Sheldon Maponga Herald Correspondent
Can science and mathematics be taught in local languages?
This was the question Zimbabweans were left asking themselves after Primary and Secondary Education Minister Lazarus Dokora announced early February that subjects such as Mathematics, Science and ICT would be taught in local languages at Early Childhood Development level starting this year.
It is also a question that has provoked disagreements and divisions among educators in charge of implementing a standard curriculum of many non-English speaking countries.
Just a few days earlier, Nigerians were asking themselves the same question when Science and Technology Minister Ogbonnaya Onu disclosed that plans were underway to ensure that primary schools in that country taught Mathematics and Science subjects in indigenous languages.
Dr Onu stated that his ministry was worried over the low interest in Mathematics and Science subjects, so, teaching the subjects in indigenous languages in primary schools could alleviate the problem.
He observed that pupils grow up using their indigenous languages at home before they start school, where they were now taught in foreign languages.
He further stated that the main challenge was that pupils were required to understand the foreign languages first before they could even start understanding what they were being taught.
The question of which language or languages to use for teaching and learning is indeed a crucial one in bilingual and multilingual contexts.
In former colonial countries, it is a question that has occupied the agendas of many governments since they attained independence.
At several fora, the idea of teaching pupils in their mother tongue has kept on reverberating over the years.
As recently as 1997, African state representatives gathered in Harare, Zimbabwe for an intergovernmental conference on language policies in Africa hosted by UNESCO to discuss the question of language planning and policy in Africa.
The meeting resulted in the Harare Declaration in which each country declared its commitment, among other things, to the vision for Africa where scientific and technological discourse is conducted in the national languages as part of the continent’s cognitive preparation to face the challenges of future.
Minister Dokora should be applauded for taking this initiative as a wealth of research-based evidence and experiences from Africa and beyond indicates that using a language any group of learners speaks and understands well improves the quality of their learning.
African linguists and educationists all argue for the advantages of the use of local African languages for instruction.
Children taught in any of the language varieties similar to their mother tongue will have better learning comprehension than those taught in an adopted foreign language such as English, and, furthermore, mother tongue education leads to more effective teaching of Sciences and Mathematics.
It has been proved from research that learning in one’s mother tongue allows for better learning of all subjects including a second language.
The language that a child masters best is the language used at home and in the local surroundings.
The overwhelming message from research in Africa is that using a language that learners use in their everyday lives will improve learning and help to maintain the connection to the local cultural context. The use of a local language in education will contribute to literacy and strengthen cultural identity in Zimbabwe.
This also improves a child’s self-esteem especially when the language one communicates in is a language of instruction in school.
The learning process can be done effectively if a child feels that her or his identity is acknowledged. The best learning environment will be created when a child feels that their language has value.
If the local language is rejected, this is equivalent to the rejection of local identity. Research shows that this sense of rejection affects children’s sense of identity in several African countries.
Beyond pedagogic and psychological reasons, language is inextricably linked to identity, ideology and power. Identity is strongly connected to parent’s attitudes, to the language spoken at home and to cultural understanding.
If this is ignored, children can become drop-outs or outsiders in the society.
Studies conducted in several African countries to show that the vast majority of primary school pupils cannot read proficiently in English, the sole official language of instruction.
If children in developing countries have little exposure to the language of instruction outside the school, and if teaching the language of instruction is ineffective inside the school, then low-quality education is inevitable.
As the majority of these students leave school with no literacy and a low competency with a language they use very little outside the classroom, to observing that their education in English disadvantages them is a severe understatement.
Educationists are convinced that English may be the language of Science, but students learn better and contribute more when taught in their local tongue and that Science and Mathematics have to be taught in the local language if a country wants to transform the subjects into real economic benefits.
The point is often made that English is the lingua franca of both Commerce and Science.
In our globalised age, fluency in English is seen to enhance competitiveness, and is certainly essential for those who come from developing countries, where most industries are owned or run by foreign (usually English-speaking) entities.
The ability to write and speak well in English is usually one of the most important criteria set by employers.
But critics of English as medium of instruction say this is detrimental to both the quality of the learning process and the development of critical thinking.
This is because most school children come from homes in which their mother tongue is the predominant language, resulting in their early social marginalisation.
Some nations have taken a mixed approach. In the Philippines, Science and Mathematics are taught in English, while other subjects are taught in Filipino.
The Philippines has more than 120 other languages, and the Department of Education also allows local languages for the teaching of most subjects.
This is because children naturally use the language they grow up with to understand the world around them.
The education department is convinced that teaching in the local language will encourage children to stay in school rather than drop out, which is a big problem in the Philippines, where only 14 out of every 100 children who enrol in grade 1 will graduate with a college degree.
It must be noted that despite the prominence of English as the language of instruction, it is not a requisite for achieving excellence in Maths and Science.
Countries that rank high in Maths and Science tests in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, all have basic instruction in their local tongue (with the exception of Singapore).
TIMSS is an important benchmark for comparing standards in Mathematics and Science around the world; the tests have been administered every four years since 1995.
Ironically, among the tail-enders are the English-speaking United States and the Philippines.
Eighth grade students in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have — together with Singapore — consistently ranked high in Mathematics and Science tests.
These countries teach their basic education (including Science and Mathematics) in their local language, with English integrated only as a part of a compulsory curriculum.
Teaching Science and Mathematics in the vernacular is not without its challenges, but these should be regarded as teething problems for a project of this magnitude.
Instruction is an activity that involves the personal experiences of teachers and students — cultural and linguistic factors need to be taken into account to help students make sense of new information.
There is also a need to translate important journals, books and other educational materials. Unfortunately, most textbooks in the developing world are untranslated English imports. Apart from the language barrier, they often use examples that are valid only in the United States or the United Kingdom.
The training of teachers, and their teaching materials, must be in the local language as well. There is no need to invent new words for scientific terms; existing foreign terms that are used by convention can be used.
But the rest of the translation still requires a lot of work, and an investment that education ministries are usually not willing to make.
It is important to note that the prominence of English is a product of history, much like the use of Latin from medieval times. Scholars, then and now, master each other’s work in books and publications written in a common language.
Just as English supplanted Latin and other European languages, we may yet see a change to another language like Shona or Ndebele.
History also shows us many examples where the dominance of a particular language for scholarship does not preclude the publishing of excellent research in a native language.
Teaching Science and Mathematics in the vernacular is no barrier to science excellence, and would result in better understanding of the world around us.