Saturday, 19 March 2011

Learning to read in a multilingual society: challenges for Africa
=Guest post=

by Viv Edwards


As any parent of a multilingual – or potentially multilingual – child knows, speaking more than one language is one thing and being literate in more than one language is quite another. But have you ever thought what it might be like if very little written material was available in the languages you want to nurture? This is precisely the case for millions of children growing up in Africa. The legacy of the colonial era means that, in many countries, children are educated through the medium of a European language – most often English or French – even though they may seldom hear or need to use that language outside school.

However, change is afoot. Many countries are recognizing the importance of a sound foundation in mother tongues for future educational success. Often, the use of mother tongues is limited to the first two or three years of school, but in South Africa the aim is to extend bilingual education to at least the first six years – drawing on the evidence of international research that the best academic results are achieved when children continue to use their mother tongue alongside the language of wider communication for a sustained period.

What, though, if reading materials in the mother tongue are very few in number – and of dubious quality and appeal? The publishing industry in South Africa is world class but is dominated by books in English and, to a lesser extent, Afrikaans. However, the 1994 Constitution which followed the dismantling of Apartheid recognizes nine other official languages – isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. The challenge then, is for publishers to provide the same range and quality of books in the other African languages as in English and Afrikaans.

Things are seldom straightforward. For a wide variety of reasons – the historical importance of oral culture, lack of disposable income and low levels of literacy – very many Africans don’t engage with books and those who do often prefer reading in English. This means that publishers are dependent almost exclusively on the schools market. Unfortunately, for the time being at least, official support for bilingual education remains more at the level of rhetoric than reality, which means that publishers often can’t be sure of a large enough market to break even, let alone make a profit.

Predictably, more books are published in the “big” languages like isiZulu and isiXhosa than in languages spoken by smaller numbers of speakers. Small, of course, is relative. Tshivenda, the “smallest” of the official languages, is spoken by over a million people. This compares with the 3.6 million speakers of English who have access to by far the largest number of books in circulation.

In spite of the uneven playground, the number of good quality children’s books in African languages is growing, though often driven more by NGOs than commercial publishers. One very exciting initiative is the Stories Across Africa project. Coordinated in South Africa but involving organizations and individuals committed to good quality books across the continent, they have produced a set of very appealing 16 Little Hands books, already translated into 26 African languages. Their appeal is huge: children like to see – and hear – themselves in the books they read.  


Reading in the book club in a Cape Town township.
Photo: Viv Edwards

Anyone wishing to be persuaded of their appeal should spend an hour at a community-run reading club for children!

Interested in finding out more?

Viv Edwards is Director of the National Centre for Language and Literacy, University of Reading, and the author of Learning to be Literate. Multilingual Perspectives.

© Viv Edwards 2011

Next post: The language of science. Saturday 26th March 2011.

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