Friday, April 19, 2024
Speak Your MindFinding the right mix: Mother tongues vs. English in classrooms

Finding the right mix: Mother tongues vs. English in classrooms

I touched on this subject in one of my previous articles, but it’s still something I want to address today: teaching children in their mother tongues. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support teaching children in their mother tongues. But ultimately, it’s not about the language used for instruction but rather ensuring they grasp the concepts being taught in school.

Language is merely a medium, not the end goal. In fact, you could even teach using signs, couldn’t you? Sometimes, you come across individuals who flaunt their fluency in English as if it’s a measure of their intelligence. However, more often than not, I’ve noticed that these people aren’t necessarily knowledgeable but rather rely on language as a shield. Speaking fluent English doesn’t automatically mean they possess the intellect to understand and grasp complex subjects.

Certainly, language is a medium, not the ultimate objective. However, in our country, the language used as a medium of instruction is a significant matter to consider. Having taught at a local university, I understand how language can become a serious barrier to understanding and comprehending subject matter. I used to teach concepts in Amharic that were originally taught in English. I would translate and elaborate on these concepts in Amharic to ensure a thorough understanding.

I vividly recall having to relocate my class to a larger lecture hall due to the influx of students from other classes. Some students even resorted to sitting on the stairs because there wasn’t enough room in the classroom. This phenomenon, I believe, stemmed from my use of the local language, Amharic, to explain the subject matter. The students paid close attention during my classes because they could grasp what I was teaching. Many of these students seemed to be at a significant disadvantage when English was used as the medium of instruction during their primary and secondary education.

In our country, especially outside of Addis and in rural areas, many students don’t begin using English as the medium of instruction until a certain grade. Not only does English enter the picture later in their schooling years, but the teachers themselves often lack proficiency in the language. Consequently, when these children reach higher education, where English is the sole medium of instruction, they encounter significant barriers to understanding the concepts.

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These students face two hurdles: mastering the English language and comprehending the subject matter being taught.

Recently, we’ve heard a lot about the government’s push for all local schools, both private and government-funded, to teach early childhood and early primary school subjects in the predominant language spoken in the area (such as Amharic or Oromiffa). While I know from experience that the ideal scenario would be for students at all levels, from kindergarten to higher education, to learn in their mother tongues, in practice, this may not work in Ethiopia, at least not in our current situation.

In my opinion, there are two reasons for this. First, higher education is conducted in English, not in mother tongues. Furthermore, we have numerous languages in our country, making it challenging to translate all higher education materials into every language. Therefore, a strong command of the English language is necessary for students to succeed in higher education, and discouraging English proficiency in the education system would hinder their progress.

Second, due to our poor economy, the only organizations currently capable of providing decent income to their employees are international private and non-governmental organizations, which unfortunately require a high level of English fluency. So, how can students without a solid grasp of the English language thrive in higher education and their future careers?

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