[lg policy] Poor English results attributed to neglect of local languages, not slang

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Feb 22 10:37:28 EST 2018

   - Poor English results attributed to neglect of local languages, not


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Poor English results attributed to neglect of local languages, not slang

By Admin

Added 21st February 2018 07:07 PM

Educational authorities as a first step, should aim at persuading the
unwilling public to accept education through the local language
[image: Godfreysentumbwe1 703x422]


*By Godfrey Sentumbwe *

The dismal performance in English language in the 2017 UCE exams, according
to experts, has been attributed to slang on social media and television
(see ‘Poor English results attributed to slang’, New Vision, Friday,
February 9, 2018).

The experts further contend that because English has almost become the
mother tongue in peoples’ homes, there is a laissez-faire attitude by
pupils to use it correctly in exams.

However, when put under close scrutiny, these arguments do not wholly
address the bigger picture of massive failures in English and other
subjects across primary, secondary and tertiary levels. These arguments
presuppose that the majority of primary and secondary students have access
to smartphones, TVs and come from homes where English is used.

While this is true for urban students and those from wealthier homes, many
students in Uganda come from poorer rural families where parents hardly
communicate in English, lack TV and phones.

Secondly massive failure in English and other subjects is not a problem
affecting Uganda alone, but other African countries with similar
educational, economic and socio-cultural characteristics. For example on
February 18, 2013, the government of Tanzania announced that 240,903 out of
397,126 students who sat the 2012 National Form 4 (S.4) exams failed. This
put the failure rate at 61%, while only 6% received a meaningful pass rate
of divisions 1, 2 and 3 combined! Therefore, the deeper cause of massive
exam failure for multilingual post-colonial states in Africa lies with the
language of education policy particularly the model adopted and its
implementation at the basic education level.

*Language education policy*

Whereas the language of education policy recognises the use of Ugandan
languages as medium of learning in primary school, the policy adopts an
early-exit model. Here local languages are used up to P.3, thereafter
giving way to English. The local languages are merely used to mitigate the
nefarious effects of transition from the home to school and not for
transferring knowledge acquired through local languages to learn in
English, which requires six to eight years of primary according to all
available research.

The pedagogical limitation of this model in relation to English language
mastery is that by Primary Four, what the child might have acquired is
‘everyday’ local language proficiency but not ‘academic’ local language
proficiency transferrable in learning in English! Because the transition
from local language to English medium instruction is done early, children
do not acquire literacy mastery in both local language and English. Hence
the usual poor national assessments of children’s reading results presented
annually by organisations such as Uwezo.

This is further compounded by the confusion in understanding the difference
between using English to teach academic subjects and English as a subject
in the curriculum. This confusion affects the quality and quantity of
teaching English and in English, and the nature of the environment in which
English learning takes place. When teaching using English, teachers
struggle to transfer knowledge to pupils who hardly understand what is
being said in English. This takes us to UNESCO’s 2016 title of its Policy
Paper 24 – ‘If you don’t understand, how can you learn’? And by extension
we can ask; if you don’t understand, how can you perform well in exams?

At the same time, teaching English as a subject in many primary and
secondary school classrooms is hampered by absence of teachers with
native-speaker or near native-speaker mastery and proficiency in English.
Such teachers who are not proficient in English themselves rely more on
drilling and memorisation of knowledge so as to maintain an appearance of
‘doing the lesson’, while little learning is actually taking place. Hence
their students will have difficulty in grammar, spelling, tenses,
punctuations and sentence construction as observed by the Uganda National
Examinations Board Secretary while releasing UCE examination results early
this month.

*What should be done?*

Educational authorities as a first step, should aim at persuading the
unwilling public to accept education through the local language. And the
authorities should be supported to do this by stakeholders in the
political, business and media. This is because the choices of medium of
instruction in multilingual states like Uganda are more informed by
political, economic and ideological considerations than strictly
educational ones.

Secondly, educational authorities should demonstrate through improved
teacher training and resourcing that it is possible for students to acquire
a good knowledge of English without using it as the medium of instruction
for other subjects as is the current practice.

This may, therefore, call for radical changes in teaching and examination
practices. Instead of an early-exit local language model, a late-exit local
language model of six to eight years of local language medium instruction
should be adopted, in addition to having English language subject
specialist teachers in place. In addition, the idea of ‘English-only
classrooms’ should be replaced with a policy which enables teachers to
strategically use all of their linguistic resources, including students’
languages for teaching in upper primary and secondary.

This is a component of the flexible multilingual education policy, which
recognises the value of English as a national and international lingua
franca, but requiring a move away from promoting unattainable purist
approaches to teaching and learning English like in the current Ugandan
circumstances. This flexibility should also promote the use of local
languages in exams.

A 2017 report titled ‘Multilingual classrooms: opportunities and challenges
from English medium instruction in low and middle income contexts’ cites
studies conducted in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda, which are instructive.

It was found that students who had scored poorly in English reading
assessments achieved much higher grades on similar reading tasks in local
language. Perhaps Ugandan students would also do much better if teaching
and exams were both in English and local languages!

We conclude with a statement from the British Council’s 2017 position on
English in mother tongue-based multilingual education and a Luganda proverb
respectively: ‘Fluency in English is best served through strengthening the
teaching of English as a subject. Therefore, the English medium of
instruction at primary school level in low- or middle-income countries is
not beneficial nor is it a policy or practice we support’. And the Luganda
proverb: ‘Olaba Pokino akulembeddemu nga ate obuuza eridda e Buddu?’
literally translates as; If you see Pokino (Buddu County chief) leading the
way, do you have to ask the route to Buddu?


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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