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Opinion - Mother tongue ideology and multilingual Namibia

2021-08-20  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Mother tongue ideology and multilingual Namibia
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Dr Paulinus Haingura 

The mother tongue ideology is based on the belief that every speaker has only one single mother tongue (MT). It is my view that, having so many languages within Namibia, it would be impossible to expect that in a complex multilingual country (such as ours), every citizen has only one single ‘MT’. As a consequence, it would make no sense to strictly enforce mother tongue education (MTE) in Namibia (Haingura, 2017). In this article, I, therefore, tend to argue as I have argued elsewhere (Haingura, 2017) that implementing a MTE programme in Namibia would be “tantamount to ‘monolingualisation’: i.e. reducing the heteroglossia of individual speakers either to monolingualism or a dichotomy of between mother tongue and target language” (Busch, 2010, p. 293). In this conceptualisation, there are problems with the applicability of the mother tongue-based bilingualism model in multilingual contexts, because it appears conceptualised and described in monolingual terms. Based on the monolingual perception of a direct relationship between language and identity, the failure of imported models of education is crystallised in the language planning and policies in African education, which are pursuing a monolingual agenda. These language policies and the models that they spawn are designed for a monolingual child and his vernacular/mother tongue, or a child and his second language (in the Namibian case, English). “The models take an ‘either/or’ approach when, in fact, the two languages are both important, and thus both need to be developed as part of the child’s linguistic repertoire” (Banda, 2009, p. 6). This, therefore, means that there is a place for indigenous African languages (IALs) and English in the repertoires of late modern globalised societies throughout Africa (Banda, 2009).

It is very unfortunate that, currently, the teaching of IALs in Namibia is dominated by the mother tongue ideology, an ideology that has triggered the ongoing mother tongue debate. Motivated by the language rights paradigm and linguistic human rights activists, the mother tongue debate has further been fuelled by some linguistic imperialist arguments (Phillipson, 1992) relating specifically to the global dominance of English. One critical component of the notion of linguistic imperialism is the cultural domination of Africans through education in English. 

It is noteworthy that the two positions, namely linguistic imperialism (Phillipson, 1992) and linguistic human rights (Skutnabb-Kangas & Phillipson, 1995), consider the spread of English as a new form of colonialism, which poses a threat to language diversity and language rights. In keeping with the linguistic human rights’ position, for instance, each individual has (or should have) the right to use her or his MT at home and also to get an education in that language. I, therefore, argue that however noble this position may be in its goals, it is based on the problematic notion of mother tongue and on an “essentialisation of the communities purported to benefit from this framework” (Lee & Norton, 2009: 281).

To briefly illustrate the absurdity of the linguistic human rights’ position, I take my own family as an example, focusing on my two biological children who were born to a Rukwangali-speaking mother, but have since switched from their ‘MT’, viz. Rukwangali, to Afrikaans as their ‘home language’, soon after the death of their biological mother, and my youngest daughter who to date is not competent in her presumed MT (Khoekoegowab). Funny enough, my two teenage children might now be told by the linguistic human rights activists to get an education in their presumed MT (in this case, Rukwangali), even though they do not speak it any longer, and my youngest daughter would be required to get an education in Khoekhoegowab, her presumed MT, even though she does not (currently) speak the language, which (to me) is “a rather absurd and counterproductive position, to say the least” (Weber & Horner, 2012, p. 46). From the above, it is thus patently clear that these are essentialist tendencies, which are associated with the notion of the Linguistic Human Rights (LHRs) movement (Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas, 1995), where “an almost ineluctable connection between language and (ethnic) identity” is presumed (May 2005, p. 327).

Unfortunately, like most other African governments, the Namibian government continues to experiment with MTE, following the undifferentiated call from numerous researchers and academics for (the right to) MTE. As observed by Weber and Horner (2012), such a call, however valid in theoretical terms, may be counter-productive in actual practice: indeed, in our globalised late modern societies, there is often a wide range of (assumed) mother tongues that the state can easily opt out of its responsibilities, by means of the commonsensical argument that in any case, it would be impossible to organise mother tongue education for each individual child (Haingura, 2017).

In spite of that, some researchers continue to support MTE as the best way of ensuring children’s success. Consequently, it is fair for me to conclude that the MT or L1 MoI debate primarily stemmed from research contexts which propagated that children learn a second language more easily after having been thoroughly grounded in their MT or home language (HL) (Brock-Utne, 1995). Studies by some scholars (Bamgbose, 1976, cited by Brock-Utne, 1997; Duminy, 1967) posit that children become more proficient in a foreign language through first developing proficiency in their own. Nevertheless, consolidation of proficiency in an indigenous African language (IAL) first, to enable successful acquisition of English, is clearly counterproductive, particularly in communities where people speak two languages or more with varying degrees of proficiency (Banda, 2009). Furthermore, scholars who indulge in this kind of theorising are constantly at pains to explain this to their detractors (Haingura, 2017). As Crafford (1989 in Brock-Utne, 1997, p. 254) so aptly observes, trying to convince a critic that gaining proficiency in an IAL language first is the “best route to full English proficiency is like trying to persuade someone that the best way to go west is to go east first”. It is therefore crucial for teachers to respect the whole of their learners’ linguistic repertoires if they want to provide them with the best possible chances of educational success (Weber & Horner, 2012). This means neither simplifying the children’s repertoires by reducing them to a small number of standard languages nor merely celebrating what some scholars call their ‘translanguaging’ (García, 2009). On the contrary, teachers need to build upon all the children’s linguistic resources in a positive and constructive way (Weber & Horner, 2012). “Indeed, it is important to take into account all the children’s resources and to build the best possible education system upon these foundations” (Weber & Horner, 2012, p. 78).


2021-08-20  Staff Reporter

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