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"No country has ever developed on the basis of a foreign language" - Interview with Birgit Brock-Utne

In this interview, Prof. Birgit Brock-Utne, who recently held a talk in the framework of AfricAvenir's public lecture series, answers questions by AfricAvenir's Natalia Kolodziejska & Eric Van Grasdorff.

AfricAvenir (AfA): As an introduction, can you explain in general terms why mother-tongue as Language of Instruction (LOI) matters both for the individual child learners and for the society as a whole, both in a country like Norway and in Tanzania e.g.?

Birgit Brock-Utne (BBU): The situation in the two countries you mention is very different. The official language in Norway is Norwegian, a language you hear everywhere in Norway. All the newspapers are in Norwegian. That is the language you meet on television, in the shops, in the street. It would be good if children of immigrants coming to Norway were also given the opportunity to expand their vocabulary in their own language. This would help them also acquiring Norwegian and would strengthen their identity and pride in their own culture and language. But it is not so difficult for them to learn Norwegian since that is what they hear in the streets all day.

In Tanzania the situation is very different. Though there are more than hundred different dialects or languages in Tanzania 95% of the population also speak Kiswahili well. That is the language they hear around them. Most newspapers and television programmes in Tanzania are in Kiswahili. But the language of instruction after the seven years of primary school is English, a language you don’t her spoken in Tanzania. For students in Tanzania they would learn much better if the language of instruction was Kiswahili. In some rural communities here children do not grow up speaking Kiswahili but one of the other “ethnic” languages, it would be an advantage for them to start their schooling in their “ethnic” language and be introduced slowly to Kiswahili which ought to be the LOI in Tanzania all through secondary and tertiary education.

AfA: In the framework of LOITASA, you have conducted extensive field research in Tanzania and South Africa. What are the main new findings of this research?

BBU: Our main finding both in Tanzania and in South Africa is that children learn much better if lessons are conducted in a language they understand well and are familiar with. Our experiments in Tanzania show that when students were taught in Kiswahili, they did much better than when they were taught in English. In Khayelitsha, an informal settlement outside of Cape Town, children did much better when they were taught in isiXhosa. We also found that when parents said they wanted their children to be taught in English, this was because they wanted their children to be good in English. They, mistakenly, thought that the best way to learn English was to have it as a language of instruction. When parents in Khayelitsha were told that their children would also learn English and even better than when the LOI was English, they wanted their children to be taught in isiXhosa in order to retain their culture and identity.

AfA: In most African countries, the choice has been for the ex-colonial languages, French or English. Is it not legitimate to use a “neutral” language in a country with many, equally spoken languages like Cameroon e.g.? And is it not also legitimate for minority language speakers to be worried about the increased dominance of the majority language if it is also taught in school like Wolof in Senegal?

BBU: The arguments above are often heard by people who want to retain the colonial languages. Africa has to get rid of the colonial languages which are only spoken well by a tiny elite of Africans, about 5 percent. There is no country in the world that has developed on the basis of a foreign language. Which language to choose as the LOI will vary from country to country. In some countries e.g. Tanzania, Rwanda, and Somalia there will be one language that almost everybody speaks and that could easily become the LOI for the whole country.

In other countries there will have to be three or four languages. For instance, in Ethiopia, for political reasons it seems not possible to use Amharic only. But if Oromo and Tigray were given equal status with Amharic, Ethiopian languages could be used all through secondary and tertiary education. Africans are multi-lingual and speak several African languages, among them a regional one that could be used as a LOI. All African languages are also cross-border languages and textbooks written in one country, e.g. in Hausa in Niger can easily be used in another country, in this case in Nigeria.

AfA: If you compare the broad situation of African languages as LOI (or the discourse around it) at the time you published your seminal book “Whose Education for All?” with today, has there been big change and “progress”?

BBU: There has been both set-backs and progress the last fifteen years. The neo-liberal forces which have driven privatization of education have worked to the benefit of the elite and their children and to the detriment of the great masses of children. Research in the LOITASA project show that when the private schools do better that the state schools, it is not because they have English (or French) as the LOI, though many parents think so but because they are better resourced, teachers are paid better and receive in-service teacher training. There are fewer pupils in class and adequate supply of textbooks.

Tanzania seems to be the country in Africa where most progress when it comes to the LOI policy can be found. The 2014 education policy of Tanzania states that Kiswahili will be the LOI in secondary and tertiary education. This is promising but we still have to see the implementation of the policy.

AfA: What importance would you attribute to the factor of English and French as LOI in most African countries in view of the continued dependence of most of these countries?

BBU: The continued dependence on Britain and France of most of the African countries makes English and French important languages to learn. The best way to learn a foreign language is, however, to learn it as a foreign language being taught by teachers who are experts in teaching foreign languages. Using these languages as LOI means that they become a barrier to learning. Children neither learn subject matter well, nor expand the vocabulary in their own language nor learn English (or French) well. They loose on three fronts.

There are strong economic interests, especially in the publishing industry in Britain and France tied to a continued use of the colonial languages as languages of instruction. Most publishing houses are dependent on publishing textbooks to get high enough profit to publish other books that do not sell so well. The children of the elite would also learn better if they had a familiar language as the LOI but because their parents can afford extra tutoring, text-books, videos, DVDs, trips to a country where the LOI is spoken on a daily basis their children will have an edge over children. This is a class issue and has to do with a growth of social inequality. If the masses of Tanzanian children were trained in Kiswahili, they would grasp the subject matter more easily. No country can develop based on only a small elite.

AfA: Does this choice of a foreign LOI also have consequences on the methods of teaching in class rooms, especially if the LOI is also a foreign language for the teacher?

BBU: Of course it has grave consequences. When neither teacher nor students know the LOI well, the teaching methods available will be parrot learning, chorus speaking and teacher centered instruction. We found in the LOITASA project that teachers would punish students when they were teaching in English but not when they were teaching in Kiswahili.

AfA: What is currently being done on the continental level (AU etc.) to address this situation? E.g. by CASAS in South Africa, or the African Academy of Languages?

BBU: CASAS in South Africa is doing a wonderful job harmonizing the written forms of languages which really are just dialects of each other but, because of rivalry among missionaries, have different written forms. The job is being done by African linguists who speak the languages themselves. This work ought to get much more international support than it does. The linguists do a fantastic job.

The next phase in the process is to get the harmonized forms of the languages accepted by the governments and be used in textbooks in school. This is a political process. CASAS has been able to get the seven harmonized languages of Zambia recognized by the Zambian government and they are now used in school. Here ACALAN could build on the work done by CASAS and work more in the political sector since ACALAN is an organ under AU. Instead there is some duplication of work going on, ACALAN also wanting to harmonize languages which in some instances already have been harmonized by CASAS.

This interview was conducted with the friendly support of Engagement Global. 

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