The teaching and learning of English language in secondary day schools has faced huge setbacks over the years.
While there are a few fluent speakers of English, still, there are common challenges that face these schools. Like any other language, one acquires proficiency in English through listening, speaking, reading and writing.
English, being a second language calls for the learner to be widely exposed, have the right attitude and pronunciation models in order to attain this proficiency.
In most schools, separate days are set for communication in English, and other days for Swahili. The objective of this is to create a balance in exposure of the two languages.
Rarely is the English speaking objective achieved. We will agree that one needs to be proud of his or her native language, and it is not criminal to speak it. However, in learning institutions, for purposes of uniformity and alleviation of tribal supremacy wars, it becomes necessary to communicate in the official languages.
A mother tongue speaker in school is a “law breaker”. Do day schools manage to root out mother tongue speaking in their schools? Well, this is a typical scenario of what happens in many of our day schools:
The student arrives at school very early in the morning, in the company of friends. They’ve probably been sharing hot gossip – you know how sweet gossip can be in mother tongue. At the school gate, they will exchange pleasantries with the gateman. “Mambo soja” “Vuchee” “Oya Ore”, “Uhoro waku” … are examples of the greetings. Would you punish a student for being well mannered and greeting their elder?
Once the students are in the compound, they remember they have to adjust to speaking English (depending on the day). This becomes possible when a teacher or strict student leader is in sight. During lessons, speaking English is inevitable.
Unfortunately, a majority of these learners communicate in English only during lessons, group discussions, debates, and other formal gatherings.
While out of class, students would behave like most passengers would, tying their seatbelts in the presence of a police officer.
English will be spoken where and when a teacher is in sight. If you wish to “harvest” mother tongue speakers, go behind the toilets, far away in the field, or anywhere suspicious and you’ll find them there. The question is, should it come to this – where there is tireless policing around of students?
It is only for them to change their attitude. This means that they require role models and motivation in and out of school. Once outside the school gate, they assume a “hallelujah we are free from speaking English” kind of attitude.
While at home, do they speak English? Do they listen to it on radio or television? Do they read scholarly articles, or forms of literature apart from the set books done in school?
Your guess is as good as mine – many of them lack English speakers at home. Even if there are, seldom would they speak it at home.
With regards to written literature, most students tend to appreciate Kenyan and African literature more than literature from outside Africa. This is because it is easier to relate with the culture present in the African texts.
For instance, in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, (whose setting is in Norway), Helmer constantly calls his wife pet names like “my little skylark, my little singing bird, my little squirrel” etc, which ordinarily would be interpreted as a loving husband pampering his wife with sweet playful words. He responsibly provides for his wife and family. His weakness is his ego.
For a teacher, it takes a lot of effort to convince the learner that Helmer fails Nora by not letting her be herself and treating her as a possession. In fact some learners are so angry at her for quitting such a “fulfilling” marriage.
They wonder: Is that a reason a wife should leave her “loving” husband? The intended objective of exploring the theme of female liberation is barely achieved.
The most trying time in teaching and learning of English is at the beginning of the year when learners open school from the long December holidays. There is partial or total discontinuity.
This is the time marking of compositions becomes both annoying and humorous. The most interesting lessons to teach at this time are oral literature lessons, since they are allowed to sing, dance, riddle, and story tell in forms drawn from their community.
Having students in school for the better part of the day to an extent exposes learners to English. The long stay at home deconstructs what had been acquired.
One of the most damaging effects of the students staying long at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic is that most of the English learnt will be forgotten, since the environment at home does not provide enough stimuli.
Teachers will have a huge task of re-strategising on how to restore what has been lost.
The writer is a high school teacher in Vihiga County