Gambia: Language And Literacy - Tools of Repression Or Freedom?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 14 13:42:16 UTC 2007


*Language And Literacy - Tools of Repression Or Freedom?*

*The Daily Observer* (Banjul)
12 June 2007
Posted to the web 13 June 2007

By Demba Ceesay

Language and literacy are like Siamese twins. The more literate people are
especially in a language familiar to them, the more they can fight against
exclusion. Literacy undeniably returns power to where it belongs: the
people. It also facilitates societal development by means of increasing the
number of active participants in the development wheel. It can serve as a
catalyst for co-operation. The absence of mass and critical literacy has
been found to be big hindrance to development as literacy has become an
integral part of the development cycle in terms of the human resource
potentials that go with it. It follows that if people are to fully
participate in both democratic practices and general development, they must
be literate. And in a modern world rapidly overtaken by advanced technology
in information communication, we are no longer talking of the basic
post-independence functional literacy programmes that limited students and
non-formal education participants to basic writing and arithmetic.

Rather, we are talking about an education and literacy programmes that cater
for both the general and specialised operation of the individual in a modern
nation-state. By this, I mean literacy for employment opportunities
including research and scientific enquiries, computer technology, literacy
for democratic participation, commerce and trade and production. This
implies that the new demand for genuine literacy in a modern nation-state
requires both acquisition of the innovations in communication and increased
competence in language use, whatever language such opportunity is available.
This requires competence in higher-order thinking skills such as effective
negotiation, analysis, reflection and the ability to participate
discursively on myriad issues of national importance grounded on popular
involvement in debates and criticisms in a language the people are
proficient in.

It is therefore evident that for people to take part in a more co-operative
and pluralistic society, the initiatives of getting critical literacy to the
people must emanate from the state. It is no wonder that generally,
countries with high literacy rates tend to forge ahead of those with low
literacy rates. This is because in most developed countries, the state has a
poor view of illiteracy and efforts are considerably made to eradicate it.
In these countries too, illiteracy is seen both as denial of human rights,
as well as a waste of human talents.

On the contrary, in most developing countries particularly in Sub-Saharan
Africa, the formal education system serves only the well-to-do and is
usually not responsive to the growing demands of language and literacy for
the modern world. The non-formal education sector is usually left for NGOs
to run. Because most of these NGOs originate from some where in the west,
and since most of them are not able to practically deal with the conflicting
issues around language, their programmes are normally not in the language of
the people. Such programmes cannot easily bring people closer to genuine
information. And for people to make sound decisions and partake in the
affairs of the state literacy programmes must be able to contribute to
knowledge and attitudes required for making informed decisions and
exercising their rights and responsibilities in a democratic society.

Language and literacy programmes must be structured beyond the scope of
traditional functional illiteracy programmes meant to enable participants to
merely fill forms, write letters, read agri-business instructions manuals
and choosing menus at a restaurant. Literacy for development in a modern
society calls for a more critical approach in which different strategies of
thought and problem-solving in abstract atmosphere are fundamental. How this
can be achieved in a foreign language is a question whose answers are still
debatable. That is why the argument for local languages, the language of the
people, as media for instruction is growing from strength to strength. Paolo
Freire argues that literacy programmes can only bring the best out of people
if they are in constant dialogue and reflection with the people.
Unfortunately, as briefly highlighted earlier, most literacy programmes in
many parts of the developing world do not fit in this direction. First, they
are given in a foreign language. Modern curricula in most developing
countries are still contemptuous of local knowledge and cultures, in the
same manner colonial education systems were. Then there is a problem of
pedagogy. The education system, both in the formal and non-formal systems
continues to portray the teacher as the custodian of knowledge and the
student the passive recipient. There is little dialogue in the system as
everything in the classroom is one-sided. And Freire further argues that:

The man who proclaims devotion to the cause of liberation yet is unable to
enter into communication with the people whom he continues to regard as
totally ignorant, is grievously self-conceited.

For literacy to bring the best out of the people it is supposed to serve and
facilitate societal development in a culturally plural society, it must
start with the trust in the ingenuity of the people, which is only truly
expressed through communication in a language familiar to them. This
dialogical approach necessary for genuine literacy reflects heavily on
language ability with both the teacher and the student requiring effective
discourse to discern learning objectives and learning outcomes. When
literacy programmes and education systems are used in a familiar language,
they facilitate legitimate participation in a democratic culture and
economic development. If we want to change the status quo, we must first
change the status of language in our schools. The irony of the education and
economic policies in most of the developing world is that while they are
asking for popular participation, they insist on using a medium which still
alienates the people. With the re-introduction of local languages in some
education systems in many countries, there are signs that such languages
will flourish to higher heights to enhance more active learning.

This is because familiar language distributes power within the learning
environment as well as between the elite and the masses in a culturally
plural society that we now have.

As illustrated earlier, languages have always been associated with power,
being it economic, political or cultural power. One needs not be a linguist
to understand this in the context of the place of English in the new world
order. English has indeed emerged as a global language at the detriment of
hundreds, possibly thousands of other languages, thanks to the processes of
globalisation. The readiness to push for a multilingual language policy in
schools is far less impressive because indigenous languages do not get any
support from state initiatives in the education sector. Even thought most
African countries are having their local languages taught in the school
systems, this is only so at the very basic levels as these languages are
rarely taught beyond the secondary school. For some, for example, it is
envisaged that in New Education Policy in The Gambia, local languages would
be part of curriculum for the early part of primary education. The policy
states that:

The national language pilot programme will be expanded to form the basis of
a smooth transition from the home to the school to enhance performance and
the appreciation of indigenous languages and knowledge

The policy further states that the "predominant Gambian language of the area
in which the child lives" would be the medium of instruction for the first
three years of basic education and that English would be used as a medium
from grade four onwards. However, the policy is somehow silent on what to do
with these languages beyond primary education. In other developing countries
as well, there is also the serious misconception that advanced scientific
concepts and arguments cannot be expressed in these languages as they cannot
handle discourses in many domains of knowledge. So in most cases, even where
a local language is given a role in schools, there are still a number of
unsettled contradictions that children have to grapple with as they climb
the educational ladder. That is why curriculum developers usually take the
easier option: let them learn English (or French as the case may be!) since
they are going to server the wider world.

As if that is not enough, at societal level, local languages are given low
status as they are used only in traditional tribunals and petit trade. For
instance, even though the Gambian Constitution categorically states that
national languages could be spoken in Parliament, we are yet to hear Wolof,
Fula, Sarahule or any other language spoken. One can imagine the House could
be losing lots of ideas as some members might have been more productive if
they had expressed their ideas in a more familiar language. How many times
have we had jokes of people saying that if they were given to opportunity to
speak in their mother tongues, they would have said more? In The Gambia, as
in other African countries, if one is even very fluent in one's mother
tongue, that is regarded as old-fashioned and the person occupies an
inferior position compared to someone who can quote volumes and volumes of
Shakespeare. I am not in any way suggesting that foreign languages like
English should be abolished in our school systems. Every language is
important. Serere, Sarahule, Hawsa, Arabic, Urdu, Japanese, Fante, English,
etc are all important. For people to participate fully in a democratic and
culturally plural society in our today's world, they should be given the
opportunity to learn and use their language as far as possible to increase
the potentials of self expression and thought as well as enrich knowledge.

We are told that we are in an information age. Globalisation has shifted the
thrust of the development debate from industrialisation to information
technology. Access to information centres around computer literacy together
with all the related skills around it to the extent that if Bill Gates were
Chinese, we would all be learning Mandarin now. But to all intent and
purpose, of all the skills we need, ability in a language that we are
familiar in is crucial if we are to partake in this information revolution.
Therefore, we cannot run away from the language and literacy debate even if
we are talking about computers. If one turns a computer on, it responses in
a language. Let us hope that some day our languages would be developed so
that, when our grandchildren (if not our children!) boot on their PCs, the
menus on their screens would be in their languages.

To conclude, it is evident that language articulates identity and gives
freedom to people who acquire it. In a world of disappearing national
boundaries, we are witnessing both the supremacy of English as the global
language and growing contestations against it by virtue of the increasing
campaigns for use of indigenous languages. The taste for literacy especially
in a familiar language is also growing because it has been found to be the
best way of rescuing endangered languages across the world. We have observed
that familiar language does not only confer power, but serves as a potential
resource for mass participation in a democratic culture.

Consequently, countries are gradually giving indigenous languages the
priority they deserve while maintaining dominant languages such as English
to be able to function well in a globalised world. The notion that local
languages cannot express advanced scientific thoughts and concepts is a
fallacy. If any language is developed, its orthography well articulated and
standardised with existing world languages and discourse, it can no doubt
fulfil the role that other languages have fulfilled.

We have seen that, generations after generations, language has been used as
a tool of both repression and freedom. It will still continue to be used as
such depending on who possesses it. We have also seen how genuine literacy
programmes drawn with the people in their own language can serve as a
catalyst for producing a critical mass which is employable in a modern
nation-state and capable of participating in a viable democracy. If we want
to turn around the world for people for positive development, we have to
address the status of their literacy and use of language by putting every
language in its proper perspective.
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