Thursday, January 28, 2021

Shouldn’t we just forget about local languages and just teach our children English?

Go to Europe. The German government speaks to its people in German. The French government address its people in French. The Dutch government communicates with its people in Dutch. The government of Norway addresses its people in Norwegian. The government of Portugal speaks to its people in Portuguese. The government of Norway addresses its people in Norwegian. The government of Spain addresses its citizens in Spanish. Don’t stop there. Go to the East. The Japanese government addresses its people in Japanese. The Korean government addresses its people in Korean. The Chinese use the Chinese language to address the public. Go to the Middle East. The government of Iran speaks to its people in Persian. The Iraqi government address its people in Mesopotamian Arabic and Kurdish. Go to Yemen or Saudi Arabia and the governments there communicates with their people in Modern Standard Arabic. Come to sub-Saharan Africa and there are three dominant official languages used: English, French and Portuguese ÔÇô all of them are colonial and have native speakers in Europe. The presence of these languages have caused untold damages to the psyche, education and beliefs of the peoples of these regions. These colonial languages have completely dominated the local languages and established themselves as languages of modern information, education and educatedness, religion, government, science, commerce and law. The local languages have been reduced principally to orality and languages of the rural folk.

So, this past Sunday morning, June 10th, 2018, there was a lovely discussion on GabzFM on the usefulness of our local languages, Setswana in particular. The discussion took an unfortunate route of comparing the utility of Setswana to that of English. I say an unfortunate route because language utility is engineered and made up by political forces. It is not intrinsic to any language. What this means is that, the domain in which English functions, e.g. on the internet, media, education, religion, entertainment, law, government etc is not intrinsic to the language itself, but it is as a consequence of the long and complex international political machinations, including amongst others, colonialism, post colonialism, and spineless African governments’ language and educational policies. It is fairly well known that, Botswana, like many other African countries, has adopted its colonial language, English, for official business. On this subject, particularly illuminating are some of the writings of Hassana Alidou who has presented a critical review of the use of language in post-colonial Africa. Although the continent is vast, she has successfully shown striking similarities between Francophone and Anglophone Africa. For her, colonial education was created to serve European economical and political interests. Colonial administrators used a common language for learners since they, the learners, did not speak the same language. In former British colonies, African languages and English were and are still used transitionally as medium of instruction and English then becomes a dominant language after the fourth grade and the only language in secondary school and higher education. In former French colonies, on the other hand, African languages were excluded completely from the education system in an attempt to civilize and assimilate African students into French culture. However, in post-colonial Africa, in avoidance of ethnic wars, African governments ironically retained colonial languages which were viewed as neutral means of communication. In this regard political independence has not led to educational and economic independence. The discussion on the position of Setswana and English in Botswana must always keep these important historical contexts in mind. The degree to which English rules our linguistic spaces and our neglect of the Setswana language has had catastrophic impact to the Batswana. We find ourselves as a people who are incompetent in both Setswana and English. We master none of the languages. We have just enough competence to communicate in either of the languages or more commonly switching between both languages. The former Executive Secretary of the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), a specialised institution of the African Union, Sozinho Francisco Matsinhe is right that “the former colonial languages that have been retained as official languages in most member states of the African Union are not spoken by the vast majority of Africans, who speak African languages. So, in order to provide quality education to that vast majority, it is critical that indigenous languages are used as a medium of instruction in partnership with the former colonial languages.”

This view recognises the importance of bilingualism to Africa; that local languages such as Setswana must have a greater role in Education, so that our students don’t fail just because they could not express themselves in English. After all English is not a measure of intelligence but merely a tool of communication. Local languages are also critical in the dissemination of health information. Many southern African countries are facing high levels of HIV infection and an effective fight against HIV infection is better waged in the language that people understand best and can express themselves better in. The most vulnerable are the poor and less educated who still use local languages. Additionally, in matters of democracy, political messages, government programs must be communicated in the local languages so that citizens are not disenfranchised or denied certain rights that may end up being enjoyed the few educated elite. It must be said that the government of Botswana has been ahead on this one since the political messages in campaigns and government programs in have been articulated in Setswana on Radio Botswana, Btv, and in a number of private radio stations.

Therefore instead of forgetting about our local languages and concentrating on English, I argue that there is a need to use more local languages alongside English.


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