New School Language Policy: Charity Begins At Home

By Sij Ncube

HARARE, October 14, 2015 – PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s government has intimated it wants to make mandatory the teaching of foreign languages at all primary schools in Zimbabwe but analysts say the ambitious strategy fails to appreciate the country is failing to enforce the teaching of Shona and Ndebele nationwide.

The targeted foreign languages include Swahili, Zulu, Portuguese, among others.

But critics note that Shona and Ndebele languages are the country’s two major indigenous languages yet both are hardly taught outside Mashonaland and Matabeleland provinces.

In Harare and Bulawayo for instance, there are a handful of primary schools that offer both languages but both languages are not mandatory at most schools.

 Linguists and educationists canvassed by Radio VOP point out that very little has been done to fully recognise the 16 official languages enshrined in the constitution, describing the government’s proposal to teach Swahili, Zulu, Portuguese as “a hare-brained after thought coming from a government beret of constructive ideas.”

Former education minister, David Coltart, said Zimbabwe children should be able to “read, write and speak their mother tongue and English, plus ideally one other indigenous language. “Why teach all these foreign languages when most children cannot even speak other indigenous languages,” asked Coltart.

Chofamba Sithole, a former journalist now turned academic, wondered how the government dreamt up the proposals when “we hardly teach Ndebele and Shona to all our kids. Should we start there?

Sithole said it would be impossible for the country to unlock its national culture’s intellectual heritance with no language keys to do so.

Bekithemba Mhlanga, a former journalist and scholar, described the idea to teach foreign languages at the expense of local indigenous ones as crazy.

“It shows lack of strategic insight. If they cannot meet current educational needs how will this be delivered or funded? Of late authorities in Zimbabwe have been behaving as if there is some weekly stupidity contest to be won,” said Mhlanga.

“Just last week one legislator called for the establishment of chieftainships in cities and times,” he said in reference to Makokoba’s legislator Tshinga Dube’s proposals that chiefs should be installed in towns.  

Educationist Takavafira Zhou added his voice to the issue, saying the proposal is as unfortunate as it is ill-conceived.

“Why the government wants to teach foreign languages when we have several local languages that are not taught in the country remains a mystery,” said Zhou.

He pointed out that several local languages such as Chewa, Chibarwe, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa have not gained a foothold in Zimbabwean schools yet officials are busy thinking of introducing foreign languages.

“It only shows how officials have lost touch with reality and happenings in schools so much that they want to impose what they dream as important in schools. What we need most is a language policy that can ensure that various local languages are offered in an area with students being given a choice to choose a local language from three local languages.

At any rate research has shown that up to the age of ten pupils learn best in their local languages. The greatest problem with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education is that they think intelligence only exist at their head office. Sadly, the Ministry suffers from self-pollination with the consequent warped up policies. The earlier the education officials learn to consult widely, the better for our education system,” said Zhou.