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The role of language in adult education and poverty reduction in Botswan

The role of language in adult education and poverty
reduction in Botswana
Mompoloki Bagwasi, University of Botswana

Raditloaneng (2002) makes a distinction between economic and non-economic poverty.
Economic poverty assumes that a certain amount of income is essential for people to afford
basic needs. This type of poverty focuses on material aspects of poverty such as income
below the poverty datum line, unemployment and lack of ownership of assets. Non-economic
poverty, on the other hand, refers to the deprivation of non-material things, which lead to low
self-esteem, loss of identity, minimal participation in civic life, inadequate access to
information and education. This paper is of the view that such a classification is only useful
in as far as giving the topic of poverty a fair and balanced discussion and coverage, otherwise
in reality the two are connected, that is, a deprivation of material aspects leads to low self-
esteem and minimal participation in education and little access to information or vice-versa.
This paper examines the role of language in reducing poverty in a community by enhancing
its self esteem, image, identity, and encouraging participation in education and civic society.
It argues that in order for adult education programs to reduce poverty it has to be guided by a
language policy that would enable its learners to participate in community activities and
access relevant information that can improve their lives.

Importance of language policy in adult education
The national language policy currently in place in Botswana, is that Setswana is the national
language of the country (Republic of Botswana 1985:8). So, despite the existence of other
local languages, Setswana is the only indigenous language that is used as a medium of
instruction in government schools, where both adults and children are educated. Adult
education is a program that involves adults in formal and non-formal learning activities with
the purpose of facilitating the personal, socio-economic, cultural and political development of
individuals and their communities. In order to achieve this goal the adult education program
needs to seriously consider the language situation of the individuals and communities who are
to benefit from it. For example, the program needs to answer these questions: what language
or languages do individuals in the adult education program speak, do their languages enable
them to participate freely in the economic and social activities of their country, and how can
their languages be promoted and developed to meet current needs and standards? The
answers to these questions call for an education language policy that would enable adults not
only to learn effectively but also to resource and develop their languages to meet present day
needs or learn languages that enable them to take active roles in their communities.

Adult education is crucial and better placed to fight poverty than formal education because it
is involved in the education of the most productive, experienced and influential sector of a
population. Adults are responsible for generating a community’s income, for preserving its
resources and for making laws that govern the distribution of income as well as influencing
attitudes about what is superior and what is inferior. It is also better placed to fight poverty
because according to Rachal (1989:3) adult education responds to particular needs and
societal change. One of the needs that adult education should respond to in Botswana is the
question of major and minor ethnic groups and their languages that obviously impact on the
self-esteem, identity, participation in civic life, access to information and education of the
groups involved.

Adult education does not only deal with issues of education involving adults, but it also
directly and indirectly influences the education of children because the teaching and learning
of children is supervised by the older members of a society and conducted for the benefit of
the society’s younger members: a process that some researchers call child socialization

(Mesthrie and others 2000:355). Adults socialize children into beliefs, practices and attitudes
that are embodied in their languages and cultures. A language policy that promotes certain
languages over others would produce teachers and learners who are going to help promote
those languages at the expense of others. So, in order to uphold the images and identities of
the different communities in Botswana adult education programs need to be guided by a
language policy that is sensitive to and promotes the multicultural and multilingual face of

Botswana. This can be achieved by promoting local, national and official languages in
Botswana through the adult education programs.

Language is important in any discussion of poverty reduction strategies because it determines
who has access to power and economic resources. Tollefson (1991:16) believes that language
policy is one mechanism for locating language within social structure so that language
determines who has access to political power and economic resources. Language policy is
one mechanism by which dominant groups establish hegemony in language use. The
dominant language group usually imposes and spreads its will and language even when
opposed by others. One way of doing this is through education: formal and adult education
where subtractive bilingualism is practiced. Subtractive bilingualism, according to Mesthrie
and others (2000:334) is whereby the first language of the learner is removed from the
educational environment. This may accompany a language shift in a community from the
primary language to another more prestigious language. In parts of Botswana where minority
languages such as Sekalaka, Sengologa and others are spoken, Setswana is used in the school

Mesthrie and others (2000:320) argue that language is not only the primary medium of social
control and power but it has also grown dramatically in terms of the diversity of functions to
which it is applied in modern society. Language functions in politics, news broadcasting, and
advertising. It is also a reflection of its speakers’ identity, economic and social class. In fact,
language is itself a tool or passport into a particular identity, economic and social class. By
following the current national language policy that only recognizes and promotes Setswana
and English at the expense of the other languages that exist in the country, the adult language
program in Botswana maintains the hegemony and the gap between the poor and the rich, the
major and minority groups. In order to redress poverty the adult education program needs to
be aware of the social functions of language and strive to produce learners who can use their
native languages as resources to advertise, transmit information, teach, and trade. Since adult
education is intended to help bridge the gap between adult and formal education it has an
excellent opportunity to balance the skewed language policy which favors the dominant
language in Botswana and give minority languages a chance to be taught, spoken and

First language and adult education
The UNESCO report (reprinted in Fishman 1968) on the use of vernacular languages states
that a mother tongue is a person’s natural means of self expression and one of his needs is to
develop his power of self expression to the full. The report goes on to argue that non-formal
education adult illiterates should make their first steps in literacy through their mother tongue,
passing on to a second language if they desire and are able. The practice in Botswana is that
illiterates in the adult education program are taught in Setswana even in environments where
it is not the native language. Setswana is not the native language for at least 15-20% of the
population who mostly live in the less developed parts of the country who are also mostly
poor and less educated. An educational program that is in Setswana and English contributes
to an assimilation of these groups into Setswana, killing their identities and ignoring the
knowledge and experience embodied in their native languages and cultures.

The report by the national commission on education (1977:167) states that government views
literacy as a prerequisite to other development efforts. It states that a fully literate population
is an important long term objective if Botswana’s other national objectives are to be met. The

national literacy program had aimed to enable 250, 00 illiterate men, women, and youth to
become literate in Setswana and numeracy over 6 years (1980- 1985). Maruatona and
Raditloaneng (1997: 276)), however, state that the department could not complete the
eradication of illiteracy in the 6 years as projected. Adult education cannot eradicate illiteracy
for as long as it aims to make people literate in Setswana only and there is very little material
in other languages. Literacy can be established and maintained if only there is a wider
coverage of languages and there is an adequate supply of reading material for adolescents and
adults in their native languages for entertainment as well as for study.

Language policies tend to reflect the ideology of the state political infrastructure. This means
that the political economy of a particular country usually affects the country’s language
policy. For example present day economies are accompanied by linguistic racism which
places high status on English and low status on other languages. Heugh (1995:329) argues
that language policies are usually arrived at by a top-down process which rarely
accommodates the perspective or needs of people from below. At least one language of high
status is used to exclude speakers of low status languages. Marginalized groups are always at
the disadvantage of the culture and value system of the dominant group.

Since competence in English is a pre-requisite for participation in the national political and
economic system, the majority of citizens in Botswana have remained excluded from the
political, educational and economical activities of the country. Effectively it is the rural
people who suffer the greatest marginalization. The prominence that has been accorded the
English language in the national and educational system has rendered the local languages
instrumentally valueless. To address this problem adult education has introduced a program
known as English as a second language which has already started. The program should
however safe guard against following western models which tend to advantage a small elite
and disadvantage the majority. This happens where English in some context dominates and
the vast majority of people are left out. In an education system where English dominates the
majority of learners get little benefit from schooling, either in terms of acquiring the
necessary language proficiency or in terms of content. This is because local language which
are usually of low status are given little validity in the educational system and consequently
knowledge which learners have in these languages is ignored in the schooling system. For the
English language program to benefit adult education learners, the curricula needs to make
provision for the transfer of knowledge and cognition from, in some instances first language
to second language and to English.

Language and participation
Stutnabb-Kangas (1988:14) argues that in order to participate in the affairs of one’s
community or country one needs to have a linguistic proficiency that will enable them to
negotiate and influence. In the same way Mesthrie (2000:355) states that in every society
there is useful information which members of a society need to know and skills that they need
to acquire in order to meet the responsibilities and obligations of a citizen. Education refers to
the teaching and learning activities through which members of a society gain access to this
information and to these skills. The only way for this to be effected in multilingual societies
is by means of a bilingual education. Adult education should adopt an additive bilingual
program in which second and even third languages are added to the learners’ repertoire of
language systems whilst sustaining the primary language through the schooling process
instead of subtractive bilingualism found in the current educational system whereby the first
language is removed from the educational environment of the learner. In Botswana
educational system, the first language is replaced by another language perceived to have
greater educational importance. The problem with this set up is that it does not validate the
knowledge that the learner brings to the learning environment about his/her own community
value systems, history and culture. In order to take an active role in their education learners
need to be allowed to share this knowledge and use it in their schooling.


Maruatona and Raditloaneng (1997:277) state that extension education in the Botswana
context refers to the modes by which the knowledge from the source of discovery is
transferred to the appropriate people in the community, to enlarge acceptance and application
of the relevant methods and techniques. Extension education seeks to transfer information
skills from researchers to the rural communities thus assuming that rural dwellers do not have
a knowledge base which needs to be incorporated. Maruatona and Raditloaneng argue that
this approach fails to recognize indigenous knowledge and because of that the extension
services have less impact. The most important indigenous knowledge that people in rural
communities have is knowledge of their environment and surrounding borne from long
experience and passed from one generation to another through word of mouth in their
languages. It is only by capturing that knowledge in their education can this knowledge be
harnessed and incorporated in modern day research. In order to improve the quality of life of
the poor and rural people adult education programs should include as one of its components
the observation and imitation of the artisans and other skilled persons in the rural

Adult education programs are also believed to have failed to solve socio-economic problems
which have persisted and the status of vulnerable groups remains precarious (Fong 1995).
The major problem is that the recipients of the extension services remain uninvolved and
passive in a one way flow of information from researchers and government to them. The
bottom down approach that is practiced neglects community participation and that minimizes
extension education’s contribution to the improvement of quality of life in rural Botswana.
These participants remain uninvolved because they probably do not have the language to
influence and persuade those who have power and also because their languages, experiences
and knowledge are down played in the new policies and technologies.

Conclusion and recommendations
Adult education has been recognized as an agent for development since it addresses issues of
poverty, inequality, underdevelopment, environmental enhancement and sustainable
population by providing skills that are needed for the day to day activities of individuals and
their communities. Maruatona (1995) states that the adult education programs in Botswana
provide illiterates with skills of reading, writing, arithmetic and a few practical skills to enable
them to engage in economic activities which would improve their socio-economic status.
Extension education is supposed to improve the socio-economic status of the rural people by
providing those people with information on most techniques and skill training which could be
useful in transforming their lives. This paper argues that in order to do this the program has
to be guided by an unbiased language policy that enables it to disseminate information,
encourage participation in the education and economy of the communities.

To achieve its goal of disseminating useful information and eradicating poverty the adult
education program needs to recognize the different languages that exist in the country and be
mindful that Setswana and English are not the only languages through which literacy and
education need to be achieved. This paper proposes that in order to reduce poverty the adult
education program should be mediated in languages that enable the learners to be confident to
participate in the discussions and activities of their education and economy. This involves the
teaching of local languages, Setswana and English. By involving the local languages the
program would not only reach the poor and marginalized communities but it would also instill
the qualities of pride, identity, self esteem, those qualities that are vital in fighting poverty.
The adult education program can thus harness the local languages and indigenous knowledge
of the minority and poor people and use them to mobilize the poor and minorities who are
struggling for the betterment of their conditions. It could mobilize the so called minorities to
oppose their status and challenge the hegemony of the majority communities in Botswana.

In most parts of the world, education is for the most part the preserve of the few (elites). The
choice of which language or dialect to use to teach (medium of instruction) reflects the
interests of those elite. In countries in which one of the languages dominate, there is usually
an issue about where to place other languages in the education system. As a program that is
supposed to bridge the gap between the poor and rich, formal and non formal education and
help people cope with political, economic and social changes adult education programs need
to respond to language conflicts and inequalities by making provisions for those languages
and speakers that are left out in the formal system.

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