Namibia: Impact of Language On Education Policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 19 13:50:06 UTC 2008

Impact of Language On Education Policy

New Era (Windhoek)

18 June 2008
Posted to the web 18 June 2008

By Chief Ankama

"Experience teaches us not to assume that the obvious is clearly
understood. So it is with the truism with which we begin: All
educational practice implies a theoretical stance on the educator's
part. This stance in turn implies - sometimes more, sometimes less
explicitly - an interpretation of man and the world. It could not be
otherwise. "The process of man's orientation in the world involves not
just the association of sense images, as for animals.It involves,
above all, thought language; that is, the possibility of the act of
knowing through his praxis, by which man transforms reality" (Freire
1970, p. 248). In my opinion, Freire in a broader sense implies
ignorance and assumptions education planners sometimes have in
determining what should be learned and how learning takes
place.Although Freire argues from the view of adult literacy, this
view carries the same weight for young learners in formal education.

In other words, learning should not be seen as a container of
knowledge for the knowledge hungry, to get there and be tanked by the
knowledge developers, but rather a process that helps develop funds of
knowledge. Learning should be home connected taking into account the
language, culture and praxis and thus making education more accessible
and meaningful. Au and Kawakami (1994) report that students of diverse
background often do poorly because of a mismatch between the culture
of the school and the culture of the home (pp. 5-6). This can be
viewed in relation to the report in 'The Namibian' (November 29,
2002), regarding education output in Namibia.

The Ministry of Basic Education reported that the education system has
failed to meet the demand for skilled human resources in Namibia. A
National Plan of Action 2001-2015, released by the then Minister of
Basic Education John Mutorwa, said the system had failed to empower
Namibians of all ages to contribute to their own well-being.

A National Strategic Plan, a short-term strategy, has been developed
to reverse the trend through the introduction of programmes that would
advance the cultural and economic development of Namibians by 2005
(Mutorwa 2002).

As Au and Kawakami point out, students have less opportunity to learn
when school lessons and other activities are conducted, or socially
organised, in a manner inconsistent with the values and norms of their
home culture (p. 6). In my opinion, the two authors should be credited
for their research.

It is as if they knew what is currently haunting the Ministry of
Education in Namibia in view of what the Minister had stated. While
the country is multiracial and multicultural, not much has been paid
to cultural congruence instruction advocated by Au and Kawakami

Further, they say research on cultural congruence recognizes that the
home and school are different settings with different functions in
students' lives, and that culturally congruent educational practices
incorporate features of the students' home culture but do not result
in activities and environments identical to those of the home.

Au and Kawakami (1994) quote Slinger (1988) who noted research
exploring cultural congruence having adopted an "inherently moderate"
position accepting that goals of schooling for students of diverse
backgrounds are essentially the same as the goals for students of
mainstream backgrounds, which help them acquire the skills and
knowledge needed for success in the larger society (p.6).

Henze (1992) tells of a cultural congruence existence between homes of
all learners and the school environment (p.6). Henze (1992) however
quotes Erickson (1986a) that incongruity may be there, and that it can
result in cognitive dissonance, making it more difficult for students
to do well in school because they must learn not only lesson content,
but also a different way of interacting.

She however cautions against general belief that cultural incongruence
is always the cause of trouble in schools (ibid).

What education planners usually miss is how to make blends of the
different cultures to marry each other through education. McDermott
(1995) highlights two important assumptions from the anthropological
point of view; "the first, that we are arrogant to think we know
better than people in other cultures, and the second, that we are
foolish to not appreciate how much is known by others in their own
terms" (p.1).

In essence, people in planning in general consciously or unconsciously
underestimate the values of cultures and languages of others as
co-pillars, which congruently uphold the system of education together.

The metaphor of "How to ring a doorbell", Henze (1992) clearly
illustrates the cultural-language connection between school and home
environment as a contributive factor for or against education.

Namibia for example, having adopted English recently in 1993 as medium
of instruction in education, should not be expected to do miracles in
education comprising of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual
diverse settings, which were previously administered according to
ethnic-racial lines (Putz 1995, pp. 187-192).

Language is relative to culture and Neu (1995) tells a great deal she
has learned about identity, language and conflict while at the Carter
Center resolving international conflicts which are group identity
related (p. 9). In other words, people generally see themselves as a
group (community) through the common language they speak.

McDermott (1995) nevertheless, describes the coherence of culture as
something many individuals, in multiple realities, manage to achieve
together; that it is never simply the property of individual persons
(p. 2).

My concern rests upon the implementation and effectiveness of the
choice of the medium of instruction from grades 1-3 schools in Namibia
as defined in the national education language policy.

The policy prescribes the use of indigenous languages as medium of
instruction in grades 1-3 with special focus on the role of indigenous
languages in education (Brown 1998, p. 6; Slaughter & Lai 1994, p.32;
and Mann 1997, p.17).

Schools are expected to make arrangements for the choice of medium of
instruction and implement national languages in accordance with how
the learners are represented at a particular school.

Noteworthy is that Namibia's language policy was received with mixed
feelings. Among the culturally sensitive and among some of the
university elite, there were some misgivings (Grant 1996, p. 5).

"Some feared that the local languages would begin to disappear under
the promotion and establishment of English, and that the rich and
varied linguistic heritage of Namibia might be eroded" (Ibid).

In the near-similar circumstance Neu (1995, pp. 1-2) gives a good
example as she emphatically applauds Governor Miller for courageously
vetoing an "Official English" bill which would be passed in Georgia
state, USA. Neu is convinced that as a result of the veto, it helps
the state of Georgia to create "an intercultural mosaic".

In her opinion, Governor Miller's veto "was an act of conflict
prevention". With this, Neu realized the harmonious togetherness among
people of different languages and cultures in Georgia State, noting
that a disturbing situation would arise when some people's languages
were sidelined and English language was legitimised.

Noting the absence of research on the situation referred to by Grant
(1996, p. 5) regarding some fear that local languages would begin to
disappear under the promotion and establishment of English, in my
view, this is an appropriate time to find out exactly what happens
with indigenous languages at grades 1-3 since the education language
policy came into effect.

Neu's paper in line with that of Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas (1995)
points out the danger involved in suppression of minority languages
such as; the cause of conflict, war, ethnic division and mass
destruction of the economy of such people. That an economic benefit
could be shared among the same people if there was peace.

Neu (1995, pp.16-19) gives an example of the Russians and Estonians
'an eye for an eye' situation between a former master and a
subordinate. Equally Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas (1995: p. 486),
refer to a near similar case of Russia and the Baltic states.

In this reference, Russia felt that minority Russian-speaking people
in those states were being victimized as they were robbed of their
language rights.

Prior to Namibia's independence in 1990, Afrikaans, English and German
were elevated to the position of official languages with the exception
of indigenous languages.

Afrikaans enjoyed many privileges as it was also the medium of
instruction in education. With these in mind, speakers of indigenous
languages will get upset once they feel their cultures and languages
are receiving less priority (see Putz 1995, pp. 158-162).

Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas squarely meet Neu at the point of
defending linguistic and cultural pluralism co-existence.All blame the
governments and systems with powers fuelling tension and at times
igniting war by abusing or carelessly imposing language
policies/language choices onto people.

Nekhwevha (1998) criticises both the South African and Namibian
curriculum of the new educational programmes as lacking indigenous
ingredient, namely the cultural capital of the African masses (p. 1).

"Nevertheless, withoutstruggle there is no progress and therefore the
African cultural renaissancein education will only become a
realitywhen educationists and other organic intellectuals embrace the
pedagogyof hope - in a word the struggle for educational
transformation continues" (ibid).

In the same tone as Grant (1996), Neu (1995), Phillipson and
Skutnabb-Kangas (1995), Nekhwevha (1998) underlines; culture,
languages, customs and values as core spices in the education
curriculum menu and should not be overlooked (ibid).

However, Neu (1995) cautions against focusing on individual interest,
e.g. ethnic, religion or linguistic differences, rather than to focus
"on what unites us, on our shared humanity, " (P. 5).

Moll, et al (1992), adopted an approach in their study to connect home
and classroom together (p. 133). They talk about the relevance of
developing a 'culture sensitive curriculum' that acknowledges
household functioning knowledge (p. 139).

Their emphasis rests upon the artful amalgamation of the
socio-cultural experience of the learner's world, into that of the

Lack of learners' interaction in the classroom hampers greatly the
success of the learner in education.Cummins (1995), discusses probable
effectiveness or ineffectiveness of various interventions directed at
reversing minority students' school failure (p. 103).

Cummins' argument is based on the three inclusive sets of interactions
or power relations: (1) the classroom interactions between teachers
and students, (2) relationships between school and minority
communities and (3) the inter-group power relations within the society
as a whole.

"Within this framework the educational failure of minority students is
analysed as a function of the extent to which schools reflect or
counteract the power relations that exist within the broader society.

"Specifically, language-minority students' educational progress is
strongly influenced by the extent to whichindividual educators become
advocates for the promotion of students' linguistic talents, actively
encourage community participation in developing students' academic and
cultural resources, and implement pedagogical approaches that succeed
in liberating students from instructional dependence" (Cummins 1995,
p. 112).

Cummins' theory acts as a critical review of Namibia's education
language policy implementation with specific reference to elementary

The analysis of the policy and its implementation in grades 1-3 is
critically essential for it can provide evidence of the policy's
successes and failures, while creating an opportunity for future
improved changes of the policy implementation in education, especially
at the level of primary education.

Another interesting comparison to Namibia is the Fillmore (1991) case
study, which discusses the phenomenon of "subtractive bilingualism" in
relation to both native and immigrant children in the state of
California, whose acquisition of English in school resulted not in
bilingualism as such, but in the erosion or loss of their primary
languages (p. 323).

Fillmore alludes to countless American immigrant and American native
children who have lost their ethnic languages in the process of
becoming linguistically assimilated into the English-speaking world of
the school and society (p. 339). Namibia's case may be different in
that it is the majority whose languages have been neglected in the
past by the previous administration.

Furthermore, indigenous language concerns reported by Grant (1996, p.
5) have not been critically followed up yet. On the other hand, in
Namibia English is given an official status to co-exist with
indigenous languages for use in cases such as when and where English
is not understood.

Indigenous languages are also given special treatment to be used as
medium of instruction in the early grades of education.

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