Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Zambian Languages as a Medium of Education.

A recent matter of interest and also of some controversy, is the use of the main Provincial Zambian language as the vehicle for all primary school teaching until Grade 4. This has met with some resistance mainly in the urban and peri-urban areas where other Zambian languages are spoken at home and outside the home by sizable minorities whose mother tongue is not that of the majority in the Province. For example, Livingstone is in Southern Province and the majority language in Southern Province is Tonga. However, in Livingstone there are sizable groups of mother-tongue Bemba, Lozi and Nyanja speakers, who feel their children will be disadvantaged by having to learn exclusively through Tonga. There are similar arguments in all the urban areas, over Nyanja in Lusaka and Bemba in the Copperbelt.

In a recent interview in The Post newspaper, Nicholas Katanekwa, a Zambian historian, with a newly published book “The Pre-History of the 73 Bantu Languages of Zambia” makes the point that while languages need to be taught in their respective areas so that they survive; he also suggests that two to four languages could be used, especially in urban areas, giving a choice to parents, instead of imposing just the one.

However, one of the more pleasing aspects to the new Education Curriculum Framework is that Zambian Languages are offered as core subjects to be studied by all learners whether Academic or Technical students. In all curricula they are given around 10% of teaching time. Other language options other than compulsory English which gets around 15% are Chinese, French and Portuguese; they too receive around 10% of the timetable.

Of interest too and not unrelated, is the recent and welcome development in the rise of Gaelic Medium Education, (Foghlam tro Mheadhan na GĂ idhlig) across Scotland. This is seen as one of the most effective ways of achieving fluency in Gaelic where children from Gaelic speaking homes and non-Gaelic speaking homes attend Gaelic Medium Education. There are similar education projects in other Celtic language speaking countries; Ireland has its Gaelscoil and the Isle of Man its Bunscoill Ghaelgagh. It is probably at its most developed and sophisticated in Wales. In fact, our daughter-in-law is a product of Welsh medium education and is happily bi-lingual in both personal and professional domains. A similar system has yet to be tried in its entirety in Zambia.

Children in Gaelic Medium Education learn all areas of curriculum through Gaelic until the end of Primary 3. They are totally immersed in Gaelic. The teacher will carefully plan activities that support language learning. Around the end of Primary 3 some English is introduced into the learning but the language of the classroom is always Gaelic.

Research from the University of Edinburgh has shown that children tend to progress quickly in English reading as they have been learning reading skills in Gaelic which they can transfer into another language. By the time they leave Primary School they generally tend to be at the same level in English as children who go through English medium education and they are also fairly fluent in Gaelic literacy. History also shows that the insistence on teaching children in a language which is entirely foreign to them results in very little progress with regards to establishing literacy in the English language.

The introduction of the mother-tongue into the classroom is welcome but the manner in which the language is taught, is also vital, otherwise, ironically as happened with Gaelic, the teaching of the mother-tongue can contribute to the decline of the language, when it is taught not as the mother-tongue of the pupils, via the medium of the language itself, but as an academic subject to be studied only through the English language with ever decreasing numbers of students studying the language. This form of teaching is disastrous not only for traditional languages but also for children’s education.

So what has led to all this debate and differing opinions? According to this month’s Bulletin & Record Magazine, a survey monitoring 15 African countries’ results in standardised numeracy and literacy tests found Zambia at the bottom. The increased use of the home-language in the early years is part of the Government’s response to this.

Zambian children were being doubly disadvantaged in having to learn English and simultaneously receive instruction through it and grasp the ideas and concepts being taught. Not understanding what was being said and taught led to low achievement and high failure rates. Many teachers did the sensible thing and used the vernacular to help consolidate what was being taught.

The present English Language policy is almost 50 years old and was introduced shortly after independence to provide a “neutral” language to curb any possible ethno-linguistic strife. Other reasons were that there was a shortage of teachers in the local languages, English had been used in the past as a medium of instruction and it was an international language.

An old Gaelic adage says, a land without a language is a land without a soul.  The problem is Zambia has 7 languages and over 70 dialects - a multilingual land with a polygenetic soul!


  1. Hi Keith,
    Just discovered your blog...don't know why it took me so long to come to it! I would love to talk with you more when April and I get there about the language issue. April and I are very excited about our visit to you and Ida and the school in early May. If you have a chance, please get back to me, either here or through email. I'm concerned that I now have your incorrect email address.
    Peace to you and your family, Nancy

  2. Good to hear from you Nancy. I have lost your e-mail as well. Carol and Tom have my new one. Please make contact so I have yours again. Every blessing Keith