English from Standard 1: Writer answers points raised

Part 1: learning in English and the problems that arise

The original article, published on-line in the Nyasa Times on the 19th April, may be found at the following URL: http://www.nyasatimes.com/2014/04/19/teaching-in-english-from-standard-1-please-reconsider/comment-page-4/#comments. I would recommend those intending to read on to familiarise themselves with it first.

In the previous article, I put forward the opinion that the intention to teach learners in English in all subjects, except Chicheŵa, was a bad idea. This new article uses responses to the original article to elaborate on the reasons behind my objection to this policy. It has been divided into three parts and answers a range of comments made since the original article was published. It also goes on to look at other related issues in primary schools in Malaŵi.

I should state at the outset that I am not a Malaŵian but have a love for the country and wish to see it rise from poverty. I have no other motive than to contribute, in whatever small way, to the progress of the country.teach-english-in-africa-tanzania

It was pleasing to see so much interest with many responses directly to the article and on the newspaper’s Facebook page. It is a pity that so many were difficult to interpret. Posts such as ‘Good idea’ or ‘It’s possible’ left me wondering whose ‘message’ was being referred to: the Minister of Education, the writer of a previous comment or me!

One person claimed that the research that I drew on was ‘fake’. What I wrote did not quote all the articles that I have consulted on this subject but, having read extensively over the last two months, it is clear that the research that I did quote was backed up by other African and worldwide studies. My opinion was developed from this reading and not just drawn from personal experience or anecdote. What I write I write in good faith; it is based on my best interpretation of the evidence. Where I am unsure of facts, I make this clear.

The purpose of the original article was to point out the perils of teaching in English from Standard 1. It was not to seek the end of English being taught in Malaŵian primary schools. Some divisive comments were made about the regions of Malaŵi and of writers of posts, and possibly me, being selfish hypocrites for not wanting English but sending their children to private schools. The place of English in schools and answering the private school issue is developed later.

Some people commented on-line that they learned English in the way now proposed. Even if circumstances were the same, the general finding is that this method has not and will not benefit the majority. Individuals may well succeed but the majority will fail to acquire anything but a poor command of English. The comparison between Zambia and Malaŵi in the original article was used for evidence to support this argument.

Now let us look at using a new language to teach other subjects in the curriculum from the start of primary school. It is difficult not to repeat what was written in the original article. This made the point that it takes, under the best conditions, at least six years for learners to gain sufficient fluency in a new language to be able to learn other subjects in that language. Contrary to what has been written in the comments, teaching ‘everything’ in English from Standard 1 will not make it easier for children to grasp concepts later on in primary school. All the research shows that they will not have grasped the basics because of their lack of understanding. It will, then, make progress poorer rather than better.

A child at six years will have many more skills than the newborn. In particular, they will have developed language skills in their mother tongue. They will be able to converse and understand at a reasonably competent level so they will be able to deal with the demands of the curriculum at their level. Mother tongue knowledge will allow them to acquire new concepts. They are in a position to use their vocabulary and understanding of their language to build on their reasoning and critical thinking skills and to develop their reading and writing skills to benefit from what school has to offer.

If children are to be taught everything in English from the day that they enter primary school, they have to learn all the skills just mentioned at the same time as trying to cope with a completely unknown language. This will not work! As stated above and in the original article, learners need many years to develop the fluency to understand and to benefit from the lessons in other subjects. It was interesting that one contributor to the comments said that learners may have good English but they lacked the ability to plan or implement work. This is my point: concentrating on English to the exclusion of the skills that can be learned through the mother tongue will not produce an educated, capable workforce. From my experience, one of the problems is that many teachers do not have these skills to pass on to their learners. I shall return to this later.

I used the phrase, ‘a completely unknown language’ in the last paragraph. This brings me to the comments that English must be taught from Standard 1 because some families send their children to private schools where fluency in English is attained. Without the proposed policy, those in the public school system will fall behind.

What is missed in this argument is that the children in the private schools will probably be surrounded by English, if not in the home then in the school itself. This is more akin to the situation in Britain where, for most, the language is learned before going to school. Those who have the privilege of being sent to a private school but are not exposed to English beforehand may well become fluent in English but their overall education is likely to suffer. It is difficult to ascertain to what extent their learning will be hindered for each individual will have different life experiences to draw on. They will have to struggle to learn a new language and all the concepts in the curriculum. They are more likely to fail to grasp basics that are so crucial for their later education

Children being taught in an unfamiliar language has occurred in many countries around the world. A dominant power banned a local or national language so that children were taught in an alien language. I do not know of a study, anywhere, that has looked at the effect of such a policy on the individuals but, based on the research carried out on teaching in this way, it must have been significant. How many grew up having had a poor education when, with access to education in their mother tongue, they could have become well educated and pursued an intellectually more demanding job? This story is now to be re-enacted in Malaŵi.

One person stated in a post that learners should be made to speak English to each other. This smacks of what is described above. How would this be achieved with a very limited vocabulary and how would it be policed? Would, as occurred in Scotland, children be punished for speaking their mother tongue? At least corporal punishment is banned in Malaŵi, unlike in Scotland when this was imposed!


Part 2: organisational skills and developing Chicheŵa for a modern society

At present, English is taught as a subject from Standard 1. Many Malaŵian teachers do not have an adequate grasp of English in order to teach the subject well. Often, they do little more than read from the textbook and demand the repetition of words and sentences. The teachers rarely consider the need to explain the meaning of words. The learners develop strategies to cope with their lack of understanding. They can answer the teachers’ questions because of the nature of these questions.

Having read a story, the questions are often simply based on each sentence and can be guessed from the order in which they are presented. As one person commented, the learners are simply memorising. I have witnessed this personally in Malaŵi and it is reported in research from this country and other sub-Saharan countries. It is ineffective and is the reason why many learners fail to make progress, drop out of school or have to repeat a year. This is why learners struggle in Standard 5 when all teaching is supposedly in English. Learners are not developing the type of knowledge of the language that will enable them to access the rest of the curriculum.

It is unlikely that this situation will improve if all subjects are taught in English from Standard 1. To be able to teach subjects other than teaching language, the teacher needs a good command of the language being used. Not only is knowledge of a subject’s terminology required but also an understanding of the concepts is also required and the ability to convey these in English to learners is a necessity. Someone with reasonable English can explain a concept but, if the learners do not understand, the teacher needs to be able to draw on different words and expressions to clarify the concept in the learners’ minds. They need to break down the concept into simpler elements and use words other than those in the textbook. Many teachers in primary schools in Malaŵi do not have this ability even if they were to appreciate learners’ lack of understanding. Most teaching in Malaŵi is teacher-centred: the learners rarely have opportunity to ask for clarification or are rarely asked questions to check on their understanding. The lesson is delivered and the follow up is based on repetition or copying where understanding can be minimal.

With teachers locked into an educational system that prevents them expressing themselves for much of the time in anything but a second language, they do not have the opportunity to develop skills essential to the education of their charges. In developed countries, the importance of thinking skills is recognised. While these are not always specifically taught, they are inculcated in the minds of youngsters by how the classroom is organised. Language can be a barrier to this but so too can a lack of these skills in the teachers.

There would appear to be a cycle of limited skills’ development. Teachers were not taught these skills and therefore do not have them to pass on to learners. This is seen regularly in a Malaŵian classroom. Learners turn up with an armful of exercise books and can take ages to find the correct one for the lesson. They have not be taught a method to identify the exercise books easily, for example, by writing a large letter or two on the cover to identify the subject, e.g. ‘C’ for Chicheŵa or ‘M’ for Mathematics. While a minor point, the development of organisational skills, of which this is one of many that can be taught to children in the course of the school day, is important to turn the learner into one who can make a valuable contribution to society.

Similarly, being able to prioritise is important for those who are to pursue jobs other than the most basic. Teachers can be seen spending time on procedural matters in the classroom, such as taking a register or writing on the chalkboard, leaving learners idle. Educational tasks could be given while these duties are being carried out. The teachers may also spend an excessive length of time on an exercise given in a textbook having failed to realise that it only needs to be covered briefly before moving to the more substantial exercise covering a more important topic.

I understand this to be the cause of what the writer, mentioned earlier, refers to as the inability of people to plan and implement work. Until there is a time constraint on people, there is no need to develop organisational skills. Many teachers in Malaŵi do not keep to the timetable, including starting on time. Without the need to keep to deadlines, the school and society will not develop these organisational skills. This is the difference between a simple economy and a more developed one.


Another comment made the point that using English in other subjects would not be such a problem because teachers often switch to the mother language to help learners understand. What the writer of that comment fails to appreciate is that this, unless carefully used, can be self-defeating. Why should learners bother to try to make out what was said in English if they know that it is going to be repeated in the language that they are comfortable using? Rather than helping to improve English and the development of knowledge and understanding of the subject in question in that language, the learners will become dependent on their mother tongue. When they come to sit their exams, they will struggle because they do not have sufficient understanding of the subject in English.

The above argument, of learners becoming used to hearing subjects delivered in their mother tongue, may be dismissed because Chicheŵa, it is said, is inadequate to convey the concepts demanded by subjects. It is believed, even at primary level, that it does not have the necessary vocabulary. The argument for teaching learners in English is so that they can go on to study subjects in secondary school and beyond. The fact that so few do so does somewhat negate this line of thought but, that notwithstanding, it is important to quash the belief that Chicheŵa , or indeed any language, is unable to be used in anything other than simple everyday situations. All languages have the capacity to be developed. All that is required is for the will to institute the creation of the vocabulary required. As many of the languages of southern Africa are related, it would be a relatively easy matter for linguistic departments in a number of countries to work together to come up with suitable dictionaries.


Even English, and I say this because of its supposed pre-eminence, did not have words for ‘television’ or ‘internet’ until relatively recently. English borrowed from wherever it could to extend its ability to convey meaning. Few, if any, languages around the world do not do this. Any language can be developed to explain any scientific or technical matter if it is needed.


A good example of a language being developed to meet the needs of a modern society is Afrikaans. Prior to 1955, Afrikaans was similar to Chicheŵa in the range of its technical and scientific vocabulary. During the apartheid regime, this language was developed so that, by 1976, it could be used at the highest of academic levels. Somalia, from 1973, did similarly with Somali, though this did not go as far as with Afrikaans and the development was curtailed by civil war.


English from Standard 1: the writer answers points raised

Part 3: a suggested way forward for primary education and language in Malaŵi


What do I see as the way forward for education in Malaŵi?


In all countries in the world, there is an advantaged few. We should not allow them to influence too greatly the desire to benefit the majority. Those who send their children to private schools will be more likely to have their children complete their education and be fluent in English. This will allow them to take up positions of authority in the country. This will happen no matter how good the public education system is. Only with an efficient and capable public system will more youngsters be able to join those in these privileged positions.


I believe that primary schools should teach in the mother tongue from Standard 1. This is probably controversial and may not be possible for all. A child who is moved from an area where Chilomwe is the mother tongue to one where Chiyao is dominant will be disadvantaged but at least he or she will be learning in a language related to the mother tongue rather than the alien English as proposed.


Chicheŵa and English should be introduced and taught as languages. There is no reason that this cannot start in the early years of primary school but it must be supported by trained language teachers, where possible. Mother tongue education should continue to the end of primary school by which time learners will have greater fluency in Chicheŵa and English than currently and, certainly, than under the proposed policy. Teachers working more in their mother tongues will develop their learners thinking skills.


If English must continue to be so dominant in the country’s administration and government then secondary school subjects will be taught in English. I would argue, however, that Chicheŵa be developed, as explained earlier, and used to a greater extent in secondary and tertiary education.


Fluency in English is believed to be necessary for the economic development of the country. This is not the case. Increasing the use of Chicheŵa will allow more, even the majority, to play a part in the running of the country. It will reduce the inequality caused by the private school system. Increased use of Chicheŵa is unlikely to have any impact on the economic development of the country. On the contrary, if more people understand more of what is going on, then the effect is likely to be positive.


How many people in Malaŵi need to speak English? Not those who speak to other Malaŵians in government, in parliament, in the administration and in other services. They speak to each other mostly in African languages anyway (a comment was made that in Asia, many speak English but speak their own language between themselves as I’m sure those who have dealt with the Chinese in Malaŵi will have experienced).


When it comes to development, those in the positions that need English will often have come from private schools and will have good English. Those who do not speak English can use a translator or they will build on what they learned at school. With time, under the education system proposed above, more will speak English and can begin to compete with those from the private schools. They will be much more employable if they have good Chicheŵa, English and organisational skills.


I agree with the writer who wrote that English is not the only important factor in development. Nutrition, health, government are important but education plays a big part and must be developed as best it can for the benefit of the people and the country.


Unfortunately, the impact of educational policies only become apparent with the passage of many years by which time it will be too late for those who have experienced this misguided policy. It is hoped that the policy of English from Standard 1 will be reversed in the near future before it is actually introduced to learners. Malaŵi must not sleepwalk into another calamity.


I look forward to reading comments on this article.

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