The African Union has made commitment towards the recognition of the value of its own languages and cultures at various levels of the education system, as a major strategy for providing quality education, combat poverty, create employment and most importantly achieve sustainable social cohesion.
The goal is to develop as many languages as possible for use in education, beginning with the most developed, which in most cases are the national languages.
With decades of experimentation, the economic, social and political value of embracing diversity has become clearer across the African continent. ‘The issue is no longer why African languages should be integrated into the curriculum, but rather how’, stated Adama Ouane, Director, for the UNESCO Institute for Life Long Learning at the just ended conference for African Ministers of Education on the integration of African Languages in education in Burkina Faso.
Further, the question is no longer which languages, in a particular nation, are to be used in education, but rather, where do we start and why?
At this conference implementation guidelines were adopted by Ministers of Education, to assist those countries that are experiencing problems in their efforts to implement, those who are just about to begin and those who are thinking of embarking on this noble project.
Equality is a human rights issue and cannot be reduced to number of words in a language. If all humans have value, then all cultures and languages have value in one way or another and at various stages of national development.
All languages are capable to develop through normal linguistic processes of borrowing, meaning extension, coinage and adoption. English is a classic example of a language made up of words and expression from many languages.
In this regard, any language is capable of expressing any concept, and sustain its dynamism, as propelled by social development. African constitutions can be written in African national languages with the engagement of qualified translators, who understand how language works.
Quality in education is difficult to achieve when children are learning in foreign languages, and about foreign concepts in early years of schooling. This kind of education is characterized by rote learning, memorization and mechanical handling of the content.
It produces majority citizens who cannot plan, think critically and forwardly for their countries, thus leading to the under development of Africa. Many countries are now implementing the multilingual and multicultural policy in education including Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Egypt, Libya, Congo, Chad, Cameroon and DRC to mention a few. Burkina Faso, the host country for the conference is proud of its 59 languages, 23 are taught at primary level and 17 are being developed by government for use at primary level as well.
The common methodologies in most countries is the three language formulae in which the local languages are used in early grades, with a national language added and later a foreign language is also added. Interactive approach is encouraged in which children discuss, debate ideas and contribute from the perspective of their own cultures, something they cannot do in a foreign language.
This develops their creative capacity, independent and critical thinking as well as nurtures their self-esteem at an early age. Parental participation in the education of the child is fostered, through culturally based content, and skills sharing.
By the end of primary education, the child has mastered literacy skills and has fully developed his or her mental capacity to learn other languages through skills transfer, as well as become culturally literate and able to function at the local, national and international level, as well as in multicultural contexts. Nothing is lost.
The guidelines adopted at the Ouagadougou conference provide guidance on issues related to challenges associated with mother tongue education which are no different from those encountered in any development project.
The guidelines also provide monitoring and evaluation processes, teacher training for cultural literacy and cultural pluralism, defining the necessary competencies for the integration of local languages into the education system as required of teachers, parents, government officials and citizens, as well as guidance on developing appropriate policies, legal frameworks and financing cultural diversity.
In Botswana lack of funding has been cited as the main reason for non-implementation of multicultural education, but with poorer countries on board, this argument will not be sustainable for long. With only 28 languages (inclusive of English and Setswana) Botswana can do better than Burkina Faso.
The following languages have writing systems: Herero, Ikalanga, Subiya, Thimbukushu, Shiyeyi, Setswana, and Naro, Ju|’hoa, Khwedam, Setswapong and can be integrated in the education system.
Teachers who speak these languages are available and that is how the teaching of Setswana began. Botswana cannot be left behind and thrown in the dark ages of tribalism, tribal supremacy and assimilationist policies.
Let us have our constitution written in our national language (Setswana) and let our languages be taught in schools and spoken on radio.
Let our creativity in song, dance, poetry come out in our natural languages on radio and television for economic diversification and poverty alleviation.
*Professor Nyati-Saleshando is Secretary General for RETENG, an umbrella group for cultural organisations fighting for equality of all ethnic groups in Botswana