Last year, a Ghanaian educationist, a Ken Baffoe, scolded politicians for the current adverse hurdles faced in Malawi educational system. Speaking at a conference organised by the Ghana National Association of Teachers at Konongo, Baffoe noted that partisan interests of politicians in the country are often allowed to override the main objectives of education to the disadvantages of students and national development. While acknowledging that in this time of globalisation some changes cannot be given a blind eye, Baffoe lamented that educational policies that keep on changing with every new government have been unhelpful for Ghana.
Although the foul-cry of the retired teacher on the problems faced by education in Ghana may be short of some scholarly evidence, somehow his observation is something to reckon with in Malawi. If we are to go by our memories, it is just a month ago when the media was absorbed in a follow-up to the proposed merging of Chancellor College and Domasi College of Education, having noticed that the issue ceased emitting soot for so long. After a length of an enquiry what the public got was hard to swallow. The Education Ministry confessed that the proposal was shrugged mainly because it was an erroneous move by the previous Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government.
Currently, the ministry is on its way to implementing the 2013 Education Act which stipulates that all subjects except Chichewa be taught in English starting from Standard One. The reform is expected to remedy the prevalent situation where many Malawian students are said to be grappling with speaking English fluently.
Right now different quarters have applauded the move, with the Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec) arguing that Malawi lags behind most countries in the race of implementing English as the medium of communication. However, though it is not on its fruiting stage, the move leaves a lot to be desired.
The argument that learning all subjects in English except Chichewa will see our learners speaking the Queen’s language fluently is a mere fallacy and can be a menace to our education. Learning in a foreign language has been cited by numerous linguists and educationists as a dominating cause of high rates of repetitions and dropouts in primary schools. Research done in 2000 by the Centre of Language Studies, an arm of the University of Malawi, on the causes of the failure among primary school pupils in Machinga and Mangochi revealed that the use of English was the highly ranking factor of cases of repetitions and dropouts.
Realising the problems that come with English as a language of instruction, Tanzania and many Asian countries such as China and Japan implemented the policy of having their students taught in national languages alongside English as a subject.
However, these countries have never shed tears over their decisions to the extent of (re)adopting the imperial language as a sole medium of education. Indeed, some of them, not to mention China, have resurrected from a life of the biblical Lazarus to become deciders and donors of various development projects of Africa in general and Malawi in particular. This speaks volumes for the need to preserve our dying languages through our education. It clearly shows that children learn better in a language they speak at home because socialisation which begins at family level is never broken.
Indeed, comprehension which is the backbone of education is effectively enhanced and retained as Standard One pupils do not waste time and cognitive effort in understanding simultaneously the language and the content, a tragic absurdity which always happens when they are schooled in a strange language.
Above all, the concepts of development are practised better when people acquire them through languages they speak most of the times since they become easy to understand.
But Baffoe would have reminded us. It is only in Africa where leading politicians are ready to force innocent toddlers to learn in a language which does not only alienate them but also limit them to understand the subject content.
The author is studying Bachelor of Education (Languages) at Chancellor College