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Friday, 25 June 2010

Compulsory local language learning for children?

An interesting proposal from Education Minister Dora Siliya :

The Zambian government has said children will be required to take a local language alongside English from grade one to four to help them learn initial basic skills of reading and writing local languages, local media reported on Wednesday. Recently, traditional leaders said there was need for the use of local languages foe teaching purposes in schools. Currently, the teaching of local languages is not compulsory in Zambian schools.

Minster of Education Dora Siliya said when she made a presentation to the traditional leaders that the local languages the pupils will be taking will not necessarily have to be their mother tongue but ones spoken by the vast majority of people in a given area of the country, the Zambia Daily Mail reported.
This is a good proposal and is very much in line with our previous call for culture to play a much stronger role in the classroom. But I would like Ms Siliya to go further in two respects. First, ensure it is up to Grade 7. What is the point of learning only up to Grade 4? Secondly, learning a single local language promotes greater appreciation of the local heritage but it may perpetuate divisiveness.  What I would like to see is adopting two or three compulsory languages, so that a Tonga child not only learns Tonga  but also compulsory learns say Bemba or Tumbuka. If we are to foster deeper inter-tribal unity and greater cultural diversity we need an education that embrace differences, but at the same time teach the new generation how to communicate and relate to one other. Compulsory languages of other tribal languages and cultural lessons are particularly vital.

And why stop there?

We should probably consider dropping English as a single national language. As Wangari Maathi has previously noted, in many African countries the adoption of a single national official language probably does more harm than good. Although these policies are predicated upon the desire to foster inter tribal unity, they do so at the expense of reinforcing the dominance of rich African elites. More worryingly, such measures also prevent Africans in many villages from communicating with their governments, effectively turning these requirements into “the strongest forms of discrimination, and indeed, means of oppression and exclusion”. A possible solution is to follow South Africa’s approach and adopt a suite of national official languages.


  1. This is long overdue! We hope it is implemented as soon as possible. The notion that children would have L1 interfering with L2 was a notion by Colonial indoctrination. Scientific study has proved otherwise, and Zambia has done well to awaken to this.

  2. I strongly support this proposal. I hope to see it implemented in the not-too-distant future. From 1994-2000, I attended one of the primary schools on the Copperbelt owned and run by the former ZCCM. We weren't allowed to speak any local language on the school premises because we were strongly encouraged to practice our English. When I went back home, what also didn't help was we rarely interacted with the kids in our area, the majority of whom spoke Bemba alot of the time. Today, I speak English very well (probably better than alot of English people!) but I struggle to get by in my own local language. I often feel like I'm missing a part of my heritage, especially when I see and hear other people (Zambian and non-Zambian) speaking their mother tongues with great fluency. I too support this proposal for the reasons you give Chola. It's definitely a step in the right direction :)

  3. I would support the use of a local language in the early years of school since a study has shown that pupils understand much better if it is used. However there should be a transition to English in later years since it is very useful for national and international communication. If there are limited resources, then I would not support the teaching of other national languages. Instead, resources should be focused on improving the quality of teaching and on practical subjects such as math, science, commerce, geography, etc.

    There is a cost in terms of time and money spent in learning and using many languages. Think of how efficient communication would be if everyone just spoke one language!,%2BLanguage%2Bof%2Binstruction%2Band%2Bthe%2Bquality%2Bof%2Bbasic%2Beducation%2Bin%2BZambia,%2B4%2BMay.rtf+quality+of+zambian+schools&cd=9&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari

  4. It would be great if every Zambian child learned at least one or two Zambian languages in school. I went to school when local languages were banned in school. My children have been exposed to very poor teaching of the local language which assumes you already speak the language. You cannot learn a language if you only study reading spelling and grammar and learn no vocabulary at all. As a result despite 7 years of "learning" it they know maybe ten words.
    On the other hand, a local preschool has an issue with the ministry of education over English. The Parents all want their children to learn English at preschool and the ministry insists they should not learn until grade 2. We know that the easiest time to learn a language is 1-4 years and that the older you get, the harder it gets. The Ministry of Education knows this but it conflicts with their current policy...

  5. A correction, I meant to say above - "Think of how efficient communication would be if everyone just spoke the same language!".

  6. I strongly believe mother tongue instruction would be beneficial in the Zambian education system. It has been shown that children do better if they get basic education in their own language. Furthermore, what do we have to lose? - Absolutely nothing. It’s time to get away from the system that places English above our native languages as the be-all end-all. We do ourselves a great disservice by not teaching children and adults how to proficiently read, write, and speak our languages beyond the basics.

    I am sure most of us remember being reprimanded or sometimes even punished for speaking any native language at school. What kind of message does that send to children about their mother tongue?


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