My 5 ingredients for helping children with Shona language learning

Culture and language are inextricably intertwined. Over the past year or so, I have done a lot of research and writing on Shona culture and related matters. Consequently, I have also done a lot of research on the Shona language. Lots of people have asked me why I do it, obviously surprised that I studied nothing of that sort. I believe that what one studies is irrelevant. What matters instead is what those studies empower one to do. In my case, I can pursue my interests and help others while at it. For instance, I have found myself helping children with Shona language learning.

When I started helping a couple of learners with their language learning, I should admit I felt a bit overwhelmed trying to figure out the best approach to go with. Through lots of research and some experience, I have learned some pretty interesting things that have helped me figure out a structured yet pretty much intuitive approach. With the limitations imposed by Covid-19, I have also had to explore virtual learning. This has helped in managing obvious logistical hurdles.

I took the time to go through the Ministry’s Indigenous Languages Junior Syllabus. For my group of learners, I believe the assumptions on which it is based hold only to a limited extent. This constrains the effectiveness of the syllabus.

An excerpt from the Ministry’s Indigenous Languages Junior Syllabus

After many considerations, I identified the following 5 ingredients that I use in my language acquisition program.

1. Projects

Projects allow students to use real-world skills to solve real-world problems. While this may be challenging, it allows students to experience the value of language first hand. I once read about two young boys who learned their native language in school. However, they continued to use English at home. While going about their errands one day, they met an elderly woman who remarked at how they continued to use English despite learning the vernacular. As the two boys walked away, the younger boy was very puzzled. As it turns out, he thought the vernacular was just a school subject and didn’t know that it could be used for speaking at home. So I think projects help children understand that the vernacular is more than just a school subject.

A project will also involve all sorts of feelings. Learners will get frustrated, struggle, or even have fun. All of that is a part of the real world.

When children complete projects, learning becomes more about them rather than the teacher. A fair amount of learning can be completed on their terms as they go about trying to complete the project. For example, they might decide on their own to research on certain linguistic elements.

Even though there might be constraints relating to the syllabus, I am cognisant of the need and importance of meeting learning goals as per school curriculum. Projects significantly address cross-cutting themes, meaning students can learn not only language but even aspects relevant to other concepts in the curriculum. Put simply, children learn in a language rather than merely learning a language.

2. Culture-related content

elderly men seated in semi-circle

It is commonly said that language learners are also culture learners. A language is naturally related to or associated with a certain culture. An article I wrote titled ‘Should children maintain their native language?’ raises some interesting arguments about the relationship between culture and language. Incorporating culture-related content in language learning is relevant in instances where it provides context for the origins and uses of certain words and expressions. For instance, many people will have challenges understanding many Shona proverbs until they have some knowledge of the context in which these proverbs originated.

Similarly, learning a language is a great way to learn about a culture. An example is how certain aspects of a language can serve as a repository of cultural knowledge. You can check out an article I wrote titled 6 things I have learned through analysing over 200 Shona proverbs. Here I talk about how Shona proverbs are a rich repository of indigenous knowledge.

When I started ZimbOriginal, I never imagined I would end up helping children with Shona language learning, yet here I am. This is a clear demonstration of the importance of cultural knowledge in language learning.

3. Tasks

young girl reading a Shona novel

I learned about the task-based learning approach when I took a course on Teaching Reading. Thanks to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). I like to think of tasks as a series of different mini-projects building up to the larger project. So while a project would last for the duration of the entire learning period, a single task could last for the duration of one lesson within the learning period. Like projects, tasks relate to solving a problem in the real world. The goal is to produce a non-linguistic outcome, so a focus on meaning rather than form is primary.

In schools, the focus is more on form. Activities used in teaching do not always challenge children to solve communicative problems in the same way they would in the real world.

4. Vocabulary

The importance of vocabulary in language learning is undeniable. I have read many interesting articles on topics such as frequently used words, and vocabulary mastering techniques, leading me to appreciate the dynamics of vocabulary in language learning.

Most linguists suggest that if you know only 1000 words of the most spoken words in a language, then you’ll be able to understand about 85% of the language as it is spoken in real life. Turns out you do not need to know most of the words that exist in a language. One article I read stated that that there 171,146 words currently in use in the English language, with about 47,156 obsolete words.

Vocabulary connects everything in language learning. It involves word meanings, pronunciations, context and even word origins. Dictionaries are a great resource to help with vocabulary. I have, however, realised that children in our local schools rarely own Shona dictionaries. If a child is to grow their vocabulary, then a dictionary is important. I would therefore recommend that parents invest in one for their child.

5. Focus on meaning and communication

In schools, language is taught in a standardized and sequenced manner. We learn nouns in one week and then move on to prefixes and suffixes, or verbs in the next. Whilst this works well in making teaching efficient, it does not resemble how we learn a language in reality. I also think this linear approach has to some extent resulted in some form of redundancy; the same textbooks, same curricula, and same schedules with little to no responsiveness to what is happening in the real world. I do, however, appreciate to some extent the wisdom of adopting such an approach.

With a project-based approach language is learned in context. The overriding focus is on meaning and communication, and linguistic elements are dealt with incidentally. When learners collaborate on each new project, new tasks, new topics, and new words, the variety of linguistic elements are bound to show up. As I mentioned earlier, it becomes more of learning in a language than it is learning a language.

As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. After everything has been studied and analysed, the real work comes with putting all the ingredients together and ultimately serving a hearty meal. I believe that with time and much more experience, I will better my approach and explore even better ways and methods.


The above are my personal views and given in no professional or expert capacity. If you think I can help, feel free to reach me on shunguchidovi@gmail.com.

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