Green school uniforms adorn a crowded classroom of attentive Grade 1 students in Northwest Cameroon. Eager voices fill the air as they rambunctiously learn the alphabet with their playful teacher, Irene Nchongwa.
In the back row, a boy waves his hand over his head while leaning against the red dirt wall. “Madame! Madame!” he squeals, with a huge grin on his face, trying to get the attention of the teacher. The boy’s desire to learn is vibrant, and overpowers the noisy energy and enthusiasm of the rest of his classmates.
Light shimmers through an opening in the roof and onto these blessed Grade 1 students, with such bright futures. They are some of about 100 students ages 6 to 8, attending the school that uses the multilingual education program in the bustling village of Bambalang. This is the only school in the Ndop region to teach Grade 1 and Grade 2 in the mother tongue.
The classroom next door has a much different atmosphere, with students who have a year of school under their belts, and have learned how to listen in class. Emmanel Tambakwi (who is in training to become literacy co-ordinator for the Ndop Cluster) helps the teacher, Margrette Mbah, by occasionally teaching the reading and writing part of their daily learning. Sitting upright in their chairs, they are quiet and attentive as Emmanel asks for a volunteer to come to the chalk board to write the Bambalang word “vu'u” on the board. Emmanel chooses a petite girl—perhaps the youngest in the class. She gingerly walks to the board, carefully writes the word, turns to Emmanel, hands the chalk back to him before walking back to her seat and sitting back down.
The personality of the class is strikingly polite, just like its teacher. Perhaps one day one of them will be a teacher, just like he is. Maybe this possibility crosses Emmanel's mind as he sits next to a student after class, giving the child the extra attention she needs to thrive.
What Is Multilingual Education?
Bambalang’s Cameroon Baptist Convention (CBC) primary school opened its doors to the multilingual education (MLE) program for Grade 1 students in September of 2013 (adding Grade 2 in 2014, and Grade 3 this fall). It is the first of its kind in the Ndop Plain. Don’t let the name fool you, though; multilingual education is not schooling where the students are taught in multiple languages, but rather it’s an education where students are taught in one language—the language which they are most familiar with—their mother tongue of Bambalang.
Other schools in the Ndop Plain are taught in English, because this is the English part of Cameroon (English and French are the national languages).
At Bambalang’s CBC school, in Grade 1 and Grade 2, oral English is confined to a subject alongside math, science and social studies. The students are taught from lesson booklets based on the Cameroon government curriculum, first developed in Kom (another Cameroonian language group) by Wycliffe personnel in 2009. It was translated from English into Bambalang in 2013.
“These books present the information in an understandable manner using short stories or descriptions, all in the mother tongue,” explains Melody Grove, a Canadian who is the Ndop Cluster literacy specialist. “They don't have to memorize anything. . . . In the English school, the children would struggle to memorize what the teacher had said so they could say it back, but not understand much about what it meant.”
Emmanel says it is crucial for the students to learn first in their mother tongue.
“It’s the language they grew up with,” he says. “It’s the language they know. It’s the foundation of everything. And so you start them with something they know [their mother tongue] and take them to something they don’t know [English], and they will learn very well. But, if you start them in English it would disturb them.”
The MLE program works on the premise that by being taught in the language they know best, the children will be able to learn more effectively. This belief has been proven by the good test results throughout the year. In Grade 4, with a strong base in reading and writing in their mother tongue, the students are ready to transition to full-time classes in English. Developing fluency in English will broaden the students’ career options.
Literacy Is the Great Commission
As these children look up at their gentle-spirited teacher, they don’t know how lucky they are. Well, luck really has nothing to do with it. They are blessed by God. Not everyone feels called to a particular vocation, but their teacher was.
The truth is, Emmanel's childhood was quite rare. His childhood was not like that of kids in most church-attending Bambalang families, who are often involved in both church and traditional ancestral worship. His family was devoutly Christian and his father was a lay pastor.
As early as Emmanel can remember, he had a strong faith in Christ. And it was this devoted trust in God that shaped two God-rooted desires in his heart—first to be a teacher and another to become a pastor, so he could win souls for Jesus Christ.
After graduating from high school he found himself back in Bambalang, teaching mother-tongue literacy to people in the community. When he saw an old church lady reading the Gospel of Luke in her heart language, he realized suddenly the power
“The woman came to class and expressed how her life had been changed,” he says. “I decided that doing literacy will also win souls for Jesus Christ.”
Emmanel was convicted to follow the original desire of his heart—to be a teacher. He realized that teaching children how to read and write opens a gateway to the Word of God in their heart language.
Teachers can only expect a child to sit still for so long in class. During recess at the CBC school, students flood the green grass that is nearly the size of a football field. As much as these children appear to enjoy the gift of learning, recess is where they are in their element. Fifteen minutes can feel like an hour, and a game of tag with friends like an Olympic competition.
Soon, there will be more energetic students like these in the region who are privileged enough to attend school in their mother tongue. This fall the neighbouring community of Bamunka will begin mother-tongue schooling, while other schools have showed interest for the future. The plan is to have multilingual education in each language group in the cluster.
“We hope to see many teachers become involved,” says Emmanel, when asked about the future of literacy in the region. “I want to see people embracing their own language. Cherishing their own language, not cherishing English—their second language.”
When people are able to read for themselves, he explains, they no longer rely on their pastors to learn from God. Instead they can learn and connect with God through the life-changing Word of God in their hands.
“Literacy is something that opens the way for Bible translation. . . . If we invest more in literacy, I think the translated Scriptures will create a lot more impact inside people’s lives.”
Melody Grove, who began helping develop the literacy program in the Ndop cluster in 2002, sees the big picture of teaching children how to read in their mother tongue at a young age.
“Children who learn to read and write their language in Grade 1 and Grade 2 will always be able to read the translated Scriptures in their mother tongue, even when they are adults,” she says. “We know that using mother-tongue Scriptures allows people to understand God's Word and also makes them know that He speaks their language. He is not a foreign God, and He cares about them deeply.”
Today there is hope for the next generation of Ndop children. Perhaps more hope than at any other point in history. With the innocence of childhood, these children are unaware of their blessing. To them it’s all a game. Learning, playing and dreaming go hand-in-hand.
So, they will just keep on playing.