My relationship with the English language (and its place in education)

Last week I read an article written by Priscilla Takondwa Semphere titled Broken English: When our Mother Tongue Takes a Back Seat. I spoke to a fellow teacher I had met on my travels in Tanzania, let’s call him Joe, about the fact that I admire her love for her Chichewa “twang” when she speaks English, mainly because I don’t have that presence. I often joke about call centre agents who get shocked when they ask for my name because through-out the conversation they were convinced that they were speaking to a white person. I grew up attending English medium schools, my grandmother is an English teacher and so are many of my aunts and uncles. I grew up reading English books and spent a lot of my time watching shows that presented their story lines in English so I am one of many who lost the art of their mother tongue along the way. Now I am fully aware of the advantages that have presented themselves to me because of my ability, not only to speak English but, to speak it well; However, I often think about the consequences that come with it.

In the past six months I have spent time volunteering in India and Tanzania. I was teaching English, Mathematics and Music. Prior to this I have worked on projects in South Africa with children who do not speak English as their first language. One thing that has always bothered me is the pressure placed on children to learn to speak English “out of their noses” and the punishment that comes from engaging in one’s own language, at school and at home. Semphere speaks about this in her article and I agree with her when she says, “There is nothing wrong with sounding Western, but there is something fundamentally problematic when it is born of disdain for one’s own linguistic discipline or tradition.” In my experience, and some others I have spoken to, it was not a disdain that was developed but a subliminal belief that my own language is of a lesser standard. Over and above this the subconscious belief that if I do not have a good grasps of the English language I have less value in this globalizing world. I mean, one of the main reasons I took so long to start my blog is because I had a fear that I would be exposing the fact that I have not fully grasped the art of English in its written form. I struggle a lot with English grammar. Those that know me well know that I always admit to not knowing how to spell or not being very confident in the rules of punctuation. It took a lot for me to sit and convince myself that maybe, and just maybe, those reading my blog will understand that English is not actually supposed to be my first language. It is the shiny Christmas wrapping paper in which my education was delivered.

I have spoken to Joe and many others about the role of English in education in Africa (keeping in mind that Africa is a BIG place) and what this means for the future of African learners. He responded by saying, “The English language is one of the most dangerous weapons formed against us as Africans. Once our children start dreaming in English we must know that the end of our culture is near.” Now, what do I say to that as a black African who speaks, writes, thinks and dreams in a language I love but many say does not belong to me? Am I a reason for the slow death of my mother tongue? Even the term ‘mother tongue’ bothers me because my dad is Swati and my mom is Pedi but I speak seTswana because of where I grew up; In fact I would say I speak siPitori (which is another term I have to explain to many). Would mastering any of these languages above English reduce my economic value? To this I would say no. I have been to many talks presented by world leaders who speak their own languages while the audience listens to a translator through headphones. So the next question is, which of the above would I need to master or do I master all? The answer to that would depend on the individual. Then I would ask what role do schools and educators play in trying to get this balance? This is where this blog post comes in.

As an educator and a volunteer this is a topic I need to engage with regularly and I would like to use this platform to hear what others might think about it. What is the role of the English language in education in Africa, or even just in South Africa, and how do we manage all that comes with it? What does come with it? What are the challenges and successes we face with English in our education system and as a primary medium of delivering education? I mean no offence to anyone I just hope to develop my ideas on this and continue such conversation in my work going forward.

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