Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Resolving the Language of Instruction Question


Here are my quick, unvarnished, unedited thoughts: 

Glad we are debating this matter. But I find the Swahili vs English to be somewhat tired and misleading. In today's world I think you need both, and the likely best way to do that is to make Swahili the language of instruction (LOI) across primary and secondary, and simultaneously, starting at Std 4, also teach English, well. 

That said, LOI is not a panacea. Just teaching in Swahili doesn't do it -- as we know from Uwezo results -- but neither is teaching in English, as we know from equally poor Uwezo results from Uganda (in places where mother tongue is not taught) and poorer parts of Kenya. So we all need to be careful not to too easily conflate matters. Among the pieces that also matter are:

-- overburdened curriculum. We try to teach our kids in early grades too much. In Std 1 and 2 we should probably stick to the 3Rs, and social communication. 
-- ECD [Early Child Development]. We haven't figured out an appropriate and systematic way of doing ECD, but evidence shows it makes a big difference. 
-- ensuring both teacher support/motivation and accountability. At the moment we have neither. 
-- having metrics and reporting/recognition systems that measure learning outcomes rather than schooling inputs. (And budgets that are geared towards the same). 
-- how to solve the political problem that in Tanzania today you only go into teaching if you can't find other, 'better' alternatives (Ukishindwa kote, basi angalau ualimu). This is especially important in regard to getting qualified teachers of Math, science and English. 

The above interventions plus Swahili LOI plus serious teaching of English taught well as second language would help get children who do well because they understand what they are taught, and build confidence and skills. Equipped well, learners are likely to be able to take on English as a second language than English as LOI with shoddy preps (as is the case with secondary edu in Tanzania today).


I am particularly drawn to comment on this issue because I could resonate with Rakesh when he talked about the 3Rs. I personally feel very strongly about the need to master a language (any language) in order to be able to use it for learning purposes.

I read somewhere that it takes at least 2 years to acquire social language skills and up to 7 years to master academic language skills. It has also been said that students that are proficient in social language have a better chance at mastering the academic language because they have developed the basic Rs.

So here is my take: Regardless of whether we use English or Kiswahili as the Language of Instruction (LOI); we need to understand that there is a difference between mastery of everyday language and academic language (vocabulary, grammar, language rules, etc.). The challenge we are facing is in the mastery of academic language. Our students need to acquire proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and listening before they can comprehend the academic language. Children with limited exposure to the academic language outside the classroom will not fair very well unless they have killer cramming skills. Comprehension, not memorizing, is key in mastering content; any content. 

What can be done?

1. We need to address the basic challenge first. We need to focus on developing both the receptive and the productive language skills. Go back to the drawing board and teach students how to listen, read, speak and write. Once they master these four skills they will be better equipped to master the academic language used in the classroom.

2. We need to develop a reading culture among our students to sharpen their vocabulary and spelling and writing skills. That goes hand in hand with developing a culture of listening to serious content – the news, documentaries, etc. to help them develop speaking and presentation skills.

During our time we had several opportunities to learn and master the English language. We had classroom, school and inter-school debates. We had a special period when we had to listen to a speech or news broadcast and pick words that we were unfamiliar with. We would then learn how to use them in everyday language. We were assigned a novel a week to read, comprehend and narrate the story to the class. We had book clubs and debate clubs that all helped us to sharpen our language skills. The same can be done for Kiswahili. 

The majority of students who are underperforming are not stupid; they simply do not comprehend what is being asked of them and that is why we need to focus on the Rs first as Rakesh rightly puts it! Just to use a simple example, a student taking arts subjects needs to understand the difference in what is being asked of them when they are asked to discuss, evaluate, hypothesize or make an assumption so that they can produce the right content. 

And yes, we need a serious mindset change about the teaching profession. We need to put it back on the list of top professions alongside Doctors, Engineers and Lawyers who would not come into being without the teaching profession.


I am surprised at how little consensus there is on the importance of teaching Tanzanian kids in their own languages, and what that means for nationhood in general. While Qorro thinks that language is central to developing education in Tanzania, Kitila suggests that language is not a problem at all! Everyone else in this discussion seems to fit in somewhere in between. Why can't scholars agree on what exactly is the role that language plays in the education system? If we agree on the centrality of language, on the necessity of teaching a nation using the language of the nation itself, then we can proceed to answer questions concerning how effective teaching and learning methods are. Rakesh suggests that there are other serious problems that need to be addressed as well, noting that places like Uganda and rural Kenya where presumably they teach in English these serious problems of pedagogy persist.

My contention is this:

Without solving the language question, without building consensus on the importance of language in the education system, there can be no comprehensive solution developed that will equip Tanzanians (and Africans in general) for the challenges of their environments in this 21st Century.

Also, in my experience as a Kenyan student who has gone on to study in the United States after high school, the notion that English is used to teach in Kenyan schools is just an illusion. Teachers teach in the language they are most familiar with in our country, and usually that means a mixture of English words with Swahili and other (read Sheng) semantics.



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