Mother Tongue

Written By: The Lowdown - Feb• 28•13

small cover 2013 02We have long and often expressed our concerns at the English language skills and especially the English comprehension skills of many of our citizens. Thus, we were interested to read recent press reports that language tuition should be in local languages as English is a colonial hangover.

The first question to ask is why English is the official language?  Undoubtedly this is because we were an English Protectorate and the question of the official language being anything other than English was probably not even considered.  But if it had been considered, which language would have been chosen – 73 tribes, 73 dialects and 7 major languages.  Can you imagine that the Bembas would have been happy if, say, Tonga was made the official language or the Lozi if Nyanja was the official language? English as the official language had a way of unifying us as a people rather than something that divided us along tribal lines.

The next question is to ask what exactly is being planned? Is the plan to do away with the teaching of English altogether or is the plan to teach in the vernacular for the first few years and then to introduce English as a second language. Or perhaps it is to start off with the vernacular and then to transition over to English completely in the upper grades.

Teaching in the vernacular in the schools is indeed important. Our Grade 1’s will get more benefit from their lessons if they can understand them rather than having to try to grasp the concepts of addition, subtraction and multiplication in a language that is unknown to them. But which language is to be chosen as the main language of tuition? One sensible way will be to do this province – Tonga in Southern, Nyanja in Eastern and so on. But what about the cities such as Lusaka and Kitwe which are a melting pot of tribes.  To try to impose any one language may turn them into a boiling cauldron.

And how do we handle text books? Are we going to have text books written and printed for each subject in each of the languages? If the plan is to teach only in the vernacular for the full twelve years do we have words in each of the languages for the technical terms? What is the Bemba word for sulphuric acid or the Nyanja word for onomatopoeia or the Lunda word for hypotenuse or isosceles?

It follows that when our children leave school they are going to attend a university or college. If they don’t have a good grasp of the English (or any other mainstream) language, that means a Zambian institution. Does this mean computer programmes and operating systems written in one of our vernacular languages, libraries for research filled with books written in the vernacular and the service manual for their first car written in the vernacular.  Somehow, I think not.

As we are continually reminded, Zambia is now part of the global village that the world has become. If our children and our country are to take their rightful place in the years to come, it is our responsibility to ensure that they have a good command of the English language as it is English that has become the almost universal language. To do anything other, will be to condemn future generations to a life in a Zambian village with no way to improve their lot in life. I cannot believe that anyone can be so shortsighted.

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