Namibia: Bilingual Or Multilingual Education

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 29 16:05:38 UTC 2008

      Bilingual Or Multilingual Education

New Era (Windhoek)

28 May 2008
Posted to the web 28 May 2008

By Chief Ankama

It is not only me who is puzzled I realized, but there are other
people with similar questions on what happens in the mind of the
bi/multilingual speaker. It is for such reasons that there is quest
for information related to bilingual and multilingual knowledge and
the influence thereof. Information from bilingual education programs
researched by Cummins (1996, p. 123) suggest that "(a) bilingualism
and biliteracy should be promoted as central educational goal for all
students and (b), that bilingual instruction should place a strong
emphasis on developing literacy in the minority language" (argued from
a perspective of a minority language context).

Cummins cautions though that there is no one prescribed model for
achieving these goals - flexibility of approach is necessary to take
account of the varying entry characteristics of students, the
availability of resources and the political and economic climate
within which the program is being instituted (ibid). Cummins maintains
that there is a need to intervene in order to take "account of the
interactions between socio-political and psycho-educational factors,
that allow people to specify the essential components of effective
education for culturally diverse students. That, promotion of an
additive form of bilingualism and biliteracy is one significant
component, but that there are others that are equally significant and
that must be in place for bilingual programs or any other programs to
attain their goals" (ibid).

Cummins' viewpoint gives a free hand to implementers of such programs
to be proactive and respond to situations on the ground in order to
achieve success. The Canadian experience, discussed by Genesee (1998),
expresses the results from the trilingual use case study, indicating
double immersion school programs as effective in promoting proficiency
in two second languages, i.e. French and Hebrew, harming no students'
native language (English) development and academic achievement.

Results from this case study are said to indicate further, that double
immersion programs offer a flexible and effective model for promoting
multilingualism in communities where there are real advantages to
knowing more than two languages (p. 257).

Genesee states that this trend is progressively visible in the
European Union as the countries of Europe merge to foster economic,
social and cultural union. That, this trend is even evident in some
countries of Asia, Africa and South America where bilingual and
multilingual speaking communities are in search for opportunities to
enable their children to receive proficiency in local, regional and
national languages of some importance along with world languages, such
as English.

Creative use of double immersion is regarded as a viable option to
achieve the goals stated above (ibid). Of course, one would expect an
orderly introduction of L1 say for three to four years and perhaps the
second language and third to successively but gradually be introduced
step-by-step in subjects most necessary thereby allowing a smooth

According to Hoffman (1998), the second and third languages are
introduced in the similar model in Luxembourg just like in European
schools. Hoffman says the languages are first introduced as subjects
and then, progressively as media of instruction and inter-class
communication while still featuring as a school subject (p. 168).

"In the Luxembourg case, trilingual education is seen as an effective
means for enabling young Luxembourgers to acquire the three languages,
which together, form an essential part of their national identity. The
European School's cultural mission is more idealistic in that it aims
to establish a common supra-national European identity in order to
overcome possible prejudice and probable national tensions" (ibid).

Hoffman described the model as idealistic more for the majority of
children with high-status mother tongue, who have to choose among
existing alternative foreign languages as mediums to be instructed
through (see Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, p. 614).

This is worth piloting in countries where multilingualism in education
and national identity portray a conflict of interest. For Namibia, the
education language policy recognizes the use of indigenous/national
language as mediums of instruction in Lower Primary schools; however,
the question remains how far this has been implemented, and what the
people's attitudes are towards bi- or multilingualism in education
(also Hoffman 1998, p. 172).

"It is argued that minority language children should be given
opportunity to consolidate their L1 skills before the introduction of
the dominant language in the classroom. This recommendation is in
keeping with the much-cited 'vernacular advantage' theory outlined in
a UNESCO document some 30 years ago" (Martin-Jones & Romaine 1986, p.

Even though Martin-Jones & Romaine are putting emphasis on 'minority
language children', in my view their theory is applicable to any L1
that is facing a recognition challenge in any given situation.

The two authors are critical of the use of 'semilingualism' as aligned
with terms like 'full competence', 'threshold level', 'additive' and
'subtractive bilingualism' which emerged in some reports of
educational researchers in Sweden (p. 28).

They say; "Terms such as 'semilingualism' are, misleading because they
implicitly foster the belief that there is such a thing as an ideal,
fully competent monolingual or bilingual speaker who has a full or
complete version of a language" (p. 32).

Martin-Jones & Romaine confirm being in agreement with Hymes (1980)
that there are fundamental inequalities in the use of languages and
the abilities of speakers. That the social and linguistic competences
of using two or more languages for different functions are not the
same everywhere, because communicative competence is differentially
shaped in relation to patterns of language use, as well as community
attitudes and beliefs about competence (p. 34).

I would add my weight to agree with Martin-Jones & Romaine since
bilinguals, in my view, do not all speak the languages they know with
the same vigour and competence, hence they are able to communicate and
put their messages across without much hassle. After all, the fact
that they can communicate in those languages makes them bilinguals,
and language ability grows as communication needs advance.

On bilingual education, Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, pp.579-580) identifies
three forms:

a) Non-forms - apparently these do not use two languages as media of
teaching and learning, even if they have many minority or indigenous
children in their programs.

b) Weak forms- have monolingualism, strong dominance in one of the
languages, mostly the majority language or limited bilingualism.

c) Strong forms- aim to promote multilingualism and multiliteracy for
all participants in the program, whether they represent linguistic
minorities or majorities.

The European model of language in education discussed by
Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, p. 620, see also Hoffman (1998, p. 168),
provides an alternative approach to language planning in education for
countries in need for it.

It states that all or most official languages of the European Union
(EU) function as the principal medium of education initially in their
subsection in every school where there are enough children for this.

It is said that a child attends a subsection for her/his own mother
tongue, be it Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek,
Italian, Portuguese, Spanish or Swedish. That other children from
other language groups are free to choose a subsection of the language,
which they know best, e.g. most Arabic-speaking children choose a
French subsection.

The Namibia education language policy in principle applies almost the
same procedures, i.e. advocating the use of L1 as medium of
instruction for the first three years of schooling only. But, the
extent to which the said is practised, is unknown since no independent
inquiry has been done in this respect.

"The medium of education is initially the child's mother tongue (= the
language of the subsection), and all cognitively and linguistically
demanding decontextualised subjects continue to be taught through the
medium of the mother tongue (first language, L1) at least up to grade
8," (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000, p. 620).

To apply Skutnabb-Kangas' above statement in practice, one should keep
in mind notions such as equity and justice and promote academic
achievement for all students regardless of race, class or income,
thereby arresting the traditional education system from reproducing
the power structure that maintains existing division of status,
resources and income (Cummins 1996, p. 163).

For Namibia, a country that has been devastated by apartheid and
segregated education for many years, the notion of equity and justice
would preferably be the first to be addressed before implementing
indigenous languages as medium of instruction in education.

As Cummins states: "In spite of considerable rhetoric endorsing equity
and justice, little has changed in terms of educational outcomes.
Culturally diverse students are still massively over-represented in
low achieving categories" (ibid).

Although presenting this idea from the USA context, Cummins is of the
opinion that the patterns of micro-interactions that culturally
diverse students experience in the educational system are a function
of the power relations operating between dominant and subordinate
groups in the wider society (ibid).

I fully agree with Cummins that the power structure in the wider
society strongly influences the culture of the school, which is
expressed in the educational structure implemented in the school, and
in the ways educators define their roles with respect to culturally
diverse students and communities.

Thus, as Cummins says, it is not surprising that most educational
reforms have remained at a surface level where they do not seriously
challenge the societal power structure (ibid).

Viewing Cummins's description of education from the Namibian
perspective, one sees a lot of sense, especially as regard to the use
of indigenous/national languages as mediums of instruction, where some
indigenous languages are treated as less important despite their
strong pronouncement in the country's constitution as equal to all. I
therefore cherish Cummins' viewpoints on educational empowerment and
innovation that;

a) Genuine reform, at a deep structural level, requires that the
culture of the school changes in ways that potentially challenge
coercive relations of power;

b) Conditions of collaborative empowerment are created when educators
attempt to organize their interactions with culturally diverse
students in such a way that power is generated and shared through
these interactions. This involves becoming aware of, and actively
working to change , educational structures that limit 'culturally
diverse students" opportunities for educational and advancement;

c) Genuine educational reform requires that innovations permeate and
transform the entire culture of the school (p. 164).

With reference to bilingual (multilingual) education, Cummins' view
becomes more evident as De Mejia (1998, p. 9)argues that bilingual
teachers need to examine carefully the ways in which they and their
students actually use their two (or more) languages in the
construction of storytelling events before deciding whether to include
or exclude the use of code switching as a teaching resource in their

The later tallies with the notion that "to achieve the goal of
bilingualism, attention to literacy in both languages is crucial"
(Calderon & Slavin 2001, p. 27). The two authors regard the two-way
immersion program piloted at Hueco Elementary School as a promising
model for bilingual education, because it embodies all the elements
identified (p. 40).
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