners need to work together more in order to change the statuses of indigenous languages. 

The suggestion is not to do away with foreign languages, but to create a conducive environment in which mutual and symbiotic functions can be promoted among indigenous and foreign languages in each country. The shining example of Swahili as it is used in Tanzania vis-a-vis English should inspire SADC countries to redress the language situations before some indigenous languages are forced into death or extinction. (A version of this article was published in Inkanyiso Journal.)

* Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: kjairos@gmail.com


Staff Reporter
2019-05-24 09:48:04 | 5 months ago

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