ON FOREIGN LANGUAGES AND EDUCATION STANDARDS: A CASE OF ENGLISH IN MALAWI
By Victor Benefit Ntaukirah*
One day I was listening to a certain radio report. In that report, the radio had carried out an investigation on why education standards in Malawi are dwindling, or rather, have dwindled. While I totally concur with the report that education levels in the country have shamelessly nosedived, I do not buy the yardstick the radio employed to measure the lowering education standards.
The report cited poor English speaking and writing as an indicator of the lowering levels of our education. Thus, by the radio’s education-meter, one who speaks and writes good English has attained quality education and by extension, such a person is educated. The itinerary of this essay is twofold: firstly, it highlights how fluency in a foreign language cannot indicate quality education and secondly it underlines the implications of employing foreign languages to measure levels of local education standards.
In trying to substantiate their case, the report used an audio clip of a Human Resources Manager from one of the elite companies in the country. The manager argued that most graduates fail to express themselves in good English during job interviews and at work places hence fail to impress the (prospective) employer as this foretells their probable inability to deliver at the workplace.
At first I thought the manager himself was English native but upon realizing that he is a fellow Malawian, two questions immediately popped up in my mind: the first question concerned the purpose for which a Malawian employer would want to communicate in English to a fellow Malawian employee. The second question was on the relationship between speaking good English and one’s ability to deliver at the workplace.
The report went on to argue that sometime back, “a standard six dropout [more than 20 years ago] could speak better English than a form four school leaver today.” By stopping at this juncture, the report therefore lacks completion. It is incomplete because it could have gone a little bit further to tell us how that ability to “speak better English” benefited that primary school dropout.
Whether this was deliberate or not let us leave it to literary critics. Frankly speaking, an individual cannot work in any profession just because of speaking good English even though that person lacks special skills for the job. My conjecture is that if ever this standard 6 dropout got a job during that time, then it has to be because there were very few educated people at that time and not because of speaking good English.
Except for our Malawi National Assembly, fluency in English has and will never qualify one to be a doctor, nurse, teacher or engineer. Speaking or writing good English cannot make one a good bricklayer, plumber or carpenter. It is the custody of such specifically special skills and expertise for the job that enables one to effectively deliver at a workplace.
In this global village where we lay our scene, the acquisition of a foreign language is really significant but mainly for international communication. English in Malawi is there to help us communicate with people, from other countries, who cannot speak our local languages.
It becomes difficult to understand therefore how and why we are making such a huge leap from the level where English must be used for international communication to a higher status where we are using it as an index to measuring the quality of our education. Others have even gone on an extreme to think that fluency in a foreign language implies intelligence. Thus, people who fluently speak good English are the most intelligent.
But competence in English can neither be indicative that the levels of education have improved nor does it mean intelligence. If competence in English were equal to intelligence then Britons and Americans could both have been the most intelligent people on earth. Conversely, there are so many countries in the world that use their local languages as medium of communication in their education systems yet have high quality education levels and have most of the best educated people in the world for instance China and Japan to mention but only a few. Closer home we have Tanzania which uses local language (Kiswahili) as both a national and official language but is more developed than Malawi, otherwise all these countries would have been full of dull people.
Even though it is a fact that one needs to acquire some foreign languages to open global doors, which would otherwise be barred, a good education does not equal mastering the same. Knowledge of the basics is enough. We have people in this country who speak very good English yet they are mere form four school leavers. Our august House can attest to this.
Unfortunately, these people cannot be said to be more educated than a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree holder who is not fluent in this queen’s language. My experience has also shown that in Malawi girls are more fluent in spoken English than boys yet they have both undergone the same education system. Worse still and to my surprise, most of these girls who are fluent in spoken English do struggle in their academic pursuits than their male counterparts who are not fluent in the same.
Frantz Fanon in his book entitled Black Skin White Masks argues that “any person who adopts a new language different from that of the group into which he was born dislocates oneself from one’s own culture.” Here we see Fanon ascribing a basic significance and close relationship of the phenomenon of language to culture. Language manifests a culture for it is the main fabric of any culture.
Thus, English language is an aspect of the English culture. Chichewa and our other indigenous languages are an intangible aspect of the Malawi culture. It does not make sense therefore to measure levels of our education standards using a language most of the population does not comprehend and even if they comprehended, it would eventually separate them from the originality of their own culture.
As we emphasize and encourage our children to speak better English by employing fluency in English language as a gauge to measuring the level of our education standards, we are implicitly promoting the English culture yet at the same time renouncing our own culture.
The use of a foreign language to measure the level of our education manifests our continued suffering of the effects of colonization. Colonization has left an indelible inferiority complex in us. This inferiority complex is being exposed and perpetuated by this butchering and subsequent burial of our own local languages which has in due course immersed us in the culture of our former colonial masters.
We are brainwashed to think that we can become better individuals if we adopt the cultural standards of our colonial masters. This in the end compromises the very goal of education itself. Etymologically speaking, the word ‘education’ derives from two Latin words namely, ex meaning ‘out’ and ducere which means ‘to lead’. Taking off from this etymological understanding, education is therefore meant to lead people out of something that bondages them.
Thus, for instance, our education system must help liberating our minds from the arsenal of inferiority complexes that have been developed by the colonial environment. The report was therefore not in line with this objective of education as it perpetuates mental enslavement and hence neocolonialism by making us believe that to be educated is marked by mastering a foreign language, in our case, English.
Unfortunately, any education system that perpetuates neocolonialism cannot be recipe for national development. We may need to know that countries like China and Japan have succeeded immensely to develop in their local languages and culture. The Chinese and Japanese both have first class economies and are highly industrialized. There is an inseparable correlation between local languages, hence culture, and national development.
All developed countries have developed in their own languages and culture, not in foreign languages or cultures. We too cannot develop using foreign languages. This could probably be one of the major reasons why Malawi is still underdeveloped and basks in abject poverty despite having many ‘educated’ people. It is against this background that Marcus Garvey challenges us in one of his speeches that none but ourselves will free our minds.
We must respond to this call by freeing our minds so that we can be independent in the strictest sense of it. The paradox about it is that a man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of that other man who will use his mind instead. If we continue emphasizing on English language over our indigenous languages, we are first of all, indoctrinating our children with that inferiority complex to think that using our local languages is being primitive and a sign of lacking intelligence. One needs not to wonder therefore that many students in secondary school drop Chichewa in their School Certificate Examinations.
Secondly, we are shooting ourselves in the foot by making the owners of that English culture think that their language is superior to our local languages. Fanon continues to argue that man is human only to the extent to which he can impose his existence on another man. As long as he has not been able to impose such an existence on the other, as long as he has not been able to influence the other, then that other remains the theme of his actions. Thus, every man would want his existence and influence to be felt and recognized by others as this is where his own human worth, reality and meaning of life is condensed.
Now since society is man writ large it follows therefore that every cultural grouping is proud of its language and other cultural aspects and would want to impose them on others so as to realize its being. By promoting the English language hence their culture we are accepting and promoting the burden of being influenced by the owners of that culture. We are hence implicitly making ourselves a conduit through which those owners of the English language will realize their objectives and success at our expense.
In conclusion, let us realize that just like our Chichewa and the other local languages, English is just another language and not a measure of quality or intelligence. Let us put a firm grip on our local languages and culture by evolving from our inferiority complexes. Malawi must learn from the best.
Ntaukirah teaches at Madzanje Secondary School in Ntcheu but writes in his personal capacity.
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