Tuesday, October 20, 2020

There is more to language development than mother tongue instruction

While the mother tongue education has attracted much attention, in particular amongst language activists, opposition politicians and certain academics, I believe it is not the central question in language development and preservation. I am convinced that the central question that all those involved should address is: How can we develop and preserve the linguistic diversity of the country? When the question is posed in such a broad manner it does not restrict government’s strategy of linguistic development and promotion to mother tongue instruction. Indeed the subject of mother tongue instruction merely becomes just one of the broad government strategies to consider in its pursuit to preserve and develop linguistic and cultural diversity. The discourse that emanates from the Botswana Languages Committee in the Ministry of Youth Sports and Culture indeed centres around this question of how government can develop a comprehensive strategy of developing both the national language and minority languages.

The strategies of how this can be achieved have been spelt out in the National Policy on Culture that was approved by Cabinet on 4th April 2001 ÔÇô Directive No. CAB 17/2001. Section 6.13 on Culture and language reads:

Since national aspirations, national culture and national language are synonymous, Setswana as the national language and symbol of unity should be used as a medium to communicate, translate and put forward the country’s socio-cultural values, future aspirations and development plans;

Other Botswana languages, which form part of the multilingual and multicultural diversity and are rich source of cultural of cultural heritage should be harnessed and assisted to develop through research and documentation and other media such as the development of dictionaries, orthographies, textbooks etc. so that cultural knowledge is available through these languages. Language development will enhance national understanding, national unity and effectively assist and facilitate participation in developmental issues (page. 20-21).

Additionally an accepted recommendation from The Revised National Policy on Education 1994 (RNPE’94) must be mentioned here.

REC.3 [para. 2.3.37] With respect to language policy, the Commission recommends that the National Setswana Language Council be renamed the Botswana Languages Council and be given revised Terms of Reference, including the responsibility for developing a comprehensive language policy. (page. 13)

These strategies excellently outline government’s position in the development of Setswana as a national language and the government’s commitment to the development of minority languages. I believe the weakness however with the strategies is in the implementation as pointed by Schiffman (1998:364) that “… implementation may in fact be the Achilles heel of most language planning”.

It is not clear who has to develop the minority languages’ dictionaries, grammars and orthographies. It is also not clear who has to conduct research for neglected languages such as Sebirwa. There is no languages board that supervises the execution of the government’s language policy. South Africa has the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) while Botswana has nothing. The proposed Botswana Languages Council was never established. However, it would be great folly to expect government to conduct such research. Government’s role is largely to be supportive.

There is a need therefore for government to establish working language boards to look at the different Botswana languages; their status of development; their immediate needs and long term strategies of development and preservation. Instead of creating a single languages board, several boards may be developed to respond to clusters of Botswana’s different languages that face unique challenges and opportunities. For instance there could be a Khoisan Languages board, The Setswana Language Board etc. The position of Setswana as a national language must also be strengthened so that the Setswana language is owned by all and not just seen as the language of the Tswana speaking people of Botswana. In effect Setswana must be declared Botswana’s official language. The position in which it is Botswana’s national language while English is Botswana’s official language doesn’t help Setswana language development. The government should develop and implement strategies of developing and preserving Botswana’s minority languages that form an important part of Botswana’s linguistic heritage. Failure to develop these languages may be a source of frustration amongst those who feel that their languages are ignored. In particular there should be strategies in place to encourage the use of languages in the daily and socio-cultural life of the citizens.

To focus on mother tongue instruction may be blinding us to an important and broader question. We will actually do best to heed Stroud (2001) who observes that: “A general rule is that mother-tongue programmes and policies seldom deliver what they promise, and in fact, with respect to stated goals and ideologies (cognitive enhancement, language maintenance, etc.) often must be classed as downright failures.” Stroud also argues that “It is quite clear that in the majority of cases, the programmes that fail most dismally are those that seek to use the ‘minority’ languages of the most marginalised and poverty stricken speakers as media of instruction. Speakers such as these, view their languages as dead-ends educationally and of little use in official labour markets. Those languages which suffer the greatest lack of materials or appropriate grammars are also the ones that have historically been so insignificant politically so as not to merit any attention from linguists or textbook writers.” While we may not embrace all of Stroud’s argument, it is worth noting and considering it seriously. It suggests to us that in our quest to develop minority languages, we must not limit our focus to mother tongue instruction.

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