[lg policy] Namibia's language policy is 'poisoning' its children

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 11 15:50:47 UTC 2012

Namibia's language policy is 'poisoning' its children

English has been the medium of instruction in most of Namibia's
classrooms for nearly 20 years, but with teachers shown to be failing
in competency tests, calls for change are mounting. Namibia's
commitment to English as the main language of education has been
undermined by revelations that 98% of the southern African country's
teachers are not sufficiently proficient in the language. Leaked
results of government tests carried out last year indicated that all
but 2% of teachers need to undergo further training in basic English.

Up to 30 languages are spoken in Namibia, 14 of which have a full
orthography, but in 1990, when the country gained independence from
South Africa, Afrikaans, which had functioned as a lingua franca, was
jettisoned in favour of English. Though spoken by a small minority,
the adoption of English as the language of school instruction was seen
by the new government as a break with the colonial past and a means of
unifying the country.

But experts say that the government has failed to provide adequate
training to teaching staff for whom English is a second and even third
language. Andrew Matjila, a retired school teacher and former
politician, said that the language policy, in place for over 20 years,
had failed to deliver widespread competence. He said public figures,
such as politicians, struggled with the language and that the limited
language skills of teachers had "poisoned thousands of children".

Adolf de Klerk, another commentator on education, said there was a
direct link between the low English language skills of teachers and
students' exam results. Nearly 50% of 16-year-olds failed the junior
secondary school certificate in 2010. He called for "drastic" action
to be taken.  Researcher Priscilla Harris, author of a recent study,
claims that "the medium of instruction used in schools is a major
cause for concern which the government has overlooked".

Harris said the post-independence adoption of English was "a
challenging decision", because "only 8% [of Namibians] are English
speakers, whereas the rest of the population use their home language
and Afrikaans as the language of communication in their daily lives".
Close to 23,000 teachers sat an English language proficiency test last
September as part of an education ministry strategy to identify
further training needs.

The test, compiled and evaluated by the University of Namibia,
assessed comprehension, grammar and writing skills. In the writing
section, teachers were required to construct four complete sentences.
Results from a leaked report indicate that more than 70% of teachers
in senior secondary schools cannot read and write basic English. Among
junior secondary teachers 63% have a poor grasp of English, which is
jeopardising their teaching, the report said.

Even the 18% of teachers who scored between 75% and 92% made mistakes
with capital letters and punctuation, subject-verb agreement, singular
and plural forms and articles. Another damning finding was that some
teachers struggled "to fill in personal data required on the front of
the answer sheet". This included basic biographic information.

Abraham Iyambo, the minister of education, tried to downplay the
results when they were leaked to the press in November.
In a statement to parliament Iyambo claimed that the results had been
misrepresented. The test, he said, was not meant "to fail or pass a
teacher. Neither was it a means of firing teachers; it was diagnostic
in nature."

He added that "the test is intended to determine the training needs of
teachers and place them in the appropriate continuing professional
development course". Matjila called for the immediate provision of
training for teachers, saying that without intervention "the danger
that is coming to Namibia is unimaginable".

Priscilla Harris was the lead researcher on a report publish last
month by the Urban Trust of Namibia (UTN), a local NGO, which is
highly critical of the current language education policy. The report,
called Language in schools in Namibia – the missing link in
educational achievement?, claims that the policy in place since 1993
"was essential to drive the strategic decision for English in
education. But this massive decision was made without the required
resources being in place."

"Teachers were not ready, could not express themselves and were not
trained in English," Harris said, adding that the curriculum,
syllabuses and materials linked to a successful outcome were not made
available. Harris points to higher success rates of school students in
South Africa and Botswana, two of Namibia's neighbours where children
learn in their home language.

"The challenge of the decision to use English as the national language
still deeply affects the levels of success in education. Some of these
difficulties relate to skills," Harris said. She cites evidence of
poorer results in maths in classes taught by older teachers who have
low English levels, compared to classes taught by younger teachers
whose competence in English, thanks to better training, is higher.

"But language stands out throughout the research as a major problem,"
she said. Harris recommends that learners should be allowed to be
taught in their mother tongue until at least the end of primary school
at age 11. Momentum is growing behind a challenge to the current
language policy. After a national conference on education held last
June, calls to revisit the language policy were heard within
government circles.

UTN wants education provision to be more closely matched to the needs
of learners. It wants "urgent in-service and pre-service training" for
teachers who teach home languages, along with "access to technical
support in those languages with time and resources set aside for study
leave".  The government is yet to respond to UTN's report.


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