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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Are we taught to know or ignore?

The language debate has gained new momentum. However, its main theme is the same: the usage of Kiswahili as a medium of instruction in our entire education system. Its key players are also the same: politicians and professionals.

It is one thing to gain new momentum. It is another thing to get new direction. This ought to be our concern as we join another round of the seemingly never-ending debate. We need to be clear about the ground that has been covered and pitfalls that remain to be filled.

The parliamentary debate in the August assembly gives us a glimpse. The deputy leader of the opposition camp asked if the Ministry of Information, Sports and Culture had a timeframe for switching to Kiswahili as a medium of instruction in the education system. Echoing the clarification given by the Minister of Education and Vocational Training in April, the deputy minister of the former ministry affirmed that the government has not yet decided.

It was reported that the deputy minister went on to stress that deciding to use Kiswahili is a complex issue. As such, it involves a number of stakeholders. Hence his ministry was in the process of communicating with other ministries so as to reach a collective decision. However, he cautioned that the change would be expensive and take time.

What is particularly striking is that the debate seems to depart from its traditional deadlock. Here I am referring to the Kiswahili versus English argumentation which has bedeviled it for quite some time. It appears as if the debate is no longer stuck on whether we should either stick to English or switch to Kiswahili. Hence it is tempting to conclude that it is heading toward the direction of how and when - rather than why - should we effect the change.

To the optimist advocates of the use of a language that can easily be understood and hence transfer knowledge readily, the change of direction could be a promising restart. However, for pessimist advocates of the same course, this could be another doomed false start.

Optimists may assert that yielding to Kiswahili is an outcome of research influence. These include pioneering studies under the aegis of Baraza la Kiswahili Tanzania (BAKITA) and relatively new ones under the Language of Instruction in Tanzania and South Africa (LOITASA) project. All have consistently shown that there is little, if any, knowledge transfer between most teachers and students due to mutual limited English proficiency.

Pessimists might argue that we have been there before. As an example, they could cite the 1983 controversial policy revert to English at the eleventh hour. English still reigns, they may add, even though this is the tenth year since the 1997 Cultural Policy stated that a “special plan to enable the use of Kiswahili as a medium of instruction in education and training at all levels shall be designed and implemented.”

It is quite possible that politicians and policymakers are overwhelmed with the weight of evidence regarding the importance of switching to Kiswahili. Most of them have gone through the same Babel and can therefore relate to its reality. If I was one of them I wouldn’t need any more evidence than my own experience to be convinced.

One day my teacher wrote this definition on the blackboard: “Species are groups of organisms that can interbreed to produce fertile of spring.” I knew the meanings of fertile and spring. But I couldn’t figure out how they fit in. Anyway, I memorized and reproduced it in the examination. As you can guess, I got it right.

It was only later, much later, when I came to know what species are. Actually, they produce fertile offspring. I don’t know whether it was my teacher’s fault or mine. What I know is that as a boy I frustratingly tried to breed fish. But, alas, they produced infertile offspring! I didn’t know why. What a missed opportunity to relate what I was taught with what I practiced! I wonder if my teacher taught what she knew.

Teaching is primarily about imparting knowledge. When you teach someone to cook ugali what matters mostly is that s/he ends up knowing how to cook ugali. Language is only a medium to facilitate knowledge exchange. And the efficient medium is the one that knowledge users know reasonably well.

Could it be that we have politicized language at the expense of professionalizing it. Are we trying too hard to know the form to the extent that we ignore the content?

Author: Chambi Chachage
Source: The Citizen 17/08/07

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