Icibemba, Easy(er) English: New Approach in the Classroom

Image: Flickr, USAID | Southern Africa
Image: Flickr, USAID | Southern Africa

More and more African countries embrace early mother-tongue instruction as foundational. Lungile Mlaba stares quietly into her lap when her father speaks about her future.

‘I am no good in English and I have got no good job,’ he said. ‘Lungile will go to university and be a lawyer.’ An unskilled labourer, as haggard in the face as in the clothes, Skhonzi Mlaba has spent a lifetime traversing the outer edge of the formal economy, warding off hunger with serial odd jobs – gardening, painting, sweeping. He lives in a shack on the industrial eastern fringes of Johannesburg, but he has always managed to send his only daughter to formerly all-white schools in the leafy suburbs closer to town. If Lungile masters English, he has always passionately assumed, she will go to university and pave their way out of the squatter camps.

Ironically, a father’s selfless ambition may be a daughter’s undoing. Eight years into her school career, Lungile can read only haltingly in English. She struggles to communicate and comprehend in it. Her grades, probably too poor to pass scrutiny by a college admissions board, reflect poor critical thinking skills.

‘English is hard,’ she demures with a whisper of shame. ‘I cannot ask anyone for help because at my home people like to speak Zulu too much.’ Switching to a township school where her peers study in the languages of their parents isn’t an option for Lungile. Having studied only in English, she is illiterate in Zulu.

As parents send their children to schools where they study only in English, there are more children who are illiterate in their mother tongues.

Lungile’s plight is all too common. Millions of African children go through school systems that do not provide instruction in the languages they speak at home – a crucial factor, education specialists increasingly recognise, contributing to Africa’s persistently high rates of illiteracy and resulting in people entering the workforce with poor cognitive skills.

Unesco and the World Bank have been stressing for decades that teaching children in their mother tongue lays the ground for the introduction of a second language as a medium of instruction. In the first decades after independence, however, most African countries continued to use the language of their former colonial masters as the medium of instruction.

Now that’s starting to change. Zambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana have all started to incorporate mother-tongue instruction in the early years of schooling. Zambian education officials were so encouraged by increases in literacy among students in pilot projects that the government has now adopted mother-tongue instruction nationwide at the primary school level.

‘African pupils who start their education in their mother tongue have a better chance of excelling at their studies,’ said Geoffrey Tambulukani, a language and education expert from the University of Zambia. ‘Setting a foundation with a home language creates a solid base to introduce new languages. When pupils learn a second language they need to have a good understanding of a first language.’

Six years ago, alarmed by persistently low literacy rates, Zambian education officials launched an experiment. Starting in a selected number of schools in the country’s Northern Province, they introduced mother-tongue instruction to the youngest learners. In their first year, pupils were taught how to read and write in their home language, Icibemba. English was phased in over the next three years, becoming the sole medium of instruction from Grade 4.

Two years later, an evaluation of pupils from 800 schools who were taught in their home languages found that close to 60% of children entering Grade 2 were proficient at their appropriate reading and writing level – a significant departure from the trend 10 years earlier, when 70% of pupils entering high school were illiterate, according to government studies.

Overall, officials found, the Grade 1 class of 1998, now in Grade 7, display increased cognitive skills and are performing better across the range of their studies than previous classes who did not have early instruction in Icibemba.

‘Our motto in Zambia is: If you teach a child to first ride a Zambian bicycle, that child will then learn how to ride an English bicycle faster and better,’ Tambulukani said. ‘The pupils are more confident. They understand English better and are performing very well in their other subjects. Teachers also find it easier to work with the pupils. Overall it has contributed to good classroom ethos.’

The mother-tongue instruction strategy in Zambia and several other African countries is modelled after a programme started in South Africa three decades ago called the Molteno Project. In 1974, education experts from Rhodes University began pilot tests with Xhosa and Zulu in the nominally independent homelands of Ciskei and Transkei.

The apartheid government’s system of Bantu education – forcing African students to learn in Afrikaans – was resulting in low rates of matriculation. Building a foundation of learning in a language spoken at home, the researchers hoped, would ease the transition later to instruction in English.

‘It was found that many African pupils were failing Grade 12 because they did not understand English well,’ said Patience Lekganyane of the Molteno Project.

The Molteno approach proved adaptable. In South Africa’s Free State province, for example, 65% of Grade 2 pupils subjected to the Molteno approach demonstrated proficiency in English, compared to only 9% of students taught in English from Grade 1.

Now, 11,000 schools in South Africa use the Molteno approach to instruction. So do schools in Zambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Uganda and Ghana. Molteno’s Breakthrough to Literacy programme has been translated to 39 languages. A curriculum for instruction in the marginalized Khoisan languages !Xun and Xhwedam is still being developed.

But not everyone is convinced. Kathleen Heugh, director of the Project for Alternative Education in South Africa, a programme run through the University of Cape Town, questions whether three years of mother-tongue instruction is sufficient to establish a foundation for learning.

‘A six-year project on Nigeria from 1970 showed that children who had six years of mother-tongue medium plus good teaching of English did better in English and other subjects when compared with schools which used three years of mother tongue followed by a switch to English,’ Heugh said, citing a study by the Nigerian government.

Clinton Robinson, an education and development consultant from the UK, sees other potential consequences. Children who learn in another language get the message, he argues, that if they want to succeed intellectually it won’t be by using their mother tongue.

Starting a basic education in mother-tongue and then switching to English, French or Portuguese when learning becomes progressively more difficult, Robinson contends, may make pupils feel that their mother-tongue is inferior.

Peter Mwaura, deputy director of the United Nations information centre in Nairobi, Kenya, notes that African languages are not codified or standardised. There is also a critical paucity of qualified teachers and teaching material in those languages. And then there is a question of what language to teach. Africa has more than 1,000 distinctive dialects – 400 in Nigeria alone, spoken by 250 ethnic groups.

Namibia solved this problem through its Early Language and Literacy Project, which produces teaching material for lower primary classes in all of the country’s indigenous languages. The Namibia Teacher Development Projects, meanwhile, aims to increase the language proficiency skills of educators.

In many African countries, language instruction policies are 40 to 50 years old. There is a dire need, Tambulukani said, for curriculum reform, but the process is often costly and tedious. African governments, he said, should lobby for aid funding specifically earmarked for curriculum development.

Joanna Mogodiri, a curriculum developer at Molteno, said the project strives to ‘make sure that the curriculum we develop is relevant to different cultures and also that the teachers know how to use it. We go to schools to identify the problems that they may have in the classroom and see how it can be overcome.’

The push toward mother-tongue instruction will also require an evolution in the languages themselves.

‘Any language can be developed to the highest level,’ said Ron Madiba, a language expert at the University of South Africa. ‘English was not always where it is today. So why do we rule out the possibility of improving African languages? African languages are central to an African renaissance.’

But even if it is currently not possible to study nuclear physics or advanced mathematics in Zulu or Swahili, Tambulukani argued, the benefits of early instruction in African languages are too important to miss.

‘If literacy rates increase,’ he said, ‘it would be for the betterment of Africa and all its people. Africa will be able to solve Africa’s problems and be a formidable and equal partner to the West’.