Talent Gore Features Writer
One’s mother tongue is an important factor which influences quality basic education.
Many developing countries, Zimbabwe being one of them, are characterised by individual as well as societal multilingualism, yet they often allow a single foreign language to dominate the education sector.
Teaching in a language that learners do not speak makes both learning and teaching of young children extremely difficult particularly when the language of instruction is also foreign to the teacher.
In line with the new education curriculum from the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, Early Childhood Development centres in Zimbabwe have commenced instructing pupils in local languages common to their areas to enable them to fully grasp key concepts.
The approach means learners in, say Binga, will have Mathematics, Computers, Science and other lessons taught in Tonga, the district’s dominant language.
Zimbabwe’s Constitution lists Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Khoisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, Sign Language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa as the country’s official languages.
This move has however, been received with reservations as people question whether Zimbabwe has the capacity to teach in local languages and if vernacular languages have the requisite vocabulary in Mathematics and Sciences.
Educationist and senior lecturer in the Department of Technical Education at the University of Zimbabwe Dr Peter Kwaira supported the policy saying the use of learners’ home language in the classroom promotes a smooth transition between home and school.
“This policy of teaching in vernacular allows pupils to get more involved in the learning process and speeds up the development of basic literacy skills,” he said.
“Using learners’ home language is also more likely to get the support of the general community in the teaching and learning process. It also creates emotional stability which translates to cognitive stability.”
Dr Kwaira said it was axiomatic that the best medium to teach a child was his mother’s language.
“A child can grasp concepts more when taught using his or her indigenous language because psychologically the cognitive system in his mind works automatically for expression and understanding.
“Vernacular language is a means of identification among the members of the community to which they belong.
“Socially and educationally, the child learns faster through it than through an unfamiliar language,” he said.
Dr Kwaira did however, note that in some instances it is not always possible to use the mother tongue in school and even when possible there are some factors which impede its use.
“For example, we cannot translate all numbers while teaching Mathematics into Shona or Ndebele,” he said.
The Education Coalition’s national coordinator Mr Maxwell Rafamoyo said the policy was progressive as ECD pupils were more comfortable in using vernacular language.
“Early Childhood Development involves a lot of playing; it’s important for the activities to be packaged in the language learners understand.
“At this stage, learners are acquiring new things and it will be easier for them to grasp certain concepts if taught in their indigenous languages,” he said.
Mr Rafawoyo added this was not the first time this policy has been talked about.
“This policy has always been there and it’s not new, teachers have always been encouraged to use vernacular language to ensure that the child understands what is being talked about,” he said.
“We are not saying translate the subject matter into vernacular language, but try to teach the child in a way that he or she understands.
“English should be taught systematically so that the learner can gradually transfer skills from the familiar language which is the mother tongue.”
According Mr Rafamoyo, the use of learners’ home language in the classroom promotes a smooth transition between home and school.
“Using vernacular has a benefit in that learners are likely to get more benefits out of the learning experience. They do not have stress about not understanding what the teacher is saying and can focus on what they are being taught.
“In addition to this, it also enables more flexibility, innovation and creativity in teacher preparation.
“The teacher does not have to worry about having to teach the children English at the same time they are teaching Maths or any other subject,” he said.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) emphasises the role of early childhood care and development in laying the foundation for learning and setting the stage for successful engagement in formal education.
Since 1953 it has encouraged the use of mother tongue instruction in early childhood and primary education.
UNESCO Regional Communication and Information Advisor Mr Hezekiel Dhlamini said vernacular languages help to build a solid foundation for pupils during the early stages of their educational development.
“As UNESCO we encourage the use of vernacular language at ECD because we feel children need to be comfortable with the way they communicate, be it in school or home,” said Mr Dhlamini
“ECD pupils need a solid foundation, so if they are not taught in vernacular our children will be alienated.”
While the policy has received support from educationists, there are concerns that its implementation will prove difficult as has been noted in the execution of the new curriculum.
Progressive Teachers’ Association of Zimbabwe secretary-general Mr Raymond Majongwe was concerned with how the policy would be adopted particularly by teachers who now have to adjust their teaching methods.
“The new curriculum is noble, but its implementation has been chaotic. Teachers are at sea and there is unbelievable chaos in our education sector at the moment,” he said.
Primary and Secondary Education Minister Dr Lazarus Dokora told our sister paper The Sunday Mail the policy allowed infants to be taught in indigenous languages.
“The medium of communication or instruction for infants or our ECD is supposed to be the mother language. This will ensure children feel at home during lessons and that they express themselves freely,” he said.
“If you look at the Nziramasanga Commission Report (on education review), these were some of the recommendations we adopted.
“What we took, among other areas, were the issue of language as a medium of instruction and increasing the number of years for primary education from seven to nine.”
Government introduced the new curriculum in 2016 to balance academics and vocational technical training.
The document was crafted around the recommendations of the 1999 Commission of Inquiry into Education and Training which was headed by Professor Caiphas Nziramasanga, with input from a cross-section of stakeholders.
Countries like Germany, China, Cuba and Russia deliver lessons in their indigenous languages, and research indicates this accounts for their high education standards.
The Nziramasanga Commission pointed out that educational, technological and cultural attainment could be raised if instruction was in a learner’s first language.
It implored Government to review the policy on indigenous languages to make them compulsory in schools.
At the time, only English, Ndebele and Shona were in the curriculum.
Part of the Commission’s report reads, “There is need for language policy that is clear and explicit. Indigenous languages facilitate participation by all in the process of development. Throughout the colonial era, indigenous languages were denigrated.”
Since 2004, Zimbabwe has a national ECD policy which requires primary schools to offer two levels of ECD classes for children 3 to 5 years old.
The policy has seen the education sector in Zimbabwe recognising that ECD can contribute significantly to nurturing of young children at various levels including physical, social, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual.
According the 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 22 percent of children age 36-59 months were attending an organised early childhood education programme.
The proportion of children aged 36-59 months attending an organised early childhood education programme was 26.2 percent in urban areas compared to 20,1 percent in rural areas.
Zimbabwe is famed for its high literacy rate and quality education system. This can be further enhanced by instructing ECD pupils in vernacular language as it provides them with an opportunity to grasp concepts faster which will have lasting effect as they progress in their education career.