Sunday, September 20, 2020

How to promote Botswana’s multilingualism!

The final column of last year was a provocative one. Like all provocative material it delighted some, while to others it was puke. Its central thesis was that children don’t learn best in their mother tongue, instead they learn best when they are taught well and supported adequately by both the school and parents.

Some of those who found it offensive, did so since they felt it undermined the multilingualism campaign they have been pushing for, for some years. For them the best way to ensure multilingualism in Botswana one must have early childhood education in a regional language. I differ with them in two ways.

First, I don’t believe in teaching in languages regionally. Second, I don’t believe that teaching in a regional language will preserve and strengthen any of the minority languages. Let me deal with these two issues separately.
There are at least two reasons why I don’t believe in regional language education in Botswana.

First I don’t believe that children learn concepts best in a regional language at all. I have made that argument in the previous column article. The basic education of numeracy and literacy is too complex to be reduced to a local language. The claim is not that the local language is too primitive, although that is John Honey’s argument in his delightful book: Language is power. The argument is that the nature of the initial education itself is not regionally based.

Early school education is fast and in most cases removed from the child’s vicinity. From colours to shapes to numbers, what a child learns is removed from his small region. The removal of such education is so deep that by the time a child completes their primary school education names of plants from their region, colours of animals and numbers in the local language are poorly known ÔÇô precisely because they are not taught or prioritised.

I don’t believe in regional language education because regions are not homogenous. In the past 30 years there has been much internal movement of people nationally on account of marriage and employment. For instance, residents of Francistown are no longer just Kalanga speaking people.

They comprise people from many parts of the country with diverse linguistic abilities. Even those who are Kalanga native speakers, their linguistic dexterity stretches beyond their regional language.

For national dialogue they use Setswana, while for international discourse English is used. Finally, I don’t believe in regional language education unless they are empowered with economic and educational worth.

Cultural pride doesn’t put bread on the table and soon learners and parents will opt for economically and educationally empowering languages.
While I am opposed to education in regional languages I am not opposed to their development and teaching. How are we then to preserve minority languages in Botswana?

First, I think we must teach them ÔÇô this is different from teaching in them. We should make it a national requirement that for a student to graduate at form 5 they should have competencies in three languages and have been examined in them thoroughly. They should have studied English and have studied in English.

This would make them relevant internationally. Currently English is the international lingua franca. I am aware of some disquietude amongst some regarding this position of English ÔÇô I am equally aware of their wish to topple it from this elevated position. Until such coup has been successful, the thunder rumblings can go on and English must be mastered for international communication.

Setswana must be taught and mastered by all as a national and regional language. There are those who argue that the teaching and learning of Setswana entrenches the so-called Tswanadom, i.e. the domination of Setswana speaking groups. Such politicking is equally interesting but functionally irrelevant. Setswana has been chosen by African Union for development as a cross-border language.
It is broadly spoken in southern Africa and it is one of the few African languages which was first developed and studied by missionaries who came to Africa. In Botswana it is a national language. In South Africa it is an official language.

Teaching it doesn’t advantage native Tswana speakers as many of them have challenges mastering its morphology, syntax and phonetics. Finally, when students complete their form 5 they should have studied another local language of their choice.

If they are Kalanga, Bayeyi, Basobeya or Bakgalagadi students who wish to study their mother tongue, regardless of where they find themselves in Botswana, then they would be accorded that chance. For the native speakers of Setswana this would be immensely empowering. Learning an additional local language is always enriching ÔÇô ga o sejwe ke batho o ora molelo le bone.

We should not stop there. We should then require multilingualism for certain professions to ensure that the languages have an economic value. For instance all nursing and medical students should have a mastery of at least 3 local languages. Similar linguistic ability should be expected of agricultural demonstrators (balemisi), district commissioners and similar professionals who interact closely with local communities in the execution of their responsibilities.
What is needed now nationally is to move language issues from petty regional politics tied to who oppressed who in the past; to how we can practically enrich and empower languages.

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.