New Era (Windhoek)

28 May 2008

Namibia: Bilingual Or Multilingual Education

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Windhoek — It is not only me who is puzzled I realized, but there are other people with similar questions on what happens in the mind of the bi/multilingual speaker. It is for such reasons that there is quest for information related to bilingual and multilingual knowledge and the influence thereof.

Information from bilingual education programs researched by Cummins (1996, p. 123) suggest that "(a) bilingualism and biliteracy should be promoted as central educational goal for all students and (b), that bilingual instruction should place a strong emphasis on developing literacy in the minority language" (argued from a perspective of a minority language context).

Cummins cautions though that there is no one prescribed model for achieving these goals - flexibility of approach is necessary to take account of the varying entry characteristics of students, the availability of resources and the political and economic climate within which the program is being instituted (ibid). Cummins maintains that there is a need to intervene in order to take "account of the interactions between socio-political and psycho-educational factors, that allow people to specify the essential components of effective education for culturally diverse students. That, promotion of an additive form of bilingualism and biliteracy is one significant component, but that there are others that are equally significant and that must be in place for bilingual programs or any other programs to attain their goals" (ibid).

Cummins' viewpoint gives a free hand to implementers of such programs to be proactive and respond to situations on the ground in order to achieve success. The Canadian experience, discussed by Genesee (1998), expresses the results from the trilingual use case study, indicating double immersion school programs as effective in promoting proficiency in two second languages, i.e. French and Hebrew, harming no students' native language (English) development and academic achievement.

Results from this case study are said to indicate further, that double immersion programs offer a flexible and effective model for promoting multilingualism in communities where there are real advantages to knowing more than two languages (p. 257).

Genesee states that this trend is progressively visible in the European Union as the countries of Europe merge to foster economic, social and cultural union. That, this trend is even evident in some countries of Asia, Africa and South America where bilingual and multilingual speaking communities are in search for opportunities to enable their children to receive proficiency in local, regional and national languages of some importance along with world languages, such as English.

Creative use of double immersion is regarded as a viable option to achieve the goals stated above (ibid). Of course, one would expect an orderly introduction of L1 say for three to four years and perhaps the second language and third to successively but gradually be introduced step-by-step in subjects most necessary thereby allowing a smooth transition.

According to Hoffman (1998), the second and third languages are introduced in the similar model in Luxembourg just like in European schools. Hoffman says the languages are first introduced as subjects and then, progressively as media of instruction and inter-class communication while still featuring as a school subject (p. 168).

"In the Luxembourg case, trilingual education is seen as an effective means for enabling young Luxembourgers to acquire the three languages, which together, form an essential part of their national identity. The European School's cultural mission is more idealistic in that it aims to establish a common supra-national European identity in order to overcome possible prejudice and probable national tensions" (ibid).

Hoffman described the model as idealistic more for the majority of children with high-status mother tongue, who have to choose among existing alternative foreign languages as mediums to be instructed through (see Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, p. 614).

This is worth piloting in countries where multilingualism in education and national identity portray a conflict of interest. For Namibia, the education language policy recognizes the use of indigenous/national language as mediums of instruction in Lower Primary schools; however, the question remains how far this has been implemented, and what the people's attitudes are towards bi- or multilingualism in education (also Hoffman 1998, p. 172).

"It is argued that minority language children should be given opportunity to consolidate their L1 skills before the introduction of the dominant language in the classroom. This recommendation is in keeping with the much-cited 'vernacular advantage' theory outlined in a UNESCO document some 30 years ago" (Martin-Jones & Romaine 1986, p. 27).

Even though Martin-Jones & Romaine are putting emphasis on 'minority language children', in my view their theory is applicable to any L1 that is facing a recognition challenge in any given situation.

The two authors are critical of the use of 'semilingualism' as aligned with terms like 'full competence', 'threshold level', 'additive' and 'subtractive bilingualism' which emerged in some reports of educational researchers in Sweden (p. 28).

They say; "Terms such as 'semilingualism' are, misleading because they implicitly foster the belief that there is such a thing as an ideal, fully competent monolingual or bilingual speaker who has a full or complete version of a language" (p. 32).

Martin-Jones & Romaine confirm being in agreement with Hymes (1980) that there are fundamental inequalities in the use of languages and the abilities of speakers. That the social and linguistic competences of using two or more languages for different functions are not the same everywhere, because communicative competence is differentially shaped in relation to patterns of language use, as well as community attitudes and beliefs about competence (p. 34).

I would add my weight to agree with Martin-Jones & Romaine since bilinguals, in my view, do not all speak the languages they know with the same vigour and competence, hence they are able to communicate and put their messages across without much hassle. After all, the fact that they can communicate in those languages makes them bilinguals, and language ability grows as communication needs advance.

On bilingual education, Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, pp.579-580) identifies three forms:

a) Non-forms - apparently these do not use two languages as media of teaching and learning, even if they have many minority or indigenous children in their programs.

b) Weak forms- have monolingualism, strong dominance in one of the languages, mostly the majority language or limited bilingualism.

c) Strong forms- aim to promote multilingualism and multiliteracy for all participants in the program, whether they represent linguistic minorities or majorities.

The European model of language in education discussed by Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, p. 620, see also Hoffman (1998, p. 168), provides an alternative approach to language planning in education for countries in need for it.

It states that all or most official languages of the European Union (EU) function as the principal medium of education initially in their subsection in every school where there are enough children for this.

It is said that a child attends a subsection for her/his own mother tongue, be it Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish or Swedish. That other children from other language groups are free to choose a subsection of the language, which they know best, e.g. most Arabic-speaking children choose a French subsection.

The Namibia education language policy in principle applies almost the same procedures, i.e. advocating the use of L1 as medium of instruction for the first three years of schooling only. But, the extent to which the said is practised, is unknown since no independent inquiry has been done in this respect.

"The medium of education is initially the child's mother tongue (= the language of the subsection), and all cognitively and linguistically demanding decontextualised subjects continue to be taught through the medium of the mother tongue (first language, L1) at least up to grade 8," (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000, p. 620).

To apply Skutnabb-Kangas' above statement in practice, one should keep in mind notions such as equity and justice and promote academic achievement for all students regardless of race, class or income, thereby arresting the traditional education system from reproducing the power structure that maintains existing division of status, resources and income (Cummins 1996, p. 163).

For Namibia, a country that has been devastated by apartheid and segregated education for many years, the notion of equity and justice would preferably be the first to be addressed before implementing indigenous languages as medium of instruction in education.

As Cummins states: "In spite of considerable rhetoric endorsing equity and justice, little has changed in terms of educational outcomes. Culturally diverse students are still massively over-represented in low achieving categories" (ibid).

Although presenting this idea from the USA context, Cummins is of the opinion that the patterns of micro-interactions that culturally diverse students experience in the educational system are a function of the power relations operating between dominant and subordinate groups in the wider society (ibid).

I fully agree with Cummins that the power structure in the wider society strongly influences the culture of the school, which is expressed in the educational structure implemented in the school, and in the ways educators define their roles with respect to culturally diverse students and communities.

Thus, as Cummins says, it is not surprising that most educational reforms have remained at a surface level where they do not seriously challenge the societal power structure (ibid).

Viewing Cummins's description of education from the Namibian perspective, one sees a lot of sense, especially as regard to the use of indigenous/national languages as mediums of instruction, where some indigenous languages are treated as less important despite their strong pronouncement in the country's constitution as equal to all. I therefore cherish Cummins' viewpoints on educational empowerment and innovation that;

a) Genuine reform, at a deep structural level, requires that the culture of the school changes in ways that potentially challenge coercive relations of power;

b) Conditions of collaborative empowerment are created when educators attempt to organize their interactions with culturally diverse students in such a way that power is generated and shared through these interactions. This involves becoming aware of, and actively working to change , educational structures that limit 'culturally diverse students" opportunities for educational and advancement;

c) Genuine educational reform requires that innovations permeate and transform the entire culture of the school (p. 164).

With reference to bilingual (multilingual) education, Cummins' view becomes more evident as De Mejia (1998, p. 9)argues that bilingual teachers need to examine carefully the ways in which they and their students actually use their two (or more) languages in the construction of storytelling events before deciding whether to include or exclude the use of code switching as a teaching resource in their classroom.

The later tallies with the notion that "to achieve the goal of bilingualism, attention to literacy in both languages is crucial" (Calderon & Slavin 2001, p. 27). The two authors regard the two-way immersion program piloted at Hueco Elementary School as a promising model for bilingual education, because it embodies all the elements identified (p. 40).

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