Science, language and STEM-led economic development: Part Nine…language shackles to economic inclusivity


IN this episode we return to the language issue.
Language is a means of communication.
Our thought processes are guided by language. Where we lack the appropriate words or vocabulary to express our thoughts, we also fail to communicate with those around us.
Children learn language by imitating their mothers and other family members.
That is why we talk of the mother tongue. Language is thus closely associated with ability to think and form concepts of things in our surroundings.
Language is therefore critical in the learning process. Because the mother tongue is spoken by all family members and the surrounding community, children quickly make sense of the world around them.
They are able to name objects and to express their thoughts and feelings. Without language, communication becomes very difficult.
This is why sign language has been developed. If one cannot hear or speak, they use signs to express themselves and to communicate.
We shall now look at some examples of situations where language becomes a barrier to development and well-being of people. We want to encourage Zimbabweans to introspect.
At school, government has set a policy for use of indigenous mother tongue as medium of instruction in the early stages of education.
This is the right thing. But many schools and teachers will want to bring in the English language almost too early, one would say.
Forcing children to learn in a foreign language in their formative years hinders learning. Native Zimbabweans who force their children to speak English even before they go to school are creating artificial barriers to learning.
Because language also provides the cultural context for children to learn and socialise, denying them access and utilisation of the mother tongue effectively isolates them from their indigenous roots.
We can imagine a child forced to learn English early in an environment where the majority of people around speak the local language.
The child is most probably thrust into a pre-school or crèche where English is foisted on the children. Many parents obsessed with ensuring their children speak English have withdrawn them from creches where after a week, their English is ‘not good enough’.
Denying children the opportunity to learn and speak their mother tongue deprives them of the rich cultural heritage passed from generation to generation through language.
A few examples will show what we are talking about.
Many idioms in any language contain the wisdom of the people’s experiences. In the Shona language, the proverbs or ‘tsumo’ are very instructive. For example: ‘Chawawana batisisa, mudzimu haupe kaviri’, speaks of the need to exploit any opportunities that come one’s way.
The proverb: ‘Chara chimwe hachitswanyi inda’, which translates literally to ‘One thumb on its own cannot crush a louse’, emphasises the importance of co-operation in accomplishing tasks.
Examples are too numerous to recount but the point is that the Shona language teaches its speakers the key tenets of ‘unhu/ubuntu’ or put simply, good character and social behaviour. Children brought up without imbibing their cultural ‘nutrition’ through their language suffer from cultural kwashiorkor.
Children who live between two language worlds, the local indigenous one which they are denied and the foreign one which their parents desire, remain unfulfilled culturally.
They never get to fully embrace the foreign language as they may encounter too few native speakers to imbibe its cultural nuances. They can never be Englishmen; but also, they are not Shona or Ndebele, except in name.
In an environment where the parents, relatives and everyone else speak the local language, how will the children integrate and relate to their no-English speaking environment.
But let us look at other language challenges for non-native speakers sitting on the outskirts of the English-speaking ‘educated class’.
In Zimbabwe, virtually all radio stations, except perhaps Radio Zimbabwe and Khulumani FM, transmit in the medium of English. The community radios cut out the majority of their intended audiences each time they broadcast in English, which is most of the time.
Strangely enough, even the local language broadcasts are littered with English words and other non-indigenous slang. An advert that is run in Shona or Ndebele ends with the words: ‘Ts and Cs apply’.
In English that says ‘terms and conditions apply’ but to a speaker of the indigenous languages, it is meaningless and yet the law requires that customers be alerted to existence of terms and conditions governing whatever agreement is being described.
So the advert glibly hides the existence of ‘terms and conditions’ thereby allowing customers to commit themselves without knowing the conditions.
The broadcasters and those running the adverts are showing little or no respect for the large number of potential customers who are not literate in the English language.
The deliberate mixing of indigenous and foreign words in some talk shows on radio and television is also harmful to the learning of language by especially the younger generations.
By listening and mimicking the ‘slang’ in the broadcasts, language skills, vocabulary and even grammar are severely distorted to the detriment of the young listeners.
It may well appear not to matter — after all they are communicating — but formal written and spoken language will fail them.
The case of newspapers is another area where the majority is denied information. Many news stories describing important events receive acres of space coverage in our national and local papers.
This information on developmental issues, agriculture, health, local governance, entertainment and judicial matters is only accessible to the 25 percent or so of Zimbabweans who command enough English language capacity to read and understand.
It is understood that these newspapers originally served the native speakers of English and the relatively few blacks who had mastered enough language skills. As more blacks gained access to formal education, they also could read the papers. In the colonial era, Africans fought hard to impress the white rulers with their command of English.
The English colonisers re-enforced this craze for learning and speaking good English by piling economic benefits on those Africans with good English language skills.
So was born the five ‘O’-Level passes including English. When the educated became also the ruling class, they considered themselves to be the equivalent of the white colonisers.
They maintained the English language requirement which set them apart from the rest of the black population.
Speaking English has become the epitome of being civilised. Those who can speak English carry more dignity than those who cannot. This probably explains why Zimbabwean politicians as well as civil society leaders and academics show off their English language proficiency at meetings and in private conversation.
To be educated is to be able to speak English. Some, like Zimbabwe’s former President Robert Mugabe are renowned to speak better English than even the Queen of England!
The English language disease is so rampant that the whole Zimbabwean society is now held to ransom!
All students who fail to pass the English language paper at Form Four or Ordinary Level are deemed to have failed their school career. Parents, Government, commerce, industry and academia all are united on this one — no formal training or employment without English.
The system in place denies all ‘English failures’ access to tertiary education or formal employment in Government departments and private sector institutions except for low-paying menial jobs. Thousands are forced to re-write the English Language paper; thousands fail again and again and many eventually give up; literally give up on life! The psychological toll on individuals, families, communities and the nation as a whole must be enormous, even 38 years after political independence!
We shall continue to explore the language dimension of Zimbabwe’s development initiatives in order to inform debate and interrogate our language policies vis-à-vis inclusive development.


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