There is nothing that can preserve a language more than its use in specific social domains. The recent unified opinion on the preservation of local languages has attracted attention to the plight of minority languages in the country. Much of the discourse however has been around a singular campaign; to use minority languages as mediums of instruction. The principal argument has been that minority languages must be used to teach subjects in schools, in particular at elementary level. Sadly, most of the arguments advanced have been without scientific evidence and support. Some of our academics have assumed that to quote each other in academic papers constituted solid impregnable science. Unfortunately such collegial quotations haven’t exceeded the status of gatwe e rile… What have been lacking are science and the use of scientific methods in the determination of language education. The word science is of Latin etymology, a derivative of scientia meaning knowledge. Science is a systematic enterprise based on observation, testable explanations & claims and reproducible experiments. Glaring observable occurrences have been seriously and repeatedly ignored. For instance, while the claim has been repeatedly made that children learn best in their mother tongue, the fact that many students fail classes in their mother tongue, for instance Setswana, has been ignored. Additionally, the fact that many students do impressively in English which is not their mother tongue has been equally ignored and has remained largely unaccounted for in the literature. What has been ignored also is the fact that students learn best when they are taught well and supported well. There are too many variables in a child’s education that to reduce the quality of a child’s education to mothertongue is to supremely oversimplify what is a complex subject. A child’s educational success depends much on the child’s background; whether a child comes from a highly impoverished family or from a middle class environment where their brains have been stimulated by an exposure to a variety of material at an early age. Early educational success also depends on the quality of education that a child receives from school. Some children are exposed to a vast array of reading materials and exciting educational games which stimulate their inquisitive minds. For some, this happens in a small class of fifteen students led by a well trained and motivated teacher. This usually results with impressive results. Other students on the other hand are not fortune enough to receive such premium education. They travel five to eight kilometers to go to school daily, sometimes on an empty stomach. In class they wait eagerly for the tea or lunch break. They are more interested in their meals more than their education. Actually coming to school to them is really coming to play and eat with incidental learning. It is not that they value learning less. They don’t understand it. At home they gain minimum or no support at all. Some when they arrived home after school their parents or guardians put them to heavy work. Lo ntse lo sa dire sepe kwa sekoleng. Lo ntse lo ntse fela fa fatshe lo kwala, lo o ja lo bo lo tshameka. Bereka! Such a child’s academic efforts come to naught. The situation becomes grimmer in contexts where there is a constant sale of alcohol in the home or in the neighbour’s home, especially where such sale is accompanied by loud music or entertainment. In desert environments where the value of western education is poorly grasped, cases of school attendance may be rare and parents may contribute to keeping children away from instruction. To reduce all these problems to mother tongue instruction is to poorly grasp the challenges that confront our learners in schools. I believe the late Neville Alexander does have a point that, “It is important that we state clearly up-front that, in principle, any child or any learner can be taught effectively through the medium of any language that s/he understands well enough for the purpose. In other words, there is nothing special about being taught through the medium of the “mother tongue” except that for most children in the world that is the language that they know best and in which all their powers of imagination, their creativity, their sense of complexity and, generally, their ability to think and play with words find expression most effectively”.
I am therefore persuaded that limiting the strategy of minority language development and preservation to instruction in such a language is to impoverish the debate and the contributions that could be made to the development of such languages if broader strategies were considered. The language matter is a broad entity which has elicited some heated discussions in the past. It is no wonder Judge Albie Sachs observed that “No sane person would rush into print on the language question. It is so intricate and so laden with emotion that you are bound to offend many and please few. Yet debate there must be. Someone must take the initiative.” But the laden emotions around the language questions should not surprise us since one’s language is linked strongly to whom they are and how they perceive themselves. But contribution here is not about minority languages only. The envelope must be expanded and not restricted to include language and education in general. Botswana has a very small population and yet has high linguistic diversity. The country has 28 languages spoken by about 2 million people. Setswana as the national language is spoken by over 80% of the country as either a first, second or third language. Close to 10% of the population speaks Kalanga. The rest of the 26 languages congregate within the remaining 10% percent. If the right approach was embraced then every individual would have a right to be taught in their mother tongue wherever they are, which would be impractical. The matter has been expressed by the then Minister of Education, Hon. Jacob D. Nkate in a speech delivered at the official opening of the Mother Tongue Education Conference on 1 June 2005 in this manner: “With the small population we have, developing materials in the different languages would not benefit from economies of scale, thus, making it expensive to introduce the languages in the curriculum.” The small population challenge has also been put against the competition for resources within the education system itself: “Each of the languages is very small by population yet the resources that are required to develop orthographies (in some cases), curricula, teaching materials and train teachers are enormous. Should I be expending these resources on mother tongue when I am not able to introduce pre-primary education in the formal schooling system and I am battling with backlog of facilities in both primary and secondary schools? As Minister responsible for Education, should I prioritise mother tongue education, which has the potential for promoting inward-looking, or should I promote languages that will enable Batswana to compete favourably in a global economy?” Judge Sachs was right, such views can infuriate some, but the debate must continue.