Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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13/12/15: 'I show loyalty to royalty'

I've written a number of times before about language issues, particularly in this blog post.  There are a number of things which have come together which mean that language is again at the top of my mind: dissertation deadline has recently passed which means that we've gone from supervision to examining, also I've spent some time going through some project reports drafted by our former students and staff members before they are sent to the funders.  And the choir rehearsals for Christmas Eve - which continue to go well - have also thrown up some interesting issues.

But the main reason why language is on my mind right now is because I've just made a brief - one day - trip to Mtwara in Southern Tanzania to visit an English language course, put on for a group of our Masters students for next year on scholarships with our 'Strengthening Educational Systems in East Africa' (SESEA) project, funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).  A number of reasons why we put this course on, very grateful to DFATD for their financial support of this.  The project is particularly geared towards the primary and pre-primary sectors, which in Tanzania means that practitioners work in Swahili, including in teacher training courses, whilst in the secondary and tertiary sectors the medium is English. So, whilst candidates for the Masters will have done secondary education and their first degrees in English, they will have been working in Swahili for some while.  Beyond this, it has been very noticeable on my previous trips to the South that, while here in Dar es Salaam I interact with security cards, shop assistants, taxi drivers and others in a mixture of Swahili and English, in the South there is no mixture, all communication is using my dreadful Swahili.  So again, our students from these areas do not hear the language around them as they do in more urban areas.

So, on Friday I was up at 3.30a.m., off to the airport at 4a.m. (such a joy being able to sail through on nearly empty roads at that time!), on the plane at 6a.m., arrive in Mtwara at 7.15am., then to be met by Salum the taxi driver whom I've met before wearing full Islamic dress, so to meet the student group as they were finishing breakfast at 7.45am.  Straight to work!  You're here to learn English, so let's be practising right here and now!  So, if you work in local government in the statistics department, explain to me how your job supports children's learning.  You get the idea.  Students rose to the challenge and responded by asking me questions.  Are you married?  Because I have a very beautiful sister.....

One of the things we were talking about at that stage was the fact that you cannot just translate from English to Swahili (and vice versa) word for word and hope to make sense.  Many examples of this have arisen in my time, one the previous evening when I was driving back from the choir practice and, whilst stopped at traffic lights, a youngster cleaned my windscreen.  When I gave him a small amount of money, he said, "Thank you, father", a word for word translation of 'Asante, baba' which would have been fine.  In English, of course, it makes me sound like a Catholic priest.  Similarly, on one occasion I was on the ferry to Zanzibar and all of a sudden I was drenched in a cold liquid and the person next to me said, 'Sorry, sorry' which I took to mean that he'd opened a carbonated drink which had gone all over me.  In fact, it was water from a malfunctioning air conditioning unit mounted in the ceiling which had emptied over me.  So, in English, 'Sorry' in this situation implies that the speaker is acknowledging that he was at fault, whereas 'Pole' expresses sympathy for the person but does not mean that the speaker has done anything wrong.

Into class, and first on the agenda was going through some written work students had produced a day or so earlier.  One of the points of interest for me at that stage was how often improvements to what they'd written involved cutting words, phrases, even sentences.  This is consistent with my experience going through project reports, that by the time I've finished going through 20 pages the document can be a page or even two shorter.  There are a number of possible explanations here, I think, which are not mutually exclusive: English is a more compact form of communication than Swahili; the act of translation introduces additional words; the issue is not so much the language itself but the cultural style of communication which requires more words.  Similarly, it is noticeable that hymns translated from English to Swahili using the original tunes need more syllables and sometimes introduce pauses - which then remain when the hymns are sung in English, a trap for unwary organists....

The second class emphasised the difference between 'l' and 'r' - so making up various sentences, including the title, 'I show loyalty to royalty' (noting, of course, that Tanzania is a republic with a recently elected President), 'Don't throw a rock at the lock', 'Do you prefer to eat rice or lice?'  The reason this needs emphasising is not to do with Swahili, Swahili also makes the distinction between these sounds as English does.  The issue is the indigenous languages which are either missing one or other of the sounds or doesn't really make the distinction, not entirely clear on that point.  Jolly interesting working with two very experienced teachers of English as a second language for academic purposes, George and Rahma, who know what issues need addressing and how to address them.

At one stage I was asked how many languages I have mastered, which has a very simple answer - one.  I've dabbled, more or less successfully, in a number of others, but can only operate professionally in English, I would massively need to improve my Swahili (or Indonesian / French / Spanish / Mandarin Chinese) to be able to conduct work in them.  So, as I was saying to the students, in requiring them to undertake a rigorous academic course in their third - or even fourth - language, they are doing something which has never been required of me as a native English speaker.  Doesn't seem fair, really, does it?  Similarly, it is noticeable in choir rehearsals that, once notes have been learnt in tonic sol-fa, there's a very noticeable deterioration in sound quality as we then use words - again, this is at least their second language, often further removed than that.  So much as I try to get them to communicate the meaning of 'Herod the King / In his raging...' it does not come easily.

There was a policy paper produced back in April which advocated the use of Swahili in secondary education and Universities, I've not heard any more about that since, any such switch would take a large amount of eg. writing and publishing of new textbooks.  In a research study I read, a researcher asked a child in lower secondary who could barely speak English about studying in the medium, to get the response, "But we have to study in English, English is the language of science and technology."  OK, but they don't seem to believe that in Japan, France, Germany or many other countries, do they?

I feel very conflicted here, language is closely bound up with identity, there's something very meaningful and wonderful about local languages spoken by only a few thousand people.  On the other hand, my work going through project reports underlines the difficulty people face in writing in a 3rd or 4th language, all kinds of mistakes and inefficiencies come in.  What the answer is here I don't know, I'm not even sure exactly what the question is.  But I am left wondering whether there's a conflict between, on the one hand, strong community life with indigenous languages and, on the other, the aspiration to be an industrialised world economy.  To recycle a theme from this blog post, I incline to the view that you can't have things every which way.  But at the end of the day, 'Sijui' - I don't know, and would be very interested to know the views of readers, do contribute comments or write to me personally.

One final thing: on Saturday (yesterday) Salum came to take me from the hotel back to the airport, no longer wearing Islamic dress, now in a baseball cap, football t-shirt and shorts.  Trying to think of an appropriate concluding sentence, but my language skills are failing me, so I shall just leave it there as a statement of fact.

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