18 January 2013

Zambia: Will Vernacular Add Value to Education?


INVESTMENT in the science and technology sector is one of the bedrocks of development for any nation in this era.

But Zambia has continued to lag behind due to lack of investment in form of knowledge in the various sectors.

In most cases, debating scientific topics is shunned and left to a few people who understand the issues due to the scientific jargon involved.

Of course, there are several other factors that can be attributed to this gap, but language barrier is one of them.

Implementing certain policies may seem to be difficult because the majority of the end users or beneficiaries have limitations in understanding English.

For example, the debate on whether Zambia should embrace genetically modified organisms (GMO) foodstuffs or otherwise was one-sided.

Registrar at the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), Alfred Sumani said achieving the desired results with regard to biosafety is difficult because the standard procedure is that the public needs to participate.

Dr Sumani said over the years, the country has made tremendous progress in building capacity in order to effectively handle all matters relating to biosafety and GMOs.

He said the country has laboratories at the National Institute for Scientific Research (NISRI) and Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) and the staff there have been empowered with skills to enable them to undertake scientific research.

The NBA, which is the only body mandated by Government to scrutinise applications from potential investors for purposes of research or importation of GM products in the country, has received numerous applications from companies interested in exploiting this sector.

Most of these institutions have applied through the NBA with intentions to introduce not for commercial use, but for confined trials of GM products in the country.

Most of these applications from organisations applying for licences to introduce GM products into the country are characterised by scientific terms that may not be easily understood by the wider population due to language barriers.

Dr Sumani said the Biosafety Act states that before any approval or disapproval is arrived at as regards GM products, it should be preceded by public participation through public hearings.

The Biosafety Act has been in place since 2007, clearly stipulating how issues of biosafety, including GMOs, should be addressed.

However, NBA has started translating scientific terms used in the Biosafety Act and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety into local languages, so that the terms can be best understood by the public.

Dr Sumani said language barrier is a major hindrance that has led to poor participation by the public in some policy implementations.

"The NBA has realised that due to language barrier, if the two documents remained in English, the greater population especially in rural areas would be left out," he noted.

The Biosafety Act and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety are the basis upon which the public should scrutinise and familiarise themselves with terminologies that they can use to either approve or disapprove GM products during public hearings.

"If people are able to understand these terminologies in their local languages, we believe that there will be effective participation in the final decision on whether the country will accept or reject GM products, as opposed to using emotions," Dr Sumani said.

Evans Kaimoyo, a molecular biologist at the University of Zambia (UNZA) department of Biology, from an academic point of view, emphasises the importance of teaching of science terminologies in a manner that most pupils and students would easily comprehend.

"There are many scientific terms whose meanings cannot easily be explained in the local languages, hence the gap in the levels of understanding amongst the pupils," he noted.

Dr Kaimoyo, who welcomed the initiative by NBA to partner with stakeholders in translating some scientific terms into the seven major local languages, said the exercise was a starting point towards creating deliberate interest in science subjects in schools because of the ease in communicating science to pupils.

"This platform is very important in the sense that we as scientists working together with linguists, and other people can keep on building the terminologies and increasing the number of terms that have been translated over and above the National Biosafety Policy, to even just school materials for teaching of science," Dr Kaimoyo said.

He cited one of the challenges in the exercise to translate the documents into vernacular as being able to translate a scientific term that is very difficult and place it into an equivalent of a local language.

"For example, if I asked a Bemba-speaking person to translate a term such as photosynthesis into Bemba, this person may be forced to explain the term into a whole paragraph, just so that the person reading in the local language may understand.

"But these challenges are not insurmountable, we can actually overcome them, I think we should enlist ourselves, journalists, linguists and scientists and continue working towards achieving the common goal," he said.

It is against this backdrop that the NBA organised a workshop which drew the participation of language experts in an initial attempt to translate some of the scientific terminologies into the seven main local languages (Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga, Lozi Kaonde, Luvale and Lunda).

Lecturer in the department of languages at UNZA, Mildred Wakumelo said some of the gaps that the country is facing as regards addressing matters relating to embracing local languages result from the fact that Zambia has no national language policy, which should stipulate what steps should be taken to promote and develop the languages.

Dr Wakumelo said Botswana and Namibia have an advantage over Zambia because they have language policies, while South Africa, which has nine official languages, with an advantage of most of its population being bi-lingual (able to understand and speak more than one of the nine official languages) rank quite fairly of having some success in the use of local languages.

Governments in these countries have become obliged to develop these languages for use in the official capacity.

In Zambia, the only official language is English while the other seven are just lingua franca. Therefore, because of this, nobody is obliged to use these at official fora and there is no obligation to continue using them.

She explained that other countries have set up institutions charged with the responsibility of working towards developing the languages, dictionaries, and develop terminologies in all areas including science and mathematics.

"The current problem we have is we have no institution to guide the translation of documents into vernacular.

"Our languages can be used for science, mathematics, physics, biology and for anything else, as long as there is a deliberate measure to develop the relevant tools for use in these languages. Countries that have developed that way have started from there," Dr Wakumelo noted.

This means that institutions charged with responsibilities to translate documents should do so in wide consultation with the people, by coming up with glossaries and data banks. That is how languages like Swahili have developed over the years.

But the bleak picture surrounding the promotion of local languages in the country is soon to change.

Recently, Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba reiterated Government's commitment to ensuring that vernacular languages become more prominent in the country's education system.

Mr Kabimba said the introduction of local languages into the school curriculum will go a long way in enhancing the country's education system.

He wondered why many Zambians had remained adamant on the use of the English language as a medium of communication when there was enough untapped potential in the numerous local languages.

"It is the policy of the PF Government to revive vernacular languages because a language gives us identity," he said.

With the commitment by Government, there is no doubt that the promotion of local languages will develop even through means such as the use of borrowed terminologies from other languages.

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