There are good reasons many Malawians are happy with the new policy for English to be the language of instruction in Malawian public schools. We Malawians use proficiency in spoken English as a product of a good education. If somebody speaks good English, they are seen as being educated. In many cases, that is true. The more years one spends in Malawian schools beyond primary and secondary schools, the better one’s English becomes.
But there are cases when that can be misleading. The test lies in knowing when it is accurate to equate English proficiency with good education, and when it is misleading. It is accurate to equate good spoken English with good education when the substance of what one is speaking shows reasoning and problem-solving skills. English can also be an accurate measure of one’s education when one is able to read and write proficiently, analyse information and make informed decisions from that information.
But it should be pointed out that every language of the world has these same attributes that can be an accurate measure of a good education. That is why most successful countries continue to invest in their local languages. A good education should enable one to put one’s education to meaningful use in their individual life and in contributing to society. A country can only develop when the majority of the population have access to the knowledge that matters in changing their lives and their communities. When that knowledge is tucked away in a language only a tiny elite can understand and utilise, society stagnates. There can be no meaningful, equitable development.
In the current debate on the language of instruction in Malawian schools, we are misdiagnosing the causes of what we see as low standards of education. We think education standards are low because students come out of the system not knowing how to speak English. And we think this is happening because in Standards 1-4 students are being taught in local Malawian languages, instead of English. This is a false analysis. Malawian students are unable to speak good English not because they use local languages in Standards 1-4, but rather because English, which is taught as a language right from Standard 1, is not being taught well enough.
There is one main reason government schools are failing to teach spoken English well: schools do not have enough textbooks. And this is a problem across all the subjects. Most Malawian students in government schools go through the entire primary school cycle without adequate opportunities to interact with books. Those who spend enough time studying Malawian classrooms in the public schools know that there are very few copies of prescribed textbooks. Many students spend the entire year without touching a textbook. And this is worse in the early grade years, Standards 1-3, where class sizes average 150-300 per teacher.
Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that in 2013, there were 1 030 834 students in Standard 1 across the country. There were only 350 095 English textbooks. That is a rough average of three students sharing one textbook. But the reality is that many classrooms have far less textbooks due to inefficient distribution at the national level as well as at the school level. It is very common in Malawian schools to find textbooks locked up in a cupboard because the head teacher is afraid that the books will get damaged, and there will be no replacements the following year. There cannot be a worse paradox than this. It is simply not possible for a child to learn how to read and write without touching a book.
To be continued………………..
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—The author is director of Link Community Development. He blogs at Afrika Aphukira and Global Voices Online. He moderates Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, an online forum for teachers, and Blogging Malawi, a forum for bloggers.