"Bilingual or Multilingual Education" (Namibia)
- This is a long article in two parts that was featured in the Namibian paper,
New Era. It is written as a short research piece with references.
It is available at:
Bilingual or Multilingual Education
By Chief Ankama
It is not only me who is puzzled I realized, but there are other people with
similar questions on what happens in the mind of the bi/multilingual
speaker. It is for such reasons that there is quest for information related
to bilingual and multilingual knowledge and the influence thereof.
Information from bilingual education programs researched by Cummins (1996,
p. 123) suggest that "(a) bilingualism and biliteracy should be promoted as
central educational goal for all students and (b), that bilingual
instruction should place a strong emphasis on developing literacy in the
minority language" (argued from a perspective of a minority language
Cummins cautions though that there is no one prescribed model for achieving
these goals - flexibility of approach is necessary to take account of the
varying entry characteristics of students, the availability of resources and
the political and economic climate within which the program is being
Cummins maintains that there is a need to intervene in order to take
"account of the interactions between socio-political and psycho-educational
factors, that allow people to specify the essential components of effective
education for culturally diverse students. That, promotion of an additive
form of bilingualism and biliteracy is one significant component, but that
there are others that are equally significant and that must be in place for
bilingual programs or any other programs to attain their goals" (ibid).
Cummins' viewpoint gives a free hand to implementers of such programs to be
proactive and respond to situations on the ground in order to achieve
The Canadian experience, discussed by Genesee (1998), expresses the results
from the trilingual use case study, indicating double immersion school
programs as effective in promoting proficiency in two second languages, i.e.
French and Hebrew, harming no students' native language (English)
development and academic achievement.
Results from this case study are said to indicate further, that double
immersion programs offer a flexible and effective model for promoting
multilingualism in communities where there are real advantages to knowing
more than two languages (p. 257).
Genesee states that this trend is progressively visible in the European
Union as the countries of Europe merge to foster economic, social and
cultural union. That, this trend is even evident in some countries of Asia,
Africa and South America where bilingual and multilingual speaking
communities are in search for opportunities to enable their children to
receive proficiency in local, regional and national languages of some
importance along with world languages, such as English.
Creative use of double immersion is regarded as a viable option to achieve
the goals stated above (ibid). Of course, one would expect an orderly
introduction of L1 say for three to four years and perhaps the second
language and third to successively but gradually be introduced step-by-step
in subjects most necessary thereby allowing a smooth transition.
According to Hoffman (1998), the second and third languages are introduced
in the similar model in Luxembourg just like in European schools. Hoffman
says the languages are first introduced as subjects and then, progressively
as media of instruction and inter-class communication while still featuring
as a school subject (p. 168).
"In the Luxembourg case, trilingual education is seen as an effective means
for enabling young Luxembourgers to acquire the three languages, which
together, form an essential part of their national identity. The European
School's cultural mission is more idealistic in that it aims to establish a
common supra-national European identity in order to overcome possible
prejudice and probable national tensions" (ibid).
Hoffman described the model as idealistic more for the majority of children
with high-status mother tongue, who have to choose among existing
alternative foreign languages as mediums to be instructed through (see
Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, p. 614).
This is worth piloting in countries where multilingualism in education and
national identity portray a conflict of interest. For Namibia, the education
language policy recognizes the use of indigenous/national language as
mediums of instruction in Lower Primary schools; however, the question
remains how far this has been implemented, and what the people's attitudes
are towards bi- or multilingualism in education (also Hoffman 1998, p. 172).
"It is argued that minority language children should be given opportunity to
consolidate their L1 skills before the introduction of the dominant language
in the classroom. This recommendation is in keeping with the much-cited
'vernacular advantage' theory outlined in a UNESCO document some 30 years
ago" (Martin-Jones & Romaine 1986, p. 27).
Even though Martin-Jones & Romaine are putting emphasis on 'minority
language children', in my view their theory is applicable to any L1 that is
facing a recognition challenge in any given situation.
The two authors are critical of the use of 'semilingualism' as aligned with
terms like 'full competence', 'threshold level', 'additive' and 'subtractive
bilingualism' which emerged in some reports of educational researchers in
Sweden (p. 28).
They say; "Terms such as 'semilingualism' are, misleading because they
implicitly foster the belief that there is such a thing as an ideal, fully
competent monolingual or bilingual speaker who has a full or complete
version of a language" (p. 32).
Martin-Jones & Romaine confirm being in agreement with Hymes (1980) that
there are fundamental inequalities in the use of languages and the abilities
of speakers. That the social and linguistic competences of using two or more
languages for different functions are not the same everywhere, because
communicative competence is differentially shaped in relation to patterns of
language use, as well as community attitudes and beliefs about competence
I would add my weight to agree with Martin-Jones & Romaine since bilinguals,
in my view, do not all speak the languages they know with the same vigour
and competence, hence they are able to communicate and put their messages
across without much hassle. After all, the fact that they can communicate in
those languages makes them bilinguals, and language ability grows as
communication needs advance.
On bilingual education, Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, pp.579-580) identifies three
a) Non-forms - apparently these do not use two languages as media of
teaching and learning, even if they have many minority or indigenous
children in their programs.
b) Weak forms- have monolingualism, strong dominance in one of the
languages, mostly the majority language or limited bilingualism.
c) Strong forms- aim to promote multilingualism and multiliteracy for all
participants in the program, whether they represent linguistic minorities or
The European model of language in education discussed by Skutnabb-Kangas
(2000, p. 620, see also Hoffman (1998, p. 168), provides an alternative
approach to language planning in education for countries in need for it.
It states that all or most official languages of the European Union (EU)
function as the principal medium of education initially in their subsection
in every school where there are enough children for this.
It is said that a child attends a subsection for her/his own mother tongue,
be it Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian,
Portuguese, Spanish or Swedish. That other children from other language
groups are free to choose a subsection of the language, which they know
best, e.g. most Arabic-speaking children choose a French subsection.
The Namibia education language policy in principle applies almost the same
procedures, i.e. advocating the use of L1 as medium of instruction for the
first three years of schooling only. But, the extent to which the said is
practised, is unknown since no independent inquiry has been done in this
"The medium of education is initially the child's mother tongue (= the
language of the subsection), and all cognitively and linguistically
demanding decontextualised subjects continue to be taught through the medium
of the mother tongue (first language, L1) at least up to grade 8,"
(Skutnabb-Kangas 2000, p. 620).
To apply Skutnabb-Kangas' above statement in practice, one should keep in
mind notions such as equity and justice and promote academic achievement for
all students regardless of race, class or income, thereby arresting the
traditional education system from reproducing the power structure that
maintains existing division of status, resources and income (Cummins 1996,
For Namibia, a country that has been devastated by apartheid and segregated
education for many years, the notion of equity and justice would preferably
be the first to be addressed before implementing indigenous languages as
medium of instruction in education.
As Cummins states: "In spite of considerable rhetoric endorsing equity and
justice, little has changed in terms of educational outcomes. Culturally
diverse students are still massively over-represented in low achieving
Although presenting this idea from the USA context, Cummins is of the
opinion that the patterns of micro-interactions that culturally diverse
students experience in the educational system are a function of the power
relations operating between dominant and subordinate groups in the wider
I fully agree with Cummins that the power structure in the wider society
strongly influences the culture of the school, which is expressed in the
educational structure implemented in the school, and in the ways educators
define their roles with respect to culturally diverse students and
Thus, as Cummins says, it is not surprising that most educational reforms
have remained at a surface level where they do not seriously challenge the
societal power structure (ibid).
Viewing Cummins's description of education from the Namibian perspective,
one sees a lot of sense, especially as regard to the use of
indigenous/national languages as mediums of instruction, where some
indigenous languages are treated as less important despite their strong
pronouncement in the country's constitution as equal to all. I therefore
cherish Cummins' viewpoints on educational empowerment and innovation that;
a) Genuine reform, at a deep structural level, requires that the culture of
the school changes in ways that potentially challenge coercive relations of
b) Conditions of collaborative empowerment are created when educators
attempt to organize their interactions with culturally diverse students in
such a way that power is generated and shared through these interactions.
This involves becoming aware of, and actively working to change ,
educational structures that limit 'culturally diverse students''
opportunities for educational and advancement;
c) Genuine educational reform requires that innovations permeate and
transform the entire culture of the school (p. 164).
With reference to bilingual (multilingual) education, Cummins' view becomes
more evident as De Mejia (1998, p. 9)argues that bilingual teachers need to
examine carefully the ways in which they and their students actually use
their two (or more) languages in the construction of storytelling events
before deciding whether to include or exclude the use of code switching as a
teaching resource in their classroom.
The later tallies with the notion that "to achieve the goal of bilingualism,
attention to literacy in both languages is crucial" (Calderon & Slavin 2001,
p. 27). The two authors regard the two-way immersion program piloted at
Hueco Elementary School as a promising model for bilingual education,
because it embodies all the elements identified (p. 40).
. To be continued tomorrow.
Bilingual or Multilingual Education
In this reflection, the study by Ramirez (199) on limited English
proficiency students gives multi-policy recommendations from which I would
like to highlight only three amongst the suggested results, that:
1. Providing LEP students with substantial amounts of primary language
instruction does not interfere with or delay their acquisition of English;
2. Providing substantial instruction in the primary language appears to help
LEP students catch up their English-speaking in the mainstream classroom in
English language, reading and mathematics;
3. Increasing the use of the primary language for instruction appears to
make it possible for language minority parents to support their children's
learning by monitoring and /or helping their children with the required work
Applying the above suggestion as part of the implementation of any
bilingual/multilingual immersion program in my view provides a great chance
for students to benefit from all target languages as a result. It depends
however largely on the goals why a bilingual program was designed.
And in order to really understand what the process of learning a second
language involves in all of its cognitive and social dimensions, one really
has to deal with a question of why it sometimes results in bilingualism, and
why it sometimes not (Fillmore 1991, p. 341). According to Fillmore, as
educators and advocates for children and families, it is crucial that we
understand what is happening, and that we do something about the problem
that our educational policies and practices are creating (ibid).
Equally, Saunders & Goldenberg (2001, p. 55, also Willig1985, pp. 312-313)
regard transitional programs within the bilingual continuum at various
centers as inadequate, half-measures and incomparable with each other.
They say transitional programs can work only if there are well-articulated
and implemented practices and procedures to help learners acquire critical
knowledge, skills and dispositions as they progress through their school
Some of the immersion programs are concerned with the restoration of a lost
or threatened heritage language. There are various ways of language shift
which sometimes may lead to language loss, e.g. an immigrant language may
start diminishing with the second generation. It is observed that while
immigrant parents communicate to their firstborns in their vernacular, to
their later-borns they usually do so in English (Shin 2002, p. 108). This
means that the later-borns will be less fluent in the L1 and perhaps
inclined to use English or any other L2 at home or with their peers.
By the fourth generation so to speak their L1 must have shifted or
completely minimized. Shin suggests therefore that parents be sensitized to
seriously take the role of speaking to their children in the native language
more, rather than in the L2.
Therefore, "in planning an effective indigenous immersion program, program
developers should have a clear understanding of their programs' educational,
cultural and language goals" (Yamauchi and Wilhelm 2001, p. 92).
Discussing the indigenous language immersion program conducted in the medium
of the Hawaiian language, Yamauchi and Wilhelm stressed that there must be
support for the language at home, in order to create another context for
language use. They are of the opinion that activities outside of classroom
should give extra situations to enable language use (ibid).
Fillmore though cautions that we be careful to make sure the children enter
the immersion programs at the right age, since the younger the children are
when they encounter the assimilation forces, the greater the effect on their
primary languages (p. 342).
In spite of all these, Jacobs & Cross (2001, pp.119-120) provides useful
tips able to strengthen native language revitalization and restoration,
1. Promotion of language learning and use in the community;
2. Development of a community language plan; and,
3. Establishing a language entity that is linked to the community.
Very often people ask numerous questions on the relationship between two
languages in one's mind and the question regarding cognition within a
bilingual versus monolingual speaker (Cook 1997, p. 279), while some ask
whether bilingual development has a contributive influence in the
development of early literacy skills among young children (Bialystok &
Herman 1999, p.35).
Arguing from the point of view of listening to reading in her study,
Herman's findings suggests that the course of development in
decontextualized skills related to literacy may be different for bilingual
children as a function of specific experiences of each language (Bialystok &
Herman 1999, p.37).
This information is crucial in decision making for those people who have
difficulties to choose for either a monolingual or a bilingual education for
their children as they enter the system.
The study by Bialystok & Herman (1999) on whether bilingualism matters much
for early literacy is in my opinion rather inconclusive or does not have a
definite answer. The two authors are however of the opinion that control
develops more rapidly in bilingual children than in monolinguals, and this
helps bilingual children to master those aspects of preliteracy skills
requiring selective attention to language and its representational forms (p.
The choice for bilingualism is alive in people from all walks of life, e.g.
a deaf person is able to master both oral communication and sign language,
thereby being bilingual (Brady 1999, pp. 24E9-24E10).
The emphasis here is that sign language should be regarded as a choice for
bilingualism when necessary, as it serves the same purpose like any other
language. This provides an open forum on the existence of signed languages
which raises a multitude of issues in regard to bilingualism (Dafour 1997,
Understandably, some colleges in the US colleges recognize it as a second
language rather than a coping mechanism for those who can't talk (Brady
1999, p. 24E10).
Unlike Cook (1997, p. 295) who prefers the term ambilinguals to refer to
bilinguals and second language users instead of second language learners,
Dafour (1997) regards bilingualism as knowledge of two distinct languages
within a single individual.
In essence, all these perceptions and interpretations on what bilingualism
is or is not, clearly shows individuals' motives, circumstantial debates as
well as the angle of their researches. Dafour (199, p. 304) quotes Hakuta
(1986) that a bilingual may be a person who produces fluent utterances in
two languages, or who is in the process of acquiring a second language. And
as Cook (1997) points out, knowing two or more languages is the norm.
That, the cognitive processes of second language users are whatever they
are, neither to be praised nor condemned relative to native speakers. They
should be studied in their own right and not as deviations from a
monolingual norm (p. 295).
In a swipe contrast, Lanauze & Snow (1989) in their study discovered that
opportunities for developing skills in a native language present a chance to
improve performance in academic tasks in a second language, implying skills
transfer from L1 to L2, depending on how best L1 skills have been mastered
There is a concern over the disappearance of some languages, and whenever a
language dies, a bit of the world's culture, history and diversity dies with
it (it is like cultural wealthy person dies) (The Economist 2001, p. 67).
In the light of the above and of what Lanauze & Snow are saying, one may ask
why some languages are left to die and why some indigenous languages are
looked upon as less significant in many countries of the world, as Adegbija
The experiences and attitudes of Xhosa-speaking parents who chose to send
their children to English-medium schools in Grahamstown's Eastern Cape of
South Africa (De Klerk 2000, p. 87), is a practical example, not only to
reference it as a beginning of the language shift discussed both by De Klerk
(2000) and Hakuta and D'Andrea (1992), but also a manifestation of the
notion referred to by Adegbija (2001) that "to be educated is virtually
synonymous with knowing and being able to use English" (p. 285).
For example in Namibia after English was introduced as medium of instruction
in schools, many parents chose to take their children to an English only
medium in urban cities. I therefore share Adegbija's opinion that, "the
official dominance of ex-colonial languages as a potent language-shifting
trigger, is constantly pulled by the desire of every individual to rise on
the vertical and horizontal social and economic ladder" (p. 285).
These languages are seen as passports to education, employment or to global
communication. And hence:
"For the language to remain alive, its speakers both within the village and
in urban centres must have a higher effective stake and deep emotional
inventory in its survival, promotion and plight. As long as speakers of a
language have a deep stake in its survival and a high emotional involvement
and commitment to its existence, all the language shift agents and triggers
in this world will not be able to kill their resolve" (p. 307).
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