Raissa Malu

How many languages can you speak?

Learning and doing science in your native language would allow for greater mastery and creativity.

Today, we repeat over and over again that the true wealth of African nations is not their natural resources (and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we have many), but their population, their human resources (here too the Democratic Republic of Congo is blessed). No one would want or dare to question that. After all, "it makes sense" would say English speakers. Um... I can already imagine your face reading these lines: OK, what is she going to tell us here?

Let's be honest. In some people's heads, isn't there that little voice whispering: "Yeah! What human resources are we talking about exactly? These millions of young people excluded from the education system? Or those graduates who can't speak, read or write the official language correctly?" Oh no, she dared!

Five usual tongues

Don't worry, I believe in it just as much as you do. 😊 Our real wealth is our population and I would like to highlight one of our greatest abilities: language proficiency!

It may be obvious to you, but for me, it is a source of wonder every day. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we have four national languages - Kikongo, Ciluba, Swahili and Lingala - and an official language for teaching and administration, French (no kidding!). (I don't mention the hundreds of other dialects). We also have a diaspora almost everywhere in the world, immersed in all kinds of languages.

Multilingual conversations

It is therefore common for a conversation to hear a person speak fluently in three languages for example: Lingala - French - English; Swahili - French - German; Lingala - Swahili - French; Lingala - Chinese - French; Kikongo - Portuguese - French; etc. Do you think this is the most educated or qualified person in the audience? Not at all! It is the Congolese or the average Congolese woman who is also surprised by your amazement because for her, it is completely normal. But go to Europe or the USA and tell me if it is usual to hear a common person speak easily in at least three languages?!

Obviously, we do not all master French like Molière, English like Shakespeare, German like Goethe or Lingala like the Bangalas, but whatever! All you need is know how to hold a conversation, understand and make yourself understood, don't you?

Mastering the teaching language

I have the feeling that African nations do not fully appreciate this wealth. However, mastery of different languages by their population is a major asset for trade, diplomacy and cooperation. Languages help to build bridges and bonds.

But languages are first and foremost a way of conceptualizing and that is where we have a challenge in Africa. With my friend Prof. Dr. Bienvenu Sene Mongaba, chemist and specialist in teaching chemistry in Lingala, we know that not mastering the language of instruction, or the language of science, is a barrier to the development of scientific skills among our young people and their teachers.

Foreign language education

The strategy that has been adopted by our countries so far is to "force" the mastery of the official language of instruction (French) and to teach English to our young people in order to improve the quality of our education system and open them to the world. But 59 years later (to take a duration at random 😉), do you think the results are convincing so that we can continue on this path happily?

Put yourself in the shoes of one of our children for a moment. Her mother tongue is Ciluba, for example. It is the language used by her grandmother to tell her about the epics of her ancestors, to transmit her the ancestral knowledge, as well as the rules and laws of their society. When it is time to go to school, the child must move from her mother tongue to the language of instruction. In our education system, this transition takes place during the first 4 years of primary school. She is then expected to continue her education in French with ease. Everything is going well in the best of all worlds.

Always translating

However, it is not that simple. Most of our children actually have to make a big effort to succeed in our education system. They must make the effort to translate from French into their mother tongue to understand (in depth) and then translate in the other direction to meet the demand. Whatever is said, this effort consumes mental resources that would be better used if learning took place directly in the language that the child and teacher are most comfortable with. Bienvenu Sene Mongaba experiences this every day in his primary school in a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Kinshasa.

I can already hear the argument here that children learn quickly and can easily master several languages. The effort we are asking them would therefore be minimal, even fun. Maybe! Maybe!

Name and know

Although, for the transmission of scientific and mathematical concepts, the teacher and the child must have a good command of the language. As Richard Feynman, the American physicist who is described as one of the most influential of the second half of the XXth century, said, there is a huge difference between knowing the name of something and knowing that thing. Abstract concepts are built, developed and best transmitted with a language that we master, with which we dream, think and reflect.

For greater ease, confidence and mastery, the language of transmission of scientific and technical knowledge should be the same as the one with which we naturally and daily understand the world (and even in this case, some abstract concepts can be difficult to convey in everyday language). This is true from kindergarten to university. Secondly, it is a story of multilingualism.

Language and imagination

It may be that by continuing to maintain science and mathematics education in a language that is foreign to our children, their teachers and the communities in which they live, we are depriving ourselves of the imaginative, innovative and disruptive capacities of many of our young people. (In particular, those we do not care about because they do not speak the official language.)

With ambitions for Africa such as those declared by institutions like the Next Einstein Forum, do you think we can still afford it?

I am delighted that SADC (Southern African Development Community) has just decided at its 39th Summit to adopt Swahili as its fourth official working language, "in recognition of the contribution of this language". I see it as an awareness. 😉

Science is fun, join us ! 😊

This post has first been published on LinkedIn. It has been translated in English by Afriscitech.


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