The Language Predicament: Turn the Focus on STEAM

BY: Dinah Serwaa Amankwah
After 12-14 years of learning English, a significant cross-section of learners in university classrooms cannot form coherent sentences

Reading the President’s advice to the winners of the Junior Graphic 2021 National Essay Competition, it pleased me immensely that whilst stressing on Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM), he encouraged the winners to focus on language.

Poor language is derailing education in Ghana; students are handicapped in all aspects of language. After 12-14 years of learning English, a significant cross-section of learners in university classrooms cannot form coherent sentences.

Increasingly, instructors encounter expressions such as *choosed, *runned *stoled, *keept, *breaked, *builded, *thiefs, *hearby in academic writing. Usually, such learners are poor readers who barely comprehend even the simplest of text. Logically, they are unable to process textbook material.

The situation has been building up over the decades since other disciplines began to marginalise language. About a decade ago, one Ghanaian scholar lamented that high schools were producing functional literates. The situation has since worsened.

When high school graduates cannot form past tense of some of the commonest irregular verbs in English, when it is a daunting task for some to align text on paper, when formatting documents becomes a chore what becomes the fate of higher learning, where English is the medium of exchange and production?

The 2007 Educational Review sought to rectify the situation. The Director of the then Curriculum Review and Development Design, now NaCCA, explained to the reviewers that learners’ porous grasp of language, mathematics and science was impacting negatively on learning, and required a targeted intervention.

The rationale for the four-year senior high school concept was that the first year would be fully dedicated to core subjects.

The objective was to equip learners with the necessary language, reasoning and critical thinking skills for studies. Information Technology became core to enhance the currency of education.

A sore point for all the reviewers was the susceptibility of Ghanaian education to political curtailment. The consensus was to run the curriculum for a decade to determine its effectiveness or otherwise.

Well, government changed hands, and the new regime curtailed the curriculum after four years, returning senior high school to three years, abandoning curriculum and language intervention.

I wrote that the move had taken our education back twenty years. I was wrong. We regressed twenty years x five.

We have since been experiencing heavy doses of extra-classes, especially for the core subjects. Judging by its high rate in pre-tertiary learning, most learners should be geniuses by the time they reach tertiary classrooms.

Yet, coherence eludes many. Apparently, parents and nation are being shortchanged but that is the least of our concerns.

Many tertiary learners exhibit specious knowledge while service continues to slip in the country. There are no coincidences here. One American researcher has asserted that poor language skills cumulate in underperformance, academically and professionally.

Ghana is treading that path. For sound reasons, educational systems elsewhere prioritise language studies at all learning levels to ensure that learners are fully equipped for academic work and sound vocations.

In those communities, language has consistently anchored quality studies. Therefore, proficient language skills become the gateway to advanced learning.
Marginalising language over the decades continues to yield unacceptable percentage of learners across the learning levels who can barely read or write.
Instead of exploring productive avenues to whisk education to the 21st Century, a cross-section of stakeholders who participated in hasty decisions send wards to foreign schools which prioritised language to maintain quality.
The ordinary Ghanaian might meander through local education and emerge ill-equipped for sustainable employment. The focused and determined, however, acquire language skills and utilise such to advance self and community.
The President hit the nail right on the head when he exhorted award winners to explore language for critical reading and analysis of information, and for reasoning.
Even industrial communities and traditional English-speaking communities have shifted from STEM – to STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, Mathematics to enhance learners’ potential for enquiry, dialogue and critical thinking.
The sole target should be scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians with balanced perspective. We sacrifice the Arts for lopsided educated materials who hinder progress.

The writer is a Senior Lecturer, Language and Communication Skills Centre for Language and Liberal Studies , Takoradi Technical University,Takoradi.