Editorial: Rethink the Language policy in our Schools

The incorrect perception of a problem can lead to the development of poor theories or policies to solve it.

This explains why, many years after implementing Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) advanced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), many African countries have still not made measurable progress.

That set of rabid economic policies managed to shred many African economies into dreadful tatters simply because the Bank and the Fund steadfastly refused to change course despite evidence that the policies were formulated from a faulty diagnosis.

The damage lives with us today. We reiterate a similar warning to the PF government today. The new language policy in schools will stagnate our children’s ability to integrate in a world that is rapidly becoming a global village. It will retard our progress, no matter how paltry, towards a more equitable society.

It must be re-thought immediately. The government must develop the habit of data-driven policy development and analysis not just jumping into implementing haphazard changes arising from outdated sentimentalism about decolonizing and cultural supremacy.

Now, there is nothing wrong in giving value to our languages and the cultures they embody by teaching them in schools. Indeed, one can argue that we will only be truly decolonized the day we start learning about our history, culture and the natural world we occupy in our own local languages as opposed to what others have called “colonial languages.”

That said, there are a number of reasons against teaching young Zambians in their mother tongues as a medium of instruction. First, we live in a world where distance is rapidly becoming less and less a barrier.

We live in world where technology is the vessel that supplies life to the global engine and language is the blood that runs through that vessel.

This means that anyone who either lacks the technology or the right language skills is definitivelyexcluded from the full enjoyment of the rights and benefits of a globalizing world. Cut the parables: We are talking about internet and its related outgrowths.

How will these languages, which are not about to be internet languages any time in the foreseeable future aid learning and communication?

We live in a world where, in order to succeed, we must compete and cooperate with equal measure. Anything that undercuts our children’s ability to do either has no place in our education system.

The new language policy inadvertently promises to do just that: Hold a whole generation hostage for 3 years, delay their competitive edge and hope that those three years of involuntary confinement will release them with enough thrust to catch up or surpass their competitors.

How delusional! Second is the question of standards and equal access to quality education. Income inequality and access to education in Zambia overlaps to a significant degree with ethnicity and geography.

What this means for the new policy is that historically larger ethnic groups with more access to educational institutions will have better vernacular teachers than the rest of the country.

Smaller ethnic groups will be at a great disadvantage in this regard as they will be forced to learn a language that is not necessarily their mother tongue. More broadly, the proposed system is guaranteed to confine poorer (rural) children without access to English instruction at the bottom of the academic ladder after Grade Three.

This policy is the new caste system for Zambia. Is this what we want for our children? Third, a lot of research shows that the first few years of schooling are critical for pupils’ academic development and achievement.

In other words, students with a firm pre-primary education tend to do very well in school. Here in Zambia we seem to be actively fighting against this reality.

By laying the groundwork for a shaky academic beginning for our children, we are dooming them to failure after they stop being taught in their mother tongues. Fourth, there is the question of national cohesion. Negative ethnicity is one of the millstones that is continuing to weight us down as a nation.

How will the new educational policy affect the way we see ourselves? Aren’t we priming future Zambians to think of themselves firstly as members of their ethnic groups and only secondly as Zambians? Fifth, there is the question of consultation with experts, parents, teachers and all other stakeholders.

Our public officials must take public policy development and implementation seriously. The culture of touch-and-go policy development must stop. Before we implement policies that will have a material impact on the lives of millions of Zambians we ought to think them through.

We ought to consult exhaustively. Otherwise we shall keep moving in circles, and will continue to confine millions of our people to lives marked by underachievement and material want.

To see the potential impact of the new language policy, we need not go far. Our neighbor to the North, Tanzania, has had a policy of mixed language instruction. There, students in lower classes are taught almost exclusively in Kiswahili and only later on does English get introduced as a language of instruction. The result?

Massive failure rates in high school national exams. A lot of reasons may explain Tanzania’s high failure rates, but language policy is certainly up there as a cause.

This is what Zambia is trying to do to its students, albeit on a more circumscribed scale. Is this what we want for our children? Public policy development is hard.

Those who go about it without serious thought are charlatans that do not belong in the public service. Their continued employment at the expense of the taxpayer is a gross failure of our political leadership.

We should definitely think of ways of preserving our diverse languages and the cultural riches they embody. We should also strive to ensure that our kids get the best education possible for the 21st century and beyond.

The sad truth, however, is that neither objective can be achieved by implementing a policy as boneheaded as the new language policy from the Ministry of Education.If this jaundiced policy is not re-thought, Zambia will find itself saddled with thousands of Grade

Three pupils who cannot read or write in English (and if you are wondering why we think English is so important then maybe you shouldn’t be reading this opinion in the first place). And given the challenges that our education system faces, majority of these pupils will not catch up.

In other words, the Ministry of Education is condemning hundreds of thousands of Zambian children to a future of academic underachievement.

How otherwise sane people are letting this happen is absolutely mind-boggling. Tanzania has realized this, Kenya has resisted this and Uganda is rethinking their thematic curriculum, to mention a few.

If we want to compete with the best in the world we have to pull up our socks not pull them down. We are in a desperate race against time in terms of development and we are losing. The solution is not to go back to the starting while others are approaching the finishing line.