As an EFL teacher I am aware that I am teaching a language that is dominant in the world. However, I regard myself primarily as a language teacher, knowing that English is an essential tool for those who wish to advance in the world but should not exclude a knowledge of other languages. Multilingualism is no hardship – indeed monolinguals are in a minority – but the teaching and use of other languages are sometimes seen as detracting from the strength of the native culture. It is this factor that so often links language with nationalism.
In the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education Geoff Pullum writes of the power of English in the world of higher education, describing the phenomenon of EMI (English as the medium of instruction)
While considering the two sides to the question, he concludes:
It saddens us linguists that so many grammatically fascinating and diverse languages in so many language families should be dying out, yet who are we to tell an African father, proud of raising his children to speak a multinational lingua franca like Swahili or English, rather than the local dialect of his traditional village, that he is wrong?
We cannot insist that children should be raised speaking some dying minority language (be it Walbiri or Irish or Inuktitut or Mohawk) unless we have jobs to offer them that they can do using those languages.
I can understand his feelings. I see the other side of the coin in Zambia, a country where I taught English in a primary school in the early 1980s. The Lusaka Times of 16 January 2013 quotes Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba’s concern about the status of English.
“We have to address this imbalance. As the PF [Patriotic Front], we are determined to see to it that we eliminate the use of English as a language of instructions in our schools and replace it with our own Zambian languages,” Mr. Kabimba said.
Mr. Kabimba who is also PF Secretary General stated that the colonial masters have continued using foreign languages such as English to oppress the Africans.
He was speaking Tuesday evening during a live television programme on ZNBC TV discussing the use of Zambian languages in schools.
“What we have is a colonial hangover. If you remember in 1884 during the Berlin Conference to partition Africa, European countries decided to divide Africa especially Sub Saharan Africa. Some African countries were turned into English speaking nations, others became French speaking while countries like Mozambique were turned into Portuguese speaking countries. This was done in order to manage us as Africans.”
He added, “They had to impose this English language on our forefathers but what is shocking is that Zambian intellectuals even those at University have not raised this question that the English language has been used as a tool of captivity.”
Mr. Kabimba said the PF government finds it unacceptable that some private schools in Zambia today do not teach local languages.
Zambia became independent in 1964. When Kabimba spoke those words the country had had almost fifty years to overcome the imposition of the English language. And I know that that imposition was only superficial; many educated Zambians spoke mediocre English less than 20 years after independence. I was told by a Zambian friend who had worked for the colonial administration that the teacher training college was the first in situation to be Zambianised on independence. From the state of English teaching in government schools at them time I could believe it.
But Kabimba’s comments smack more of nationalist politics than of educational policy. And the great irony is glaringly obvious. He speaks in English and we can read his words reported in an English-language medium. In fact, his biography shows that he was born in 1958 and graduated in law from the University of Zambia in 1981. It seems certain that a large part of his own education will have taken place in English.
One Tom Lungu also received his education in English. I know because I taught him, though he already had native-speaker ability. Here he is, describing his own business activities. How is Africa to progress without this kind of language ability? And how is it to be achieved if not through education en English?