Technology can teach us to treasure traditional tongues

| March 9, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Thandeka Mapi

The 2011 Matric results indicated that South Africa’s secondary school system is possibly slowly improving; however, there are areas that still need a lot of attention.

Msindisi Sam, a Human Language Technology lecturer in the African Languages Studies Section in the School of Languages at Rhodes University, believes that technology has an important role to change people’s perceptions about African languages. “Technology is the most fascinating and modern field for young people. If vernaculars could be used in conjunction with the teaching and learning of technology, that could possibly reduce perceived challenges,” says Sam. A change in attitude requires change in the way the mother tongues are taught at all levels of education. The aim must be to create ‘market-related’, interesting opportunities for young people while preserving and developing indigenous languages.

‘Localising’ computers in isiXhosa a valuable lesson for all

In 2008, with teachers who enrolled for the Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) Information Communication Technology (ICT) course at Rhodes University, a bilingual computer literacy course was developed by Sam and Dr Lorenzo Dalvit, a former Education lecturer at Rhodes. In the same year, the group created a bilingual booklet for computer literacy studies based on their course design, and used it in a pilot programme for Grade 10 learners from Nombulelo High School in Grahamstown and for schools in the Dwesa area of the Transkei. Using open-source software, all the computers at the school were ‘localised’. In other words, computer instructions were programmed into isiXhosa, which made it easy to facilitate learning and teaching using computers in both English and isiXhosa. The learners’ feedback was used to advance research into this pedagogical approach. “For learners to see computer terms such as ‘File’ appearing in their mother tongue on a computer screen was already a departure from an English-dominated past. It showed them that any language can be used to deliver technology,” says Sam.

Sam used the pilot project as the basis for his ongoing research towards his PhD degree. “A host of possibilities can come from this project,” he advises. “For example, Rhodes has been working with an organisation called www.translate.org to make the university website available in a number of African languages. This tells me that young people who study software application, as well as languages – specifically translation skills – will increasingly have career options open up before them.”

ICT in mother tongues can revolutionise the whole curriculum

Sam and Dalvit believe further that developing and designing new ICT courses in African languages can revive research and scholarship – which, in turn and in time, could assist in developing new, more relevant whole-school curricula, and could also further the national drive to popularise Maths, Science and Technology. For example, as technology advances, new terminology becomes accepted parlance. To allow African children access to technology in the mother tongue, we need language practitioners with a Science background. The best time to groom young scientists, engineers and technologists conversant in African languages is now, in preparation for the advent of the African knowledge economy. At the same time, we will be strengthening indigenous languages, as we know that languages develop as new terms are coined, and others fall away.

I believe – with Sam, Dalvit and many others – that technology is the way to go. Students need to learn about it while they are taught through the use of it in both the lingua franca and our precious indigenous languages. As they explore digital worlds, perhaps they will perceive anew the value of their mother tongues.

Category: Autumn 2012, e-Education

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