A UNESCO (2016) Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report) argued that 40% of the global population does not access education in a language they understand. The policy paper asserted that being taught in a language other than one’s own can negatively impact children’s learning, especially for those living in poverty.
Does this sound familiar? For many who come from Matabeleland, it does. The publication of 2019 grade 7 school results and poor performance in many rural schools in Matabeleland has ignited the longstanding argument that the indiscriminate deployment of Shona speaking teachers not competent in local languages in Matabeleland primary schools has a negative effect in children’s learning.
It is appreciated that school outcomes are multiple causal and cannot be accounted for by one variable alone; although the focus of this article is language, it would be simplistic to blame the poor school results entirely on the deployment of ethnic Shona teachers in Matabeleland. Years of underfunding, poor infrastructure and lack of resources have had an impact in the delivery of education across the country. We indeed acknowledge poor results in Mashonaland rural schools too.
Access is another important factor, children in rural areas and/ or poor households have limited access to print books and even more limited access to digital and paper media at home which makes learning to read at home even in their mother tongue difficult yet alone changing to another language at school.
It is not the ethnicity of teachers that is of concern but the teachers’ ability to speak the home language of the children they teach. We argue that the government has to actively recruit locals into local teacher training colleges to teach local children, and where outsiders are deployed they should not be teaching young learners until they are competent in the local language.
Attempts by the Zimbabwean authorities to impose the Shona language through a school system does not only set a bad precedence, it is politically provocative. This is clearly not in the interest of children’s learning but a continuation of the supremacist agenda as much as it is a source of broader human rights breaches and a grievance linked to wider issues of social and cultural inequality in the country.
The government’s insensitive deployment of teachers not competent in local languages and often unwilling to learn goes not only against the electorate’s wishes and children’s rights to learn in a language they understand but also contradicts research findings that consistently show that learners benefit from using their home language in education in early grade years.
We need to appreciate that learning does not begin in school but starts in the home setting in the learners’ home language. The formal school system is an important continuation of this learning process, but also presents significant challenges for the learners in that the mode of education suddenly changes. The school system structures and controls the content and delivery of a pre-determined curriculum where previously the child was learning from experience.
The challenges presented to the child by the structured way of learning introduced by the school learning can be overwhelming. Kioko (2015) points at the physical environment itself being new, most of the classmates are strangers, and more significantly, the centre of authority (the teacher) is a stranger to the child.
Adding a new language to the above can have negative effect on the child’s school experience and learning. As opposed to the disruptive effects sudden interruption in interaction (due to use of a foreign language) can add in the child’s progress, use of mother tongue is important in helping them navigate a host of new changes presented by the new environment and bridge their learning at school with the experiential home learning.
The use of home language stimulates interest in learning and drives interaction as children see relevance in what they learn in school. It builds confidence and allows children to engage better as they can express themselves in their own language – the education process becomes more child-centred than teacher-centred. Learning to translate their language from auditory form into and present it in letters, words and symbols, in turn learning to read those letters, words and symbols brings about excitement and great sense of achievement.
In summary, the UNESCO policy paper, which is relevant to Matabeleland, recommended the following to ensure that children are taught in a language they understand: (1) at least six years of home language instruction so that gains from teaching in mother tongue in the early years are sustained, (2) recognition of the importance of home language learning and teaching children in their home language, particularly in early grades, and (3) the need for teachers to be trained to teach in more than one language and to understand the needs of second-language learners.
Matabeleland parents reject ZANU PF’s insidious attempts to impose Shona language as the medium of instruction. While it would be impossible to objectively say how much of our children’s poor performance in grade 7 was down to the deployment of Shona speaking teachers, we argue that there is no justification for Shona speaking teachers not competent in local languages to be assigned for early child learning classes. It is not an unrealistic expectation and it should be policy that teachers from culturally and linguistically different regions who want to teach in a different region should have a basic understanding of the local language, needs and customs before they are deployed, and once in post are given a reasonable period to improve their linguistic skills and sociocultural knowledge.