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English requirement prompts controversy

Catherine Dube would have graduated with honours in science and mathematics when she finished her final year at Mater Dolorosa High School in the Swaziland capital city. But she did not graduate. She was held back, despite her excellent academic record in other subjects. The reason: she failed English.
James Hall

"I was good in all my classes. English stopped me," Catherine explains. She has returned to school to repeat her final year, risking a lower performance in other subjects as she single-mindedly attempts to improve her English skills.

Is this a tragedy, or simply a hard reality that must be faced by Swazi students? Opinions are split among teachers, government education policymakers, and students themselves. "English is a required pass subject, it is that important," says Phineas Magagula, secretary general of the Swaziland National Teachers Association.

Musa Hlope, president of the Swaziland Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Swaziland Federation of Employers, is emphatic that to get ahead in the business world, a command of English is necessary.

"We need Swazi entrepreneurs, capitalists, industrialists, traders and business people of all kind. They won't be doing business only with other Swazis. English is the international language of business," he says.

The ministry of education agrees. Education minister John Carmichael told parliament at a hearing last year on the subject of English as a mandatory pass subject, "A knowledge of English and a fluency of speech and understanding makes it easier for persons in our international world to communicate. Young Swazis must not be handicapped by poor English skills. It is essential that our schools teach mastery of this subject, for the students' own good."

Dr. Ben Dlamini, who heads the National Exams Council, disagrees. "English should be dropped as a required pass subject. Good students should not be held back because of one subject," he says.

Educationalists note that no student is held back due to mediocre performance in English class, only if they fail outright.

"Failure shows a complete inability to grasp a subject which is of tremendous importance. It would not be fair to pretend a person is 'educated' if that boy or girl fails a key subject," says a source at the education ministry.

18 year-old Vusie Malambe recently took his final exams at the conclusion of his senior year, and now awaits the results. "To get a pass you need to score 46 per cent to 56 per cent. That is good enough to get you into Luyengo (an agricultural college). But for the university, you need a credit, and for a credit you have to pass with 60 per cent or higher."

English is the second language of the Kingdom of Swaziland, which was a British protectorate during the colonial era until Independence was granted in 1968. Although the small landlocked country, about the size of Wales in Great Britain, was surrounded on three sides by Afrikaans-speaking South Africa, that language was never a major influence here.

King Mswati sets an example of bi-lingualism when he delivers his two major annual speeches. First comes English, when he opens the Houses of Parliament by giving a State of the Kingdom address outlining government policy goals for the year ahead. Then on his birthday in April, the king articulates his vision for his country in SiSwati, the language of the Swazi tribe.

Due to political gerrymandering during the colonial era, the British ceded great portions of Swazi land to the provinces of South Africa. As a result, more Swazis live in that country than in Swaziland itself under King Mswati. SiSwati is one of South Africa's eleven official languages.

"In Swaziland, the irony is that people have no difficulty speaking English, because we Swazis are good at languages, but students can find difficulty in English as a study course," says Marcus Ndlangamandla, a secondary school teacher in the commercial hub Manzini.

"Another irony is when Swazis read, we prefer to read English and we are lazy to read in SiSwati," he says.

Ndlangamandla's observation is borne out by the difficulty SiSwati-language publications face in the marketplace. School textbooks for SiSwati language and social studies courses are published in the local language, as required by a law that seeks to ensure that SiSwati is kept alive through academic usage. But no magazines, either academic, industrial or commercial, are published in SiSwati. The Times of Swaziland had to drop its SiSwati edition, Tikhatsi TemaSwati, because of poor sales. The newspaper has been revived, partly through pressure from government and partly as a public relations gesture, but does not earn a profit for the country's only independent news organization.

The preference of Swazis to read in English rather than their native tongue is a clue to why up to 20 per cent of students are failing English courses. The anomaly gets to the heart of the way the two languages are understood and utilised.

"SiSwati and English are two different languages not only in vocabulary, structure and grammar, but psychologically," says teacher Ndlangamandla. "English is a language of rules. You master those rules, and you know the language. SiSwati is a language of sentiment, where people communicate the reality of their world in ideas expressed with descriptions."

For instance, in English a disease is given a clinical name. In SiSwati, a single word from another language is often translated into a miniature story that is grasped by the listener. The incurable AIDS disease in SiSwati is known as umcamulajucu, which translated literally means, "the thing that cuts you down completely."

Linguist Vusie Zwane says, "SiSwati is a very musical language to listen to, because people make their meaning known through tone and emphasis. In English, words convey meaning. A flat computer voice is perfectly understood by everyone."

Hanson Ngwenya, a playwright who worked for the government radio and who translated English news into the old SiSwati edition of the Swazi Observer newspaper, says, "In translating from English into SiSwati we are always looking for phrases in the local language that convey the meanings of a word. It is never a literal word for word translation. SiSwati is very informal, and descriptive."

For example, the direction "west" in SiSwati is "toward where the sun disappears." Numbers present a problem. 2975 is "Tinkhulungwane netimbili nemakhulu nemfica nemashumi nesikhombisa nasihlanu," which means "The thousands that are two and the hundreds that are nine and the tens that are seven and five."

"No wonder Swazis love to speak our beautiful language, but don't like to read or write it," says Zwane.

Swazi students whose young brains are used to processing lingual information in the form of ideas and symbolic comparisons may have difficulty adjusting to a language based on grammatical rules. "Learning English rules takes practice, and until the rules are mastered, a student can fail," says Ndlangamandla.

That is why some young minds are able to excel in science and math, but stumble in English.

"The difference is that English is a mandatory pass subject. It is too important," Ndlangamandla says.

The answer, the ministry of education and supporters of its policies agree, is not to take the easy way out and drop English as a mandatory subject, which would leave graduates ill-prepared to triumph in the business and academic worlds, but to emphasise the language's importance internationally and to the student's future success.

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