Webinar – Bringing the outside in: emerging insights into language use and language attitudes in Zambian primary schools

You can watch the recording of this session here.

This webinar featured members of our project team – Nancy Kula, Joseph Mwansa, and Colin Reilly – discussing the aims of our project and sharing initial findings from our research in Zambia.

Our project’s overall aim is to examine the ways in which multilingual practices can be harnessed to enhance experiences of education. Nancy began the talk by highlighting key issues surrounding language policy within Africa. In the 1960s in newly independent states, nationhood and national unity were often equated with monolingualism, with a majority of countries adopting only one official language. This then had knock on effects within the education system.

In Botswana, Setswana is used as the medium of instruction (MOI) in the first year of school, after which time English is used as MOI. This policy gives no space for the other approximately 27 languages in the country to be used within education. In Tanzania, Swahili is used as the sole MOI during primary school, with English being used during secondary and tertiary levels. This policy similarly does not allow space for the other languages used in the country – approximately 130 in the case of Tanzania.

In Zambia, the policy states that familiar languages can be used as MOI for the first four years of primary school, after which time English once again takes over. While familiar languages refer to any Zambian language, there is still a tendency to favour one of the seven regional languages in Zambia. There are approximately 70 languages in the country, the majority of which are not sufficiently included in education. A key commonality across each context is the dominant role which English plays within education.

Colin provided an overview of the linguistic ethnographic approach that we have adopted on our project, including the three principles which underline our work: Researching multilingually; researching collaboratively; and researching responsively.

This was followed by a discussion led by Joseph on the initial findings which are emerging from our data collected in Zambia. He shared classroom recordings and interview data which begin to provide a picture of how language is used and viewed in schools in Kasama and Nakonde in Zambia. In these areas Bemba is the regional language, however not all children will speak Bemba at home as they come from Namwanga-speaking communities.

In our classroom data students adopt translanguaging when answering questions from the teachers. There was an interesting difference between learners in rural versus urban settings. In rural settings learners were given greater flexibility while in urban settings learners often used strictly Bemba when interacting with the teacher, and would be discouraged from using Namwanga.

There were differing attitudes amongst parents. Some felt that the sooner English is introduced as a MOI the better as this was viewed as a key language for employment opportunities for their children. Others however recognised the value in gaining literacy skills in a Zambian language and noted that Zambian languages would also be useful for children after they had completed their education.

Ultimately our initial data highlights two important disconnects when looking at how language is used within education in Zambia. The first is that there is a difference between what teachers report and the reality of classroom interaction and the second that there also appears to be a disconnect between the regional language policy and classroom practices.

We will continue to explore these emerging issues in our remaining data from Zambia, and compare this to data from Botswana and Tanzania which will be collected in late 2020.

For more information on our Zambia data collection you can read our Research Assistant Martha’s blog post.

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