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"Bilingual or Multilingual Education" (Namibia)

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  • Don Osborn
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 21, 2008
      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:

      http://www.newera.com.na/archives.php?id=21090 (or
      http://allafrica.com/stories/200805280916.html )



      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
      instituted (ibid).

      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
      (p. 34).

      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,
      p. 163).

      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
      categories" (ibid).

      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
      society (ibid).

      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


      (Part II)

      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
      (pp. 45-47).

      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,
      amongst others:

      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,
      p. 301).

      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
      (p. 338).

      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
      (2001) alleges.

      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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