By Peter Kamzimbi Jr:
In the past few weeks, the Ministry of Education indicated that it has started processes to introduce Portuguese and Swahili languages in curricula following a directive that was made by His Excellency the State President Lazarus Chakwera in April, on his return from Mozambique.
The ministry has indicated that it is in the process of consulting stakeholders to bang heads on how they can implement the idea. One of the stakeholders mentioned is the Malawi Institute of Education, a mandated institution for curriculum development and review.
Upon reading the reports, the citizenry reacted through the social media. In fact, there were phone-in programmes on some local radio stations, to which most people showed discontentment with this idea.
Some of the pessimists said they did not see how the idea would benefit the nation, with others wondering where the nation would get the resources to embark on such an ambitious project. Everyone became an educationist, economist, linguist, journalist and most of all sounded patriotic.
In all the arguments that were made, what was clear was that the citizenry has not welcomed the idea.
However, most of the people who expressed themselves on the issue seem not to have weighed both sides of the coin. As a language scholar, I have found it necessary to weigh both sides of the idea hatched by the First Citizen. The one-billion-dollar question should be: Is it necessary to introduce Portuguese and Swahili in our curricula?
To begin with, it is vital to look at the profiles of the two languages. Swahili has its origins in East Africa. It is spoken in more than 14 countries, namely Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, part of Northern Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Comoros, Omen and Yemen in the Middle East.
In fact, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya have Swahili as one of their official languages. The African Union adopted it as an official working language as it is spoken by over a 100 million people in Africa.
That aside, it is used by countries in the East African Community (EAC) and Southern African Development Community (Sadc).
On the other hand, Portuguese-speaking Africa (Lusophone Africa) has six countries which include Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe and Equatorial Guinea. In all these six countries, Portuguese is an official language.
About 14 million people use it as their mother tongue but, across Africa, it has about 41.5 million speakers, making Africa the continent with the second-most Portuguese speakers in the world.
Why bring out all this information? When many people heard about the President’s idea, their first thought was that the President was myopic in that he was thinking about connecting ourselves with our immediate neighbours who use the two languages, namely Mozambique and Tanzania.
Looking closely at the profiles of the two languages, one is made to realise that it is more than that; we are connecting ourselves with a considerable part of Africa. Worth noticing is that among the countries where Swahili is spoken there is South Sudan, a country to which we have already started exporting agricultural commodities.
Even if it meant connecting ourselves with Mozambique and Tanzania only, it would have been so beneficial as well. We all know that we are a land-locked country and rely heavily on our two neighbours to import and export our commodities through their ports. Many a time have our traders complained of miscommunication with their Mozambican and Tanzanian counterparts as well as different officials in the line of duty.
Therefore, introducing the two languages in our curricula can help us solve such problems.
In addition, what many people are forgetting is that the world is fast turning into a global village. Gone are the days when people were trained to work in their own countries only. Therefore, it is necessary that people get to learn more than one language. Being bilingual or multilingual is a necessity and, these days, makes one to be more relevant than before. As such, the idea hatched at Plot Number One is a good idea.
A bilingual or multilingual becomes more relevant and competitive in a competing world. Knowledge of more than one language enables one to stay relevant in a hyper-connected and highly competitive workplace.
It also puts one at an advantage when it comes to studying abroad. Many a time, we have seen, or heard of, people going outside the country for further studies but staying there longer by, say, a year because of the necessity to learn the official language for that particular country. The President’s idea can, therefore, also help those going for studies in the countries mentioned above.
This idea also somehow shows that the President is a visionary. He is thinking of creating a Malawi with multi-linguals. Multilingualism is a form of human capital. Not only will the teaching and learning of Portuguese and Swahili benefit the individuals but the whole nation.
What should be made clear is that skills in multilingualism are created at a cost; time of the learner, teacher, parents or guardian and even the government purchasing teaching and learning materials.
Language skills are productive, especially in the individual’s roles as a consumer and producer. Often times, those deficient in language skills find it costly and it is beneficial to have people learning many languages, or having many languages in the education system, in order to get a solid and all-round human capital.
Languages enhance creativity, especially as learners create phrases and sentences. Smartness is also enhanced in terms of memory, attention span and concentration, which generally concerns intelligence.
Of course, many expressed discontentment with the idea, forgetting that language does not operate in a vacuum. If the two languages are to be taken aboard in our curricula, our learners will be provided with an insight into the understanding of different cultures and experiences.
Since the learners will automatically become multilingual, they will definitely become multicultural as well. They will get to appreciate and understand other people’s cultures easily.
That way, they will be viewing the world from different viewpoints. One is able to comprehend and appreciate their own culture better as they make comparisons. Of course, many are expecting immediate benefits but this may help the future generations, in terms of culture trade and even strengthening relations between Malawi and other countries using the two languages in question.
Having outlined how beneficial the idea of introducing the two languages can be to the country, it is also necessary to look at the other side of the coin.
It is everybody’s expectation that the Ministry of Education will not simply get carried away that the directive has come from State House and rush to implement it. It is good that it has clearly indicated that it is consulting different stakeholders.
It is important that ministry officials look at how this will be implemented considering that, at primary and secondary levels of our education, the curriculum is bulky. It has a lot of subjects and content, such that adding two more subjects, in this case languages, may simply worsen the situation in terms of standards.
Before executing this idea, they should consider challenges the sector is facing in teaching the three languages being offered now. There are many unqualified teachers who are teaching languages such as English in our schools. The output is of so poor that, out there, institutions are bemoaning the quality of language graduates are using.
The process of teaching a new language itself is complex; we are talking about the alphabet, pronunciation, the introduction of thousands of words (vocabulary) and grammar. Talking about infrastructure, most schools are in dilapidated state, a problem compounded by inadequate structures.
The teacher-learner ratio is high; this also applies to the issue of learner-textbook ratio as, in some cases, only the teacher has a textbook.
The Centre for Language Studies should be at the helm of all these consultations and the academia should not be sidelined as well. The question now can be; if resources for this project are there, can’t we channel them towards improving the teaching and learning of the other languages we already have, one of which is English, which is widely spoken worldwide?
Secondly, consideration should be made on the cost. Introducing the two languages will be done at a cost. Implementation of such an idea will require the training of teachers, the purchase of teaching and learning materials and the production of such things as the syllabus will require a lot of money.
Will that not be costly to a developing nation like Malawi? We, as a nation, are already sailing through troubled waters economically. It is the hope of everybody that this will not start and fail like the mother tongue policy directive of 1996, which was rushed but failed to materialise after considering a lot of factors.
Before implementation, let us think about other languages being taught like French. Of what benefit has French been to the country over the years?
One other thing the Ministry of Education and stakeholders involved need to consider is the angle from which the President is viewing this, in terms of benefits. Is it in terms of trade that Malawi should become a producing and exporting nation?
Can’t it, therefore, work out with investing the resources in the languages that are already being taught in our schools, mainly English and Chichewa? Or isn’t this the right time to invest in our own languages? Can’t we promote the official local language, Chichewa, to be a medium of instruction throughout our education system? Chichewa is understood by over 80 percent of the population and spoken by a larger part of the population; therefore, doing that will enable a lot of our students to easily grasp scientific concepts and become productive citizens.
That way, Malawi can be a producing country, hence start exporting commodities. As of now, our students struggle with English and science concepts but those in countries such as Tanzania easily grasp concepts in Swahili and easily implement what they learn. Such countries invested a lot in their local languages.
While people appreciate that the idea is good, it is everybody’s expectation that those involved will carry out a proper socio-linguistic survey. This will enable them to have the required information before implementation of the directive.
Sociolinguistic surveys help in the gathering of important information regarding the feelings or thoughts of people on what needs to be done in the area of language. What are the people’s attitudes towards that linguistic development? People have already started airing their views on this and it is a sign enough that this should be handled with care. Such Sociolinguistic surveys help academics, politicians and journalists make informed decisions.
It is important that those involved should gather demographic information about the two languages and even their domains of use in the African continent and beyond. They will also have to take into consideration all the costs— books, training and deployment of teachers —and check if the languages have literary traditions.
The idea to introduce Swahili and Portuguese in our schools is a good one, only that it requires enough resources— financial, human and material— quality research and proper consultations before implementation as the Ministry of Education has indicated.
If the issue will be handled carefully, it may be beneficial to this generation and those coming in the future.
*The author is a language educationist who has taught languages at secondary school level for many years and at tertiary level for some years.