Learning in mother tongues | JiElimishe

Most of us cannot are probably not too clear on the difference between our mother tongue, our second language and a foreign language. And most importantly how do we classify the languages that we speak? Is Kiswahili anyone's mother tongue? Or is it our second language? And if second, what languages would we count as our mother tongue?

Many of us do not speak ethnic community languages or what some call our mother tongues these days. We are much more mobile and inter-connected, so we move, whether from rural to urban areas of the country, to universities or work/business. And there, you have to learn and understand Swahili, otherwise you will not be able to get by. The question here is: can we really call these native languages our mother tongue languages? Because most kids now, have parents that don’t even know their native languages.

Educationists still grapple with the question of why our children in schools are not learning. Even after significant investments in education, we are still receiving bad results in schools, what could be the problem?  One of the prevalant arguments in Tanzania has been around medium of instruction. In particular around the use of English in secondary schools as the medium of instruction. Would we do better if everything were taught in Kiswahili? Or even better if we reverted to teaching in ethnic community languages?

As part of the annual Uwezo learning assessment in Uganda, data were collected on children's literacy in local languages. The thematic curriculum in Uganda means that children are taught in their local languages for the early years of Primary School. So one might expect that they gain higher literacy skills in these local languages. In Primary 3, 10% of children could read a Primary 2 level story in their local language while 19% could read a Primary 2 level English story. On the other hand in Tanzania, 54% of Grade 3 pupils can read a Kiswahili sotry of Grade 2 level while 19% of pupils can read an English one. So the findings are inconclusive at best - assuming that Kiswahili can be classified as a mother tongue.

Uwezo Tanzania and What Works in Education prepared a seminar to discuss this issue together with other education stakeholders. Language definitions, current policy, Uwezo findings and frameworks from other countries were discussed in a bid to unpack this fairly contentious issue.

JiElimishe (educate yourself), was an education seminar prepared by Twaweza Tanzania, in collaboration with the School of Education of the University of Dar es salaam. The main speakers for this seminar were Philpo John, an assistant lecturer and language researcher from Mkwawa University Colege of Education, Zaida Mgalla from Uwezo Tanzania and Kitila Mkumbo from What Works In Education, Twaweza Tanzania.

The room was divided as to whether we should or should not be teaching in ethnic and community languages in Tanzania. But some very practical constraints were raised. Which languages would we choose? We couldn't use the 50 plus languages of the country. How would we translate the materials? Given that teachers are deliberately, by policy, posted outside of their home regions how would we even find teachers to teach in these languages?

And of course, as Twaweza, we had to consider the voices of the citizens. Data collected from Sauti za Wananchi show that 63% of parents suggest that English should be the medium of instruction throughout school, both secondary and primary.

The JiElimishe seminar on mother tongue languages and education was an eye-opener for may, opinions were split and the debate was passionate. But all attendees were left with the sense of work left undone: language aside, our children are not learning in school.  We must all keep working towards finding out why our education system is not delivering learning and what each of us can do to change this. 

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