DIESCHO’S DICTUM: Poor English a cause of high failure in Namibian schools

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By Professor joseph diescho

The Namibia Institute of Public Administration and Management (NIPAM), in collaboration with the University of Namibia (UNAM), the Namibian Institute for Educational Development (NIED) and other compatible agencies of change in Namibia, are in the process of setting up a national entity to advance the development of indigenous languages in the country. The purpose of this endeavour is to assist the Government of the Republic in communicating messages of nation-building, and with ultimately building a nation that is capable of communicating with itself and others regarding who and how we are, in the family of nations. This effort is at the behest of the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology (MICT), which realised that a good number of government initiatives are not understood properly by the citizens due to the fact that messages get lost in translation. The backdrop of this reality is that Namibia is a country where only 4% of the population has English as first language, yet it is the only official language. When one attends national conferences where people are brought to do simultaneous translation on a part-time basis, the traditional leaders who listen through such translation seemingly attend a totally different conference! What is being said and what they hear through translation are totally different stories. To be clear, one only has to listen to news bulletins on any of the indigenous radio stations, to realize this point. If one did not get the story first in English or Afrikaans, the indigenous version would not make sense at all. It is therefore important to step in and assist with the manner in which national messages are transmitted.

Then, I had a serious discussion with my friend Judy Judge, a Canadian by birth, who has been living as a Namibian and amongst Namibians for over eleven years now. We roped her in to benefit from the work she has been doing towards a Namibian multilingual dictionary. Judy stretched my imagination beyond what my colleagues and I initially had in mind, namely to establish an Indigenous Language ‘Something’ to spearhead a deliberate effort to bring our local languages on par with current socio-political development. We can take pride in the strides we’ve made over the past twenty-five years of maintaining peace and stability, and of making real progress towards nationhood – a process that has taken other nations longer to bring off the ground. What we had been talking about was to set up a governing/advisory board for the languages of Namibia that would pave the way to improve the standards of the existing languages such that they acquire new words and linguistic tools with which to speak about the new world. Our thinking almost excluded English, which is the current official language of the country. We had in mind how to build a new capacity in these languages to address challenges of memory, preservation, education and training. While these issues are indeed important and quite legitimate, we need to stretch our imagination further and cast our eyes on the immediate difficulties the nation is facing. English is part of our problem and solution at the same time. In other words, the absence of English from a national language conversation does not and cannot help in the advancement towards the strategic goals of Vision 2030, one of which is, improved literacy through education. An omission of a serious effort to take English to the people of Namibia as a means of liberation and progress would be a gross oversight, if we are to think and act in the vital interests of the nation in the short, medium and long terms of strategic development planning.

In fact, we in Namibia, and perhaps the continent as a whole, can no longer look at English in the context of the past, when development planners spoke of English as an Additional Language (E.A.L).

In our context, English is the language of business, the language of politics, the language of diplomacy, the language of leadership development, the language of trade and even the language of war. English is the language that links us to the rest of Africa and the world. Our own languages do not, and cannot, accomplish that, no matter how hard we pretend and even try. As a matter of fact, the conversation about improving our linguistic communication as Namibians, beyond our homes and villages, ought not to be about whether we opt for English or for indigenous languages. It is not a case of ‘either/or’, but rather a necessity of ‘both/and’. We need our local languages, as much as we also need to learn to communicate in better English.

In a real sense, English should be part of the bouquet of our serious efforts to develop our own languages in Namibia. Let us start with a look at the dismal progress we have made in our education arena since the demise of apartheid. One of the overlooked areas was the fact that teachers, inspectors, school administrators, even education officials who themselves do not know or speak good English, are ill-equipped to help learners master the basics. This is what people mean when they say education was better during apartheid. It was not better. Rather, it had better teachers – those men and women of ‘chalk and talk’, who were in good command of the Afrikaans language – the language in which they were communicating the values and contents of education, especially those who finished their training at Döbra, Augustineum and the like. These men and women did not lack in confidence when they stood in front of young people – they were in charge of their situations, starting with the language they were using. Today, when teachers and inspectors become the laughing stock amongst learners because of their deficient English, they cease to enjoy what they are doing, they cease being good examples of learning, and they cease being the self-respecting role models of our society. In fact, some dread going to schools, where they fear they will be ridiculed.

Here is what is at stake for the nation. Year after year, we as Namibians all lament the +/- 50% failure rate evidenced amongst high school learners across the country. Year after year, leaders at all levels recite the usual common refrain, which can be paraphrased as: “Learners must pull up their socks and do their level best”. The point is that it is not about learners, as much as it is about the philosophy in and of the education system. The point is that many of these learners have no socks to pull up! One of the problems is that we have not identified exactly what the underlying problems are, and how to go about remedying the situation in new, different and innovative ways. For instance, year after year, the common errors in English are unknowingly being perpetuated by teachers, principals and other notable leaders in the community. We have not developed ways and methods to show those who are toiling in the system ‘how’ to do things differently.

Through the years, there have been numerous studies performed, some dating back to the early 90’s, all of which produced the same finding, namely: English proficiency in Namibia is poor. We know this. Yet the situation remains the same, in spite of the findings and recommendations. Incompetency in the business language and the language of teaching and instruction can only have dire consequences on the learners’ ability to comprehend what they are learning, consequently resulting in dismal academic results.

With respect, the Ministry of Education, as well as NIED, have admirably tried to figure this English thing out, but quite frankly, still to no avail. The latest in this effort is the mass testing of all teachers’ English proficiency; a process that can be degrading, especially so, after the public shaming of teachers a couple of years back. The testing itself will ultimately prove redundant and fruitless, unless the plan is to use the information to design how best to address the inadequacies and to do this differently than we have done so before.

The tests in English proficiency at various institutions reveal the hard reality that part of our failure rate can be explained by the lack of attention we pay to helping ourselves speak better English, especially those in decision-making positions that have an impact on others’ behaviour and attitude towards learning to communicate better. In many instances, there is proof that those who do better are from outside of Namibia. Interestingly, the testing tool is being administered by people who themselves are not mother tongue English speakers, and are not the best judges because they are at institutions that are producing these deficiencies. The greater irony is that many teachers across Namibia who did not perform well in the proficiency test, are actually products of the institute which is now testing them and deeming their English to be sub-standard.

What does all of this mean? First, we have many reasons to include English as a focal language in any meaningful national language conversation in Namibia. This calls for a renewed effort on the task of raising the nation’s level of English proficiency. This intervention is critical not only for academic achievement purposes, but for the different and critical thinking needed for the realization of the country’s Grand National Vision and sustainable development goals. Second, it is important to handle this endeavour with dexterity and sensitivity and WITHOUT prejudice and/or perceived threat to the mother tongues of the majority of the country’s citizens. In all fairness, if we do it right, the foundational knowledge and appropriate use of mother tongue language can enhance and accelerate learners’ acquisition of English as the language that gives us all a leverage to reach our goals and make our mark in the world. Third, the fact that we have accepted English as the medium in which to do business and communicate with ourselves and the world requires of us to improve our own competencies in this language. Even though we shall never be English men and women, we must nevertheless use this language in a manner that brings us respect from other users. One of the reasons that the English world have hateful respect for Robert Mugabe is his mastery of the English language, so much so that one English journalist referred to Mugabe as an educated African freedom fighter who had a better command of the English language than Lord Solms, the British gentleman who chaired the Lancaster House talks about Zimbabwe’s independence. Whether Nelson Mandela was in London or Washington, D.C. addressing the lawmakers there, they were in awe of how eloquently he made his points – in English!

Towards this end, NIPAM is grateful to Judy and together with the MICT and UNAM, support the Namibian Multi-Lingual Translator Book. This book chronicles the necessary words that are used in official Namibia. The book identifies the many gaps between what we say/hear in the English language, and how these messages are conveyed in indigenous languages, and vice versa. The composer of this book has been able to identify and ascertain the types of errors that are being repeated, and ultimately perpetuated as a result of this linguistic gap. She is also very well versed in ‘Namlish’. Some of these gaps can cause a respectable person to sound foolish when they speak English and the concepts in their heads are in their mother tongue. For example, a respectable person can easily be heard saying: Do you hear the smell in this room, do you hear the sugar in your coffee! If one is a Thimbukushu, Rumanyo, Subia and Nama speaker, one can easily trip by saying something about yesterday while speaking about tomorrow, as the word used for yesterday and tomorrow is exactly the same: peghundha, yona, zona , //Ari. So, I could easily say: I was with him tomorrow, or let us meet again yesterday.

There is more here. Despite the strong emphasis I place on acquiring good English skills, it is extremely important for all people to know, that no language, English or otherwise, is better or superior to another. It all boils down to functionality. Namlish works for Namibians, but only in the context of Namibia. If people aspire to broaden their horizons outside the country, either through holiday travels, work abroad, or any kind of global communications, they are going to be met with people who, not only do not understand Namlish, but worse, could misperceive the language mistakes as being indicative of low intelligence or lacking education. This, we of course know, is simply not the case.

The emphasis and advocacy here is for multi-lingualism in Namibia. Knowing more than one language is an asset in every conceivable way, and for our purposes, English is one of those languages. It is now an undisputable truth that English, for better or for worse, is the universal language for business, communications, world economy and the growingly fierce competition for resources, human and material, around the world. Even though English does not have the highest number of native speakers in the world (compared to Chinese Mandarin), it is the language universally accepted for international affairs. Therefore, acquiring competency in this language can only open more doors and enhance one’s competitive edge of survival in this changing world.

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