Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Children don’t learn best in their mother tongue!

Mother tongue education is not synonymous with excellent education.
Children learn best when they are taught well and supported adequately. The argument is repeated by many educated and smart people of our society.

It is simple and appealing to the ear. Sweet as it may be to hear, it is based on a false premise, bad syllogisms and impoverished analysis of the language patterns of Botswana and other states, particularly that of South Africa.

The argument goes something like this: It would be attractive for the government of Botswana to develop minority languages. Fair enough. One of the key ways of achieving this would be to teach children in their early years in a regional language.

For instance, in the North East, children would be served best by an early education in Kalanga since that is their mother tongue and children learn concepts best in their mother tongue. In Kgalagadi, children should be taught in Sekgalagadi, and so on.
One example that is frequently seized to illustrate this supposedly brilliant idea is the South African model which is brandished as progressive, unique and outstanding.

South Africa has 11 official languages which constitutionally are of equal status and esteem. Nine of these are indigenous African languages and the additional two are Afrikaans and English.

Afrikaans unfortunately has acquired the stereotypical badge of the language of the oppressor, while English has become a lingua franca and a de facto language of prestige and official discourse. Vic Webb has argued convincingly that English though having a smaller number of native speakers, has prestige and it is politically, economically, and educationally dominant in South Africa.

On the other hand Bantu languages, although numerically in the majority, lack prestige, economic and educational value. The South African constitutional pronouncement binds the national and provisional governments to use at least two official languages for government purposes. Webb however criticizes what he calls the government’s “escape clauses” which may allow the government to avoid the full and meaningful implementation of the language policy.

One of these escape clauses states that policies should take into “account usage, practicality, expense, regional circumstances, and the balance of the needs and preferences of the population”. The South African example actually does not demonstrate that the provision of instruction in an African language will cause native speakers of that language to gravitate towards instruction in it.

Instead learners and parents will always gravitate towards a language with educational and economic value. Parents and learners are sensible. Unless there is an economic or educational value in a language, they will find such a language unattractive and useless.

The political and militant argument of the importance of a language is actually unappealing and hollow to the native speaker, unless such a language can be seen to lead to tangible benefits.

We must however confront another education claim ÔÇô that children learn concepts better in their native tongue.
First, we need to peel the onion layers so that we are not deceived. What is a mother tongue? It certainly is not the language spoken by your mother, or by extension, your parents. Instead it is the language learnt and spoken at home. In certain contexts this is fairly clear and unambiguous. In Botswana however matters are not that simple.

I will give two examples to demonstrate the nature of the problem. I have a 3 year old son. His name is Lobopo-Tyrone. He attends a preschool where his education is in English and he is taught almost exclusively by expatriates. At home we speak to him in Setswana and English. He speaks to us in both English and Setswana. He however doesn’t know this. He lacks the concept of a language.

That is, if I said to him: “Son, speak to me in Setswana” he would find the sentence incomprehensible since for him the concept of bilingualism doesn’t exist ÔÇô only speech does. I speak to him in the two languages since I understand the economic and educational value of English and the cultural relevance of Setswana to his future.

What is Lobopo’s mother tongue when he does not know that he is using two distinct languages? Example number two: A child of Kalanga parents from Masunga who work in Kanye, grows up speaking Kalanga and Setswana at home. At school and at play he speaks Setswana with predominantly Bangwaketse children.

He learns the majority of his subjects in English. The child is fairly competent in all three languages, particularly Kalanga and Setswana since he uses them more often. What is this child’s mother tongue and in which language would such a child best learn concepts? The idea of mother tongue is much more complex than it is sometimes bounced around by educationalists and language activists.

Next, we must deal with the claim of “learning concepts”. Some educationalists claim that children learn concepts best in their mother tongue. The statement begs the question: which concepts? If we are thinking of knowledge that is readily available in a child’s vicinity, perhaps there is some value in the argument.

However as we know the larger part of what a child learns is largely foreign. For instance, the concept of an alphabet is not a traditionally Tswana one, so is distance in kilometers, or measurements in centimeters, millimeters or kilograms? The shapes, such as square, triangle and rectangle and the colours such as purple, pink, teal, orange and others are largely not readily available in the mother tongue.

No, children don’t learn best in their mother tongue; otherwise Batswana children instructed in English in private or government schools would fail dismally. Mother tongue education is not synonymous with excellent education.

Children learn best when they are taught well and supported adequately educationally by parents and the school.


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