May 2, 2010

Preserving Language

It is almost impossible to have a discussion about development without talking about education. Education represents a powerful tool for job creation, improving incomes, and expanding the opportunities available to young people in developing countries. As educators and policy makers work on the most effective delivery methods in an African context, an oft neglected piece is mother language instruction.

A friend recently asked me if I learned to read and write my mother tongue in school at the same time that I was learning English. A little sheepishly I responded “no”, and in return I got a puzzled look. Many African children, me included, are not taught in their mother tongue but in English. Any modicum of reading and writing proficiency I possess was gleaned from my grandmother, who spent hours reading her vernacular Bible and hymn book with me during her visits.

In post-colonial Africa as means of attaining national unity, many countries selected one language (generally the former colonial language) to be used in government and education. In Zambia’s case, it was English. English is commonly held as the “universal language of business”, and is indeed the most prolific in global communication. It remains a useful tool, and the need for proficiency is not in question.

However, the problem arises when teaching is conducted solely in English to the exclusion of mother tongue instruction. Many studies have shown children do better if they get basic education in their own language. As they develop their abilities in two or more languages during their primary years they gain a deeper understanding of language and how to use it effectively. Furthermore, there is a an emotional value to learning in a mother tongue - children who learn in another language get two messages – that if they want to succeed intellectually it won’t be by using their mother tongue and also that their mother tongue is useless.”

Pursuing multilingual education also has the benefit of strengthening of indigenous languages and preserving our connectedness to community. Language is an integral part of a person’s identity and should be preserved. Otherwise we will see the continuing trend of diminishing language skills, and the extinction of languages.  

2 comments:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are right to emphasise the value of the mother tongue. I am not sure, however,that the dominant position of the English language is unquestionable. I have nothing against English, and I'm happy to use it with you now.

There is an alternative - Esperanto, a planned language which is an auxiliary language and does not aim to replace the world's myriad of mother tongues.

Bill, since your post I've done a little research on Esperanto and I am intrigued. Do you think that its use will spread and gain widespread acceptance outside of the areas in which it exists?

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