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Opinions of Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Columnist: Okota Kwame

Which of the local languages should be the medium of instructions in school?

English should be complemented with local languages at the kindergarten level English should be complemented with local languages at the kindergarten level

Most countries with good educational systems using their indigenous languages as a medium of instruction do not have English as their official language-cum-lingua Franca.

There are countries too that use English as official language-cum-lingua franca though not indigenous to them yet have good educational systems. An example is Singapore.

English is not an indigenous language in Singapore, it is one of their official languages just as it is an official language in Ghana. It is also their main medium of instruction in schools just as it is in Ghana. Are they seeing English as a medium of instruction in their schools rather than the Malay and the others as a problem?

The problem is not much about the language studied in school, it is about how the language adopted as the official language is treated in school and how the aim of teaching the local languages is defined. Periodically, there seem to be new policies on the use and place of the local languages in schools, especially in the kindergarten and primary. A change of government will lead to a change in policy. Even changing the sector minister (same government) will lead to a change in policy.

Some of the policies will be about the ratio of how to use both English and a local language at the kindergarten. These ratios tend to be local language biased at the preschool. These policies keep changing within a short period of time with less stability, making it unhealthy for the students' education.

The call for the use of the local languages as the main medium of instruction in the basic schools should be tested with the following. In a country like Ghana with more than 10 major ethnic languages, which of them should be adopted as the national medium of instruction? If a local language is adopted as the medium of instruction, will it be an L1 to a non-speaker? Will the non-speaker of the adopted language be required to learn his mother tongue in addition? Or it will not be a nationally adopted medium of instruction but localized? If localized, will students change schools to other parts of the country be required to learn the local language there?

These are some questions that must be answered. It is important to first appreciate the balance and the stability that the use of the English language has brought to the country not only for academic purposes but political. With the problem of ethnic pride, it will be difficult to adopt a single local language as the official language-cum-medium of instruction. English is the official language therefore how should it be treated? And how should the local language be treated to assume its cultural and national relevance?

Students start kindergarten, with mastered abilities in listening and speaking the local language. Therefore, in kindergarten, there should be an emphasis on the acquisition of basic listening and speaking skills in English which is the main medium of instruction after preschool. For some students, especially in the villages, the kindergarten will be the first contact with meaningful English study. Therefore, significant time and space should be given to listening and speaking English if not rather than the same language the student can already speak and understand. Through this, the student develops fluency in English at an early stage and will have enough vocabulary base for further academic life.

English language acquisition should not be delayed in kindergarten. An activity-based curriculum involving much interaction between teachers and students can drive this initiative. It will be ideal to employ two teachers in kindergarten 1 (KG1) to speed up the English acquisition process.

Since the student already has listening and speaking abilities in the local language, pre-reading activities in the local language can begin in KG2. When well delivered, students can be able to transfer their phonetic knowledge in the local language to the reading of English.

In the first grade of kindergarten (KG1), speaking and listening of both the local language and English can be used on a 50 - 50 basis. But this should not remain as it is throughout the academic year. The ratio should change as the student progresses from one term to another. Therefore, in the second term of KG1, there can be 60% for English and 40% for the local language. The student can finish KG1 using 75% English and 25% local language in school.

As the home is taking care of the listening and speaking of the local language, starting from KG2, the focus of the school should be to develop pre-reading skills like phonological awareness, proper handling of books and print recognition among others in the local language. This will facilitate easier reading and learning of the local language and English. One of the main reasons for teaching the local languages in the primary school should be developing and sustaining the student`s ability and interest in reading. By this, reading interest and habits can be developed at a very early stage in the school. By the time the student is very much familiar with English, the interest in reading has already been developed in the local language.

When there is the concern that students will not understand content taught at the kindergarten if English is used, then the question is what is being taught there?

There should not be a gap between the expectations of the public about education and what the curriculum provides. Parents and the entire public will not be critical of the system with suggestions and insistence on using the local languages in the primary school as the medium of instruction if they know the place of the local language in schools. Citizens must accept and understand why English is the official language of the country. The use of local languages as the medium of instruction would not have been a problem if there was a language indigenous to almost all citizens or the willingness and the practicability of accepting to use one of the many.

There should be a focus on how to make the local languages functional, especially through reading. Citizens should not only be speaking the local languages but be able to read them. If citizens can read and write their local languages, textbooks at various levels can have copies in the local languages to which people can have access. To push further, the Ministry of Communications can even get the social media platforms to have versions in the local languages.
The home should not deprive itself of the responsibility of making children speak the local languages.