Monday, October 19, 2020

How much will it cost if we guaranteed teaching in minority languages?

I have demonstrated before that the government of Botswana has never recommended the teaching of minority languages in schools. My position was based on the Government Paper No. 2 of 1994, also known as The Revised National Policy on Education, April 1994. I advised that the recommendations of this document must be separated from those of the Report of the National Commission on Education 1993 also known as the Kedikilwe Commission in certain quarters since it was chaired by the Honourable PHK Kedikilwe, then Minister of Commerce and Industry. One is a government policy document, approved by the National Assembly on the 7th March 1994, while the other is just a report with its own recommendations. In other words, regardless of how appealing the Kedikilwe report may be, it is not binding on government. I also know that a government commissioned study: A study of the third language teaching in Botswana has been conducted by three eminent UB linguists Batibo, Mathangwane and Tsonope and was presented to government some eight years ago in 2003. It is also now common knowledge that in the past government turned down the request by the Domboshaba Cultural Trust to have Kalanga taught in schools, as it was in 1972. In its rejection the government gave at least two main reasons. Government’s position is that the financial implications of introducing Ikalanga are prohibitive. Additionally, it is also government’s position that if it acceded to the demand to introduce Ikalanga into the curriculum, the other tribal groups would demand that the same right be extended to them; something which government does not have the capacity to achieve. This, I hear understandably, incensed many. All these reports and petitions are evidence enough that the government is aware of the sensitive nature of language in Botswana.

In Botswana Language is too tribalised. Very few people speak about the development of languages in general, lest those languages are theirs. Moroka Moreri and I, we militate for the development of Setswana because we come from Setswana speaking tribes; Lydia Saleshando (former Nyati-Ramahobo), a Moyeyi lady, fights for the development of Seyeyi; a friend of mine, a lawyer by training, Mr. Stephen Raurau is passionate about the development of the Seherero language and I am working with him on an English-Seherero dictionary. It appears to me that although we are talking about languages, we are really speaking about tribes, whose principal identification tool is language. This is why many local minority languages researchers, scholars, commentators always attack the position of Setswana as a repressive dominant language; when only Setswana subject is taught in Setswana in schools. The government must engage language experts and not just its own employees, to answer a number of questions comprehensively. 1. How many languages do we have in Botswana? 2. How many dialects of each language are there? 3. And dialects must be classified linguistically and not on the basis of tribal affiliation. 4. How many speakers of each language are there? Apart from mother tongue, which other local language do speakers speak? There is also a need to develop models of minority language preservation. Since English will stay as an official language and Setswana will most probably remain Botswana’s national language; how are we to approach the preservation of minority languages? The government has raised two objections: that is, it is too expensive to teach minority languages. What we need to do is to demonstrate to government how it would be possible to teach minority languages in a cost effective manner. Focusing on rights only won’t help us.

About 5 years ago I wrote a book review for the Linguist List. I reviewed a very interesting book called, Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda? The book is an edited collection of 14 papers by 16 authors who argue for the centrality of medium-of-instruction (MOI) policy in socio-political processes. MOI policy choices are presented not just as pedagogical options, but are defined by and define the social, political and economic participation, social equality and human rights of citizens. They empower and disempower different language groups and perpetuate the subjugation of the minority groups by the dominant ones (cf. Honey 1997). Its scope is broad with papers on experiences from every continent. The papers detail experiences from New Zealand, Wales, the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, South Africa, Bolivia and Ecuador, Slovenia and post-colonial Africa. They dispel the dominant myth that linguistic pluralism is a root source of ethnic and national unrest, by defending the position that linguistic diversity empowers citizens to meaningfully participate politically, socially and economically.

What I found striking also is how different writers in the book characterized a country which is the focus of their paper as multilingual (e.g. Indian with about 200 languages, South Africa with about 80 languages and the US with over 300 languages) and then proceeded to ignore the vast majority of other minority languages and their status in the country and instead focused either on those languages which had been declared official or those whose speakers rendered the loudest protestation. While most writers argue for mother-tongue education, most stayed clear of addressing how each child could be guaranteed learning in their mother tongue in highly multilingual communities. Watson has observed that “the poorest countries are amongst the most plurilingual, especially in Africa” (Watson 1999:06). How then can states facing the scourge of Aids and with pitiable economies guarantee mother tongue education to each child in a highly plurilingual community? Related to this matter is the lack of an economic justification of how states can sustain the implementation of mother-tongue education. While the collection of chapters argue that medium of instruction policies are better understood within a socio-political and economic framework, the chapters in the book succeed in illustrating the socio-political parameters but fail in showing the economic ones. I feel that is where we are in Botswana. There is too much shouting: We want our rights! and no one is asking how much will guaranteeing your rights cost. To move the debate forward we must address the cost issue.

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