Thanks to students majoring in Education at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, the Ministry of Education’s decision for English to be the language of instruction starting from Standard One has become a national debate. I would like to congratulate the students for their active participation in a matter of national significance.
The significance of this issue goes beyond the classroom. It is about national development, national identity, and national aspirations. And as the students have emphatically argued, it is also about class and social inequality. This is why the matter of language of instruction in schools awakens latent passions that lie deep down our hearts.
Thus far the debate has been restricted to the merits and demerits of English as the language of instruction from Standard One. What has not been discussed yet is the process the Ministry of Education has used to come up with the declaration, in the first place. While the main justification for the declaration, as quoted in the media, has centred around the importance of spoken English and grammar, that is not the whole story.
As the Minister of Education, Dr. Lucius Kanyumba explained, the declaration is based on the New Education Act, 2012, which replaced the old Education Act of 1962. The process to come up with the New Education Act goes back to 2002, when the Ministry of Education requested the Law Commission to review the 1962 Education Act and come up with a new one. In August 2003 the government instituted the Special Law Commission, which undertook the task of reviewing the country’s laws.
The Special Law Commission embarked on wide consultations, including inviting submissions from various stakeholders on various aspects of the country’s laws. The issue of language of instruction in public schools came up during these consultations. A larger debate was going on amongst Malawians on the place of Chichewa as the national language, and the effects of having a national language on minority languages. There were those who argued that rather than having a Malawian language as a national language, giving it superiority over other languages, English would be an ideal alternative as a neutral foreign language.
By the time the Law Commission finished its work in 2010, it had drafted the New Education Act. The Commission issued a report titled “Report of the Law Commission on the Review of Education Act”, which was released in March of that year. One of its recommendations was the use of English as the language of instruction in schools. The report was silent on the rationale for this recommendation.
The issue of language of instruction is found in Section 78 of the New Education Act, which has two subsections 1 and 2. Subsection (1) is unequivocal in mandating English as the language of instruction. However it does not mention that this should be from Standard One. Subsection (2) is less unequivocal. It says “Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the Minister may, by notice published in theGazette prescribe the language of instruction in schools.” The use of the word “may” is somewhat circumspect, but the Minister has obviously used powers vested in his office to make the prescription, including the declaration that this should start in Standard One.
In making the declaration, the Ministry of Education has pleased sections of Malawian society who use proficiency in spoken English as a proxy for quality education. But this prescription goes against global trends and volumes of research findings that argue for the importance of mother tongue in the development of cognitive skills. That said, it is understandable why many parents view good spoken English as representative of quality education. There is a lot of prestige attached to English, and it gives one a global passport. It is an important language that bestows glamour on those who speak it.
What gets buried inside the debate is the recommendation for bilingual instruction, the practice of teaching in the mother tongue while introducing one other or more languages. The Chancellor College students are very right in arguing that children who develop a deeper functionality in their first language find it easier to learn a second language.
Teachers and lecturers in our secondary schools and universities are observing a trend in which students from private schools speak perfect English, but their reasoning, writing and problem-solving skills are not well developed. This is even as the Independent Schools Association of Malawi (ISAMA) is reporting reporting that 80 percent of students selected to Malawian universities are coming from private schools.
Language researchers have also found that children who speak more than one language exhibit better academic performance than children who know only one language, regardless of what that language is. This is why our language of instruction policy needs to promote multilingualism, and not monolingualism. Just a generation ago most Malawians were multi-lingual, speaking two or more languages on average. Today’s generation knows two languages, English and Chichewa, on average. If we do not enact policies to develop our local languages, the coming generations of Malawians will be reduced to only one language, English.
Monolingualism encourages insularity, a restricted worldview in which the only knowledge available to one is from one linguistic source. The danger with the new policy, as it stands, is the damage it can potentially cause to Malawian languages. The new policy will mean that as a country we will allocate more resources to English at the expense of nurturing and developing local languages.
As the students have eloquently argued, this will benefit the children of the elites while disadvantaging children from poor families. But it must also be pointed out that this inequality is already prevalent with children of wealthy Malawians able to attend better schools than children of poor Malawians. Those of us who went to school in the 1970s and 1980s had Chichewa as the language of instruction in the early standards. We learned English as a subject. And our English proficiency has turned out to be alright.
Contrary to popular opinion, all languages have an inherent capacity to evolve and grow. Human knowledge has developed from the thousands of languages spoken across histories and geographies rather than from one language alone. Languages grow based on how much knowledge is generated in that language, and how much resources are being allocated to it.
Language is more than communication. It is about identity and cultural pride. It is also about national development. One key reason why our country registers slow growth and development is because new research and knowledge are predominantly in a language only few Malawians use. Our local languages are deprived of new knowledges which remain beyond the acquisition of the majority of our people.
The majority of our people remain poor and disempowered because they are denied an opportunity to participate in knowledge-making processes due to language policies that denigrate a core aspect of our identity. It is for these reasons that we must come up with language policies that promote greater knowledge-making, national confidence and civic participation amongst our people, without depriving them of knowledge available through foreign languages. This is why we must promote multilingualism, and not English only.
- Note: A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times edition of Sunday 23rd March, 2014