2 March 2011

Zimbabwe: Mother Language Education Crucial

In his speech, at the silver jubilee of 21st February Movement which also marked his 87 birthday in Harare on 26th February, the President of Zimbabwe, Cde Robert Mugabe declared that languages of Zimbabwe must be taught in Zimbabwean schools.

This position is in many respects an important policy statement that has implications not only on the teaching of Zimbabwean languages but also on the value and use of these languages.

The President made this statement when making reference to what he saw as the prevalence of colonial mentality that negates all the indigenisation and empowerment efforts as well as the tendency to ignore the fact that mother languages are vital in expressing a people's identity.

The 21st February is also the International Mother Language Day. The day was proclaimed in 1999 by the Unesco General Conference and has been observed since 2000 "to promote linguistic, cultural diversity and multilingualism."

The day was chosen by Unesco to represent the 21st February 1952 when students "demonstrating for the recognition of their mother language, Bangla to be taken as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the then capital of what is now Bangladesh."

This year the theme of day is "The information and communication technology for the safeguarding and promotion of languages and linguistic diversity." In her message to mark the day, the Director-General of Unesco, Irina Bokova stated: "All languages are linked through their origins and borrowing but each is a unique source of meaning for understanding, writing and expressing reality.

"Information and communication technologies can be especially useful in promoting mother languages. We must harness the power of progress to protect diverse visions of the world and to promote all sources of knowledge and forms of expression. These are threads that weave the tapestry of humanity's story."

The director-general highlights the following as special characteristics of mother languages:

l Mother languages are special in providing the material with which the world is first voiced, the lens through which it is first understood.

l Mother languages along with linguistic diversity matter for the identity of individuals.

l Mother language instruction is a powerful way of fighting discrimination and of reaching out to marginalised populations.

l Mother language live harmoniously with the acquisition of other languages.

Also stressed in the Unesco publicity material on the day is that "all moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions through out the world to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue."

Equally important to note when taking cognisance of the importance of commemorating the International Mother Language Day is the United Nations General Assembly resolution A/RES/6/266 of 16th May 2009 which called upon all member states to "promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by the peoples of the world."

Chipawo, with the support of Unesco, will commemorate the International Mother Language Day on Saturday at the Zimbabwe College of Music in Harare, with a presentation of a play in Shona - "Mutambo Wepanyika" by New Horizon Theatre Company. The play is an adaptation of a play in Spanish written by Pedro Calderon de la Barca called "Life is a drama".

The play was translated in Shona in 1959 by teachers and students of Gokomere School and was published by Mambo Press. New Horizon Theatre Company's production of the play in December 2010 was made possible by the financial support of the Embassy of Spain. Apart from the play, the International Message by the Unesco Director-General will be read and discussed and many youths will present poems in different mother languages.

President Mugabe's sentiments about the status of Zimbabwean languages should cause several policy actions to emerge. These should include the question of whether there exists a national language policy that is known and understood and has been disseminated to all those concerned with language education, language use, and language development.

Does the national language policy, if it exists on its own or as part of national cultural and education policies, embrace all the values of language, the value of culture and cultural diversity? Are important language policy facets embedded into other national development agendas and policies?

Has there been a review of the national language policy to take on board current developments such as those emerging from the use of information and communication technologies and the demands for education for sustainable development?

It is important to stress that critical policies for development should be explained in the people's own languages incorporating indigenous knowledge systems to enhance relevance and to tap on local experiences.

Language is developed through practical use. Zimbabwe's broadcasting policy for example shows clearly some of the serious challenges faced in promoting the value and use of mother languages.

These challenges are amplified by ZBC's Power FM and Spot FM radio stations, which dominantly broadcast in English.

One of the radio channels, Power FM targets all its content to the youth of Zimbabwe. A youth of Zimbabwe who listens to the radio station will hear indigenous languages of Zimbabwe only in the songs and the names of the broadcasters.

It is therefore possible for a Zimbabwean youth who is constantly locked only onto this radio station to develop an impression that one's mother tongue is not important and is in fact a bother.

The absence of indigenous languages on these two radio stations that appeal to Zimbabwean youths become a contradiction to the national broadcaster's mission of informing, educating and entertaining.

What stops the broadcasters on these radio stations who are fluent in Shona, Ndebele and English using all these languages especially when there are two broadcasters on one programme?

Challenges to the national language policy are also dominant in many urban area schools, where it is forbidden for children to speak their mother languages on school grounds. This is based on the erroneous notion that mother language interfere with children's competent acquisition of English.

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