Initial insights into learners’ language practices in multilingual classrooms of Nakonde District

Martha Mwandia       

In March this year I was privileged to travel to Nakonde District in Muchinga Province of Zambia to collect data as part of my role on the Bringing the outside in project. Nakonde is a multilingual area. The languages spoken in the border town are Namwanga, Icibemba, English and Kiswahili. In the rural part, especially the villages I visited, people in the community speak Namwanga. The regional language is Icibemba which is also the language of classroom instruction. Nakonde District sits on the border between Zambia and Tanzania.

Data collection went on very well despite challenges here and there. I visited three schools located in the rural part of the border town. I did interviews with teachers, parents, focus group interviews with pupils and classroom observations in literacy lessons. Doing this research in a multilingual area using Linguistic Ethnography was interesting as it helped in the understanding of people’s attitudes and feelings towards language.

The most challenging thing was reaching out to many parents in the area because it was the rainy season and most of the people in the villages are farmers so they were mostly out in the fields. Despite this, I managed to interview a good number of parents. Additionally, at the time I went to do the research, there were issues of gassing attacks in the country. As people were being violently attacked and had safety concerns this posed a challenge in recruiting participants and particularly in getting parents to have interviews as people were suspicious and every person unknown to them was a potential gasser. To handle this issue, the head teachers involved had to organize the Village Headman and some pupils to go with me into the village to arrange interviews with parents.

My initial thoughts about our findings are that the use of Icibemba as the language of classroom instruction in a predominantly Namwanga speaking area failed to encourage creativity in speaking. It has caused learners to accumulate less vocabulary, sentence patterns and grammatical rules, thereby restricting pupil’s chances to express themselves. There is no link between the languages spoken at home and at school which means that learners are unable to use their linguistic resources that they come with from home. There was considerable variation in language use in the classrooms which seemed dependent on the teacher rather than the students especially for Grade Four teachers who taught literacy in English. During one of the classroom observations, a Grade Four teacher who taught literacy in English said “ine nshaishiba icinamwanga (I don’t know how to speak Namwanga). This was after the learners appeared not to understand what the teacher was teaching as she was using Icibemba and English.

When the regional language (Icibemba) was used, learners did not fully engage with lessons. They only answered questions when directly asked. The learners were shifting and interacting more in Namwanga when talking to each other. During one of the focus group interviews, one participant said “Tukawomvya icinamwanga ku ng’anda na kusukulunye nditukulanda nu kwizya nawawunji” (We speak Namwanga at home and at school when playing and talking to our friends). Another participant said that “Umusambilizyaasiwomvya ici Namwanga  ukulanda pa mazwi yano tutamanyile amuno atamanya ukunvwanga icinamwanga(Our teacher does not explain difficult words in Namwanga because she doesn’t know it).

Our early findings from the Nakonde District in Zambia clearly show that there is a mismatch between the linguistic resources which the children have and the linguistic resources that are valued and expected in the school context. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the data collected in our other Zambian contexts and in Tanzania and Botswana.

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