• June 6th, 2020

Swahili: A punishment to turn learners into ‘polygots’

The news that Cabinet wants to introduce Swahili language in schools has received condemnation and disapproval from language experts, educators and the public. While the intensions of the envisioned decision may seem to be good on the part of government, from a linguistic point of view, it is totally not necessary to overburden learners with learning Swahili in a country like Namibia, which is already a multilingual country.

 As I see it, there is no urgent need to make Swahili or any other foreign language compulsory for all learners in Namibia. It would be a punishment to make the learners polygots, while they already have problems in mastering their own and other languages. 

When we talk of a polygot in linguistics, we mean a person who can speak and use many languages. There is no agreement as to how many languages one has to master to be called a polygot.
I have used this word in these articles as a euphemism to illustrate the burden that learners would have if they were to compulsorily learn another language or other languages on top of what they are already grappling with. 

Literature cites polygot aphasia as a condition that affects polygots. Other disadvantages include what is called language mixing and spontaneous translation. In this regard, it is not in the best interest of the learners and their parents and guardians to learn too many languages.

From a sociolinguistics point of view, there must be proper language policy and planning that guide the introduction of new languages in the school curriculum. Language planning and policy formulation are done to solve some language use problems. They must be conducted in a systematic and organised manner. 

The purpose of introducing a new language in this case Swahili in Namibia is not clear. Is the intention commercial or political? Does the introduction of the language foster unity in the country? What are the short- and long-term benefits to the nation? How would language teachers address the nature and nurture aspects of language learning? 

Why Swahili, and not isiZulu or Bemba? What are the functional roles of the new language? These and other pertinent questions should be linguistically answered before a firm decision is taken on this matter. Also, there must be a huge budget to support the development of learning materials and the training of teachers who will take care of the new language. 

In these economic doldrums we are in, it is not viable to introduce a new language that will require a huge chunk of the national budget. While legislators play a vital role in crafting bills and laws, their decisions must be guided by experts in all fields. In this case, it is clear that no experts in language policy and planning were consulted. Namibia has competent language experts in all the languages that are spoken in this country. These specialists can give informed guidance and direction on language-related issues and decisions.

In the context of a diglossic situation that we have, not only in Namibia but in other African countries, it is not advisable to introduce more new foreign languages in the school curricula. A diglossic situation is when we have a language which is considered as a high variety while other languages have low statuses. English has a high variety status in Namibia and other African countries while indigenous languages and other languages have low statuses. Although other languages are official languages together with English, they do not enjoy the status that English does as a language of international communication. In this case, the strategic choice of Swahili is questionable since it will definitely join the low variety languages in comparison with English. Its introduction might end up being a waste of time and funds.

Instead of mooting plans to introduce a new foreign language, energy and funds must be spent on shaping the new curriculum. There is a lot that has to be introduced in the new curriculum. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is ushering a new technologically advanced dispensation that will be propelled by digital technology and not by introducing new foreign languages. 

This is not to say that languages are not important in development. We should develop our own indigenous languages before we embrace other languages. As I write, schools do not have enough learning materials in local languages. There is urgent need to develop dictionaries and other linguistic corpora of local languages in order to preserve them. In linguistics there is what is called language death. We do not want this to happen to any one of our local languages. 
Let us be proud of our local, indigenous languages. 

* 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
2019-08-02 07:56:51 | 10 months ago


  1. User
    Tololwa Mollel

    I’m a Swahili speaker from Tanzania and also a writer in that language. I agree with the thrust of the article. I’ve always had qualms about people wanting to impose Swahili on other countries through the educational systems of those countries. I always thought Swahili should spread naturally as it has through history, leaving a light footprint. In the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and pockets of neighboring countries, Swahili spread naturally mainly through trade. Other ways Swahili or its flavor has spread and is spreading was/is through music (and popular culture), which bears a ‘light footprint’. I don’t support a heavy handed approach of introducing Swahili to historically non-Swahili speaking countries. The beauty of Swahili in East Africa, as I see it, was/is that no one was forced to speak it and it was/is seen as everybody’s and nobody’s language. Now, in introducing it to Namibia and other totally non-Swahili countries, Swahili may end up being seen as a foreign (even if African) language being imposed from the traditionally Swahili speaking countries, and resented or resisted because of that. And Swahili would lose some of its appeal as a non threatening non-burdensome international African language that should be allowed and only encouraged to spread naturally.