By Chola Mukanga
Proponents of multilingual education have received high profile support in form of Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba. He is calling for local languages to be made more prominent in the education curriculum :
“We have to address this imbalance. As the PF, we are determined to see to it that we eliminate the use of English as a language of instructions in our schools and replace it with our own Zambian languages...What we have is a colonial hangover. If you remember in 1884 during the Berlin Conference to partition Africa, European countries decided to divide Africa especially Sub Saharan Africa. Some African countries were turned into English speaking nations, others became French speaking while countries like Mozambique were turned into Portuguese speaking countries. This was done in order to manage us as Africans.They had to impose this English language on our forefathers but what is shocking is that Zambian intellectuals even those at University have not raised this question that the English language has been used as a tool of captivity.”
Zambia National Union of Teachers has welcomed the "PF government’s intention to introduce a policy that will promote local languages as the only medium of instruction in schools" (emphasis added) . Adding that they are ready to work with the PF government in ensuring that the policy is developed. It cannot be denied that Mr Kabimba has a point that there are huge benefits to learning in your indigenous language. A UNESCO advocacy report of 2010 made a similar case, with better nuance :
"We recommend that policy and practice in Africa nurture multilingualism; primarily a mother-tongue-based one with an appropriate and required space for international languages of wider communication. It is important to ensure that colonial monolingualism is not replaced with African monolingualism. The bugbear of the number of languages is not impossible to overcome. It is not true that the time spent learning African languages or learning in them is time lost from learning and mastering supposedly more productive and useful languages that enjoy de facto greater status. It is not true that learning these languages or learning in them is delaying access and mastery of science, technology and other global and universal knowledge. In fact, the greater status enjoyed by these international languages is reinforced by unjust de jure power arrangements. It is not proper to compare local languages to international ones in absolute terms. They complement each other on different scales of value, and are indispensable for the harmonious and full development of individuals and society"
The key difference between Mr Kabimba / ZNUT and UNESCO, is that the latter emphasises "multi-lingual" education. We certainly need more compulsory learning of local languages from Grade 1 up to 12. But what is needed is encouraging learning of multiple local languages. Not replacing English with a single language as Mr Kabimba and the ZNUT seems to imply. Learning a single local language promotes greater appreciation of the local heritage and improve learning outcomes but it may perpetuate divisiveness. It would be good to adoption of two or three compulsory languages, so that a Tonga child not only learns Tonga but also learns say Bemba and 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.
But why stop there?
We should probably consider dropping English as a single national official language. As the late Wangari Maathi once 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. This ensures that English, the pre-eminent language of business, continues to be used alongside other languages.
However these ideas are not without costs. The first relates to implementation costs. We are talking about adding more languages to be taught in our schools when we are already struggling with teaching. More language means more resources and more staff. It increases the demands on teachers and training, as well as material. It is not free because we would be adding to English not removing it. The second form of costs are more economic in nature - these would be transaction costs. It is clearly better from an efficiency perspective that all speak one language. It makes for easier communication. Multiple national languages for would immediately lead to increased translation costs. For example, every public document may need to be translated in the various national languages. The public and business sector may be compelled to do business in multiple languages, etc. However not all transaction costs will be additional. Indeed, use of multiple languages may generate benefits, particular through minimising "information loss" costs. There instances where new costs are generated because obvious "meaning" is lost. A problem clearly alleviated under a multiple suite of national languages.
Beyond this there are implementation challenges. We have several languages (and many dialects), choosing what should be taught will be problematic. Even more problematic would be agreeing what could form part of a suite of national languages. If not carefully handled a move towards multiple language may be divisive. But there's even a tougher challenge - as far as altering the national picture is concerned. The current constitution makes English the official language. Contrary to Mr Kabimba and others, it is not the British who put it there. Taking the First Draft Constitution 2012 under consultation as an example - Article 309 states :
(1) The official language of Zambia is the English language; (2) Any language, other than the official language, may be used as a medium of instruction in educational institutions or for legislative, administrative or judicial purposes, as provided by or under an Act of Parliament; (3) All local languages in Zambia are equal and the State shall respect, promote and protect the diversity of languages of the people of Zambia.
That certainly was not drafted by "Zambian intellectuals", it is drafted by PF appointed members on the Constitution technical committee. They have elevated English above all other languages. The constitution clearly makes all vernacular as second fiddle to English. The political position therefore already appears uncoordinated. A constitutional "lock-in" on English means that we are consigned with a single national language for a generation. Incidentally, it is quite foolish to include "official language" requirements in a constitution. It seems to me that this is something that should be a matter of evolving policy not something that defines who we are. Removing the clause from the constitution would be consistent with the remit of what a constitution document should be about. But it would also allow room for future debate on where language fits into our social and economic development aspirations.