Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Gamble with Teaching in Local Languages

The use of local languages in government schools has begun. Children in government schools will be taught in the local language in their area from grade 1 to grade 4. Then from grade 5 onwards they will be learning in English. The exclusion from this policy it seems will be private schools. I pity the school children who have become our guinea pigs as we experiment whether this policy will work out. The results of every experiment are that it may yield positive or negative results.


The official local languages are Lozi, Kaonde, Lunda, Bemba, Nyanja, Luvale and Tonga. The children will be instructed in the language that is predominantly used in their locale according to the Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education. The curriculum has also changed in order to accommodate the shift of this new language policy. The background to this change is that children understand better when they are taught in their local language rather than English. Then there are some people who still perceive the use of the English language as a form of colonization. Oh get over it and move on. In as much as the research conducted may substantiate the claims of introducing local languages in schools, it still does not imply that it is the right decision for Zambia.


There is the notion that just because this is done in Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, or Namibia then it can be replicated in this country too. Zambia is a unique case and there are many underlying factors that should have been considered before such an aggressive decision was made. The fact that there are 72 or is it 73 languages is enough of a headache that needs to be taken into consideration. To somehow box those 73 languages into seven is absolutely unfair. If this is government’s idea of preserving the local languages then it may just backfire by making sure that the other 65 languages become extinct.


Even if this could be a good strategy to ensure that local languages are spoken in schools, we have not yet developed the capacity to handle the enormous task that lies ahead.  The teachers are taught in English at their various training institutions. The vernacular they know was probably taught at home. Therefore, we shall have teachers who will still be thinking in English and trying to translate in the local languages. There is the possibility of misinterpretation of some of the curriculum. Teachers will further be inclined to teach in regions where they come from to prevent the hustle of learning a new language in adulthood. I foresee a situation where Lozi teachers will stick to Western Province; Bemba teachers to Northern, Luapula, Copperbelt, Muchinga; Lunda, Luvale and Kaonde teachers to Northwestern; Tonga teachers to Southern and those that can speak Nyanja to Eastern and Lusaka. This will create a divide even if we pretend as if it won’t happen.


Why should the learning in local languages stop at grade 5? Is grade 5 the watershed point at which a person can fully comprehend being taught in English? I am not sure that government is considering the mental development of the pupils for the transition as a grade 5 pupil can be between the ages of 9 and 15 or it is the grade that is the main focus. My perception is that since some country somewhere starts teaching English at grade 5 then we accept it should work perfectly for us. I do not know why we are lazy to do our own research, study the findings and decide what the appropriate time to introduce English. It is not a one size fits all kind of situation, these are people’s children we are talking about and our future.


What about the parents? Why have they been taken out of the equation? Parents are supposed to be involved in the child’s education, helping them with their homework and other assignments. However, how do we expect parents to be involved when they cannot understand a word of the language their children are being taught in? This automatically means that the education of the child will solely be left in the hands of the teacher. Then we have those children whose parents are from different tribes. They will be expected to know both languages and if they stay in an area where neither of the parent’s languages is spoken they will be forced to add a third language.


The fact that government schools will be learning in local languages while private schools may still teach in English does not create a level playing field. This is because those students who begin learning English in grade 1 will have a head start over their counterparts. When counting your points in grade 12, English has to be included. Entry into universities and most colleges insist that you should have passed English. The issue now is that with so much emphasis placed on English why not start as early as grade 1 or there should not be as much weight placed on English in our grading system. Even though they may still claim that English will still be a subject, in the earlier grades it may not be sufficient.


The introduction of local languages in school leaves many questions unanswered. This is not a time to have wishful optimism that it will work if we impose it. We may just be creating a bigger problem than we found. In English, there is a word called Consultation, I wonder why it was never used in this case. By consultation I do not mean a group of 20 people seated in a room. There should have been debates, studies should have been under taken, and parents views should have been obtained, the teachers should have been part of it and the pupils too. There are other ways in which our culture could have been preserved without turning our children into guinea pigs to see if they will understand better in local languages.  If we do not have the capacity to help children learn more effectively whether in local languages or in English, then this is a hopeless cause.





  1. Hey Frustrated Brotha,

    you bring up a lot of points that must be playing in the minds of many people, parents especially. The tragedy of this issue is that most of the people who are capable of speaking about this issue take their children to private schools. We have to draw a line however, having children in Private schools does not mean that most are unaffected. The consequences of having adults who will struggle to communicate with others in the future because they are behind in the global medium of communication will affect the whole country,not just a few people. Some of the children who might get hurt in the process are the big brains the country and continent will need to make a difference. Thanks for speaking out, but, are we gonna stop here? Please visit my blog and read my post too. I would like to hear your views. http://myopinionofyouropinion.blogspot.com/2014/01/learning-chinese-going-easy-on-english.html

  2. It is difficulty fathom what the senior civil servants in the PF government are doing. They have not done a good job in explaining any government policy as such there is confusion on every policy statement that comes from the executive. implementation of these policies is even worse.

    The policy of local language in early child hood learning in my view is a good one. I understand that to make all pupils understand easily the concepts the teachers explain. What i find confusing is the fact that a boy may understand Lozi better but the school may choose Bemba as the medium of instruction thus losing that boy completely.

    From what i understand teaching of beginners is highly 'customers' or tailored to individual pupils hence their should be a deliberate policy that sees to it that even that boy that easily comprehends issues when spoken to in Silozi is duly attended to. Then there is the issue of lost identity as most children of our generation do not speak our mother tongues and neither do they speak any decent English by using phrases such as "mummy this one is starting me" , "this one doesn't listen" etc.

    It is a good policy which in my view has been lost in its lack of clarity.