Alice Iddi-Gubbels grew up in northeastern Ghana - the oldest of 17 children and one of the first from her rural village of Bongbini to attend school.
English is the country’s official language, but most of Ghana’s rural population only speaks one of the dozens of local languages. But Iddi-Gubbels started school in an era when educators thrust unfamiliar English-only instruction upon students.
“You were punished if you were caught speaking your mother tongue, your native language,” Iddi-Gubbels says. “I think that made those early years very difficult for the children, especially in the rural language.”
Iddi-Gubbels overcame that challenge, eventually earning a diploma from the University of Ghana, and master’s degrees from the University of Wales in the United Kingdom, and Oklahoma City University. She attributes her success to her father.
“A lot of my mates in the primary school dropped out, but he was really a key player in my continuation,” Iddi-Gubbels says. “But I always have that in mind when I go back home, and I see how my brother’s children, my sister’s children, there is still that struggle.”
That struggle inspired Iddi-Gubbels to start a non-profit organization dedicated to educating children in Ghana. The Oklahoma City-based PAMBE Ghana’s (Partnership for Mother Tongue-based Bilingual Education) model slowly adds English instead of the traditional approach of outright replacing their native language.
“If you are literate in your own language, then it is much easier [and] faster to learn other languages,” Iddi-Gubbels says. “It helps with other subjects, because if you are being taught math, and you don’t know what the word ‘hundred’ means, it’s very difficult to have the concept of our decimal system.”
In the mid-2000s, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supported a project in Southern Ghana to improve reading comprehension through mother tongue-based instruction. Iddi-Gubbels says even though Ghana’s government has started local language instruction for grades 1-3, the actual implementation is still subpar.
“Children would be able to read, but they don’t know what it is,” Iddi-Gubbels says. “You pronounce the words, but what do they mean? So this (USAID) pilot project was really to prove that you need to find a way for the children to learn and to understand the concept in their own language.”
In 2007, PAMBE Ghana built a school to implement their model of adding English to mother-tongue-based instruction, child-focused education based on Montessori principles, and community involvement. The La’Angum Learning Center welcomed its first pre-kindergarten class of 40 students in October 2008.
“La’Angum in the local languages means ‘teamwork’,” Iddi-Gubbels says. “We have a saying – ‘many hands make light work.’ They said, ‘We have worked very hard. It is our school. It’s for our children. But we know that many other people, far away, have also contributed.’”
World Views is a partnership between KGOU and the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies to bring internationally-focused reporting and interviews to listeners in Oklahoma and beyond. Help support these efforts with a donation online.
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Alice Azumi Iddi-Gubbels, welcome to World Views.
ALICE IDDI-GUBBELS: Thank you, thank you for having me.
GRILLOT: Well you've had such an interesting career and background. So many fascinating things that you've done, but one of the things that you're focused on right now in your homeland of Ghana is running an organization called PAMBE. It promotes mother tongue-based bilingual education. So this is very interesting, as we talk in the United States about the importance of language immersion and being bilingual, but what is it that you're focused on? Because you're looking at it from the other side, focusing on the mother tongue-based bilingual education. Why is that?
IDDI-GUBBELS: Well for me, language and culture is your identity. In a lot of the rural areas, nobody speaks English. English is our official language in Ghana, yes, but many, many, many people - 70 percent of the population - live in rural areas, and they speak their local languages. So you start school with your local language. From my own experience when I started school, it was very difficult, because we were supposed to speak English. In fact, you were punished if you were caught speaking your mother tongue, your native language. I think that made those early years very difficult for the children, especially in the rural areas. So mother tongue. Start with what the children come to school with. They come to school with their language. So we start with that, and then we add English. We can add other languages. We add, we don't replace.
GRILLOT: So this seems like something so simple, that you would start where the children know how to communicate, so that they can move toward being bilingual. I think that's a fabulous goal, but to, as you said, replace it at the first day of school. Replace their language. How confusing that must've been for you, and the consequences of that, right? Kids end up being frustrated and not doing well in school, and not doing well in school? Was this your experience?
IDDI-GUBBELS: Exactly. You can sense how it is if I start speaking Mampruli to you. [Mampruli phrase]. It's just like noise. It's very, very difficult. It's very frustrating. And research and experience show that if you start your own language, if you are literate in your own language, then it is much easier, and much faster, to learn other languages.
GRILLOT: Especially at a young age, too. I mean we're talking about children.
IDDI-GUBBELS: Especially at a young age. It helps with other subjects, because if you are being taught math, and you don't know what the word "hundred" means, it's very difficult to have the concept of our decimal system.
GRILLOT: So how were you able to persevere through this? Because you obviously now run this organization that focuses on mother tongue bilingual education, but this was not your experience, as you mentioned, so how were you able to survive that and get to a point...because I think many of your classmates, from what I understand, did not, right? And not only that, but end up going to college and earning master’s degrees and becoming a teacher. How can you overcome such challenges?
IDDI-GUBBELS: You know, the human being is quite resourceful. I think God gives us a lot of resources to draw on. I had a lot of support from my father, actually, who really insisted that I continue school even though it was very, very difficult. A lot of my mates in the primary school dropped out, but he was really a key player in my continuation. But I always have that in mind when I go back home, and I see how my brother's children, my sister's children, there is still that struggle. So when I came here in 2000, I came with my husband who was working with World Neighbors, and I had always had this idea, I want to go back to Ghana and do something in education. At the beginning, it was just "do something in education." So I decided to go back to school. I went to OCU and did a master’s in education. One of the areas I really wanted to explore more was this whole thing about language and culture, and how they're related. And how they can influence learning.
GRILLOT: Well it's such an accomplishment in and of itself what you've done on your own, but then to take that knowledge and that education and go back to your home country in Ghana and start this organization, and begin to educate children in a more, I guess, friendly way, right? So that they can learn more readily at that young age. But what has the reception been in Ghana? How have you been able to convince your fellow citizens in Ghana that this is the best way? How have you been able to convince the government that this is the best way to educate children in your home country?
IDDI-GUBBELS: It's very interesting. At the time, I was getting excited and going back and doing some feasibility studies about whether this is an idea that can fly in my own country. At that time, the government had also just started building a policy for grades 1-3 that the language of instruction in the classroom should be the language of the area where the children come from. So we have it as a policy, but the application is still not up to par.
GRILLOT: But it's interesting that the government made this change on its own. What was behind that? It was just some realization that it education is so critical, obviously, having an educated population, that jumping immediately to a foreign language, basically, was just not acceptable? They come to these terms on their own?
IDDI-GUBBELS: Yes. I think at that time, 2005-2006, maybe 2004, actually I think it was a USID-supported project in two different areas in Southern Ghana too, because it was noticed that the comprehension level, reading and comprehension was very, very poor. Children would be able to read, but they don't know what it is. You pronounce the words, but what do they mean? So this pilot project was really to prove that you need to find a way for the children to learn and to understand the concept in their own language.
GRILLOT: Right. They need to learn English as their second language.
IDDI-GUBBELS: Their second language! So I think the research and the findings were really eye-opening, especially with the development partners like USAID and the British actually coming to help with that kind of research. It brought the realization that it is important to start first with the first language of the children, and then you add. And when I went there, it was interesting going and talking with people about what I was trying to do. There were so welcoming and, and saying "Yes!" because I said, "Look, that's what we have." We have that in our hands. So let's start with that, and then add. You can add as many as you want. But that's what we have.
GRILLOT: To start with that mother tongue. So it made sense.
IDDI-GUBBELS: It made sense. And I visited our traditional leaders, and we had a very active advisory committee set up. There were quite a few people, older educators, who saw this [and said] "Yes, we should do this!" And now our district area, they come to see how we actually practice it in the classroom, because it's a policy, but the application is still...
GRILLOT: Right. So like you said, the implementation of the policy, the application of the policy is still where you struggle. So finally then, what is your hope from here on out? Just working community by community? Rural area by rural area trying to convince and show and demonstrate how and why education and the way it's delivered should be changed? And how hopeful are you that this is going to happen? And in what period of time?
IDDI-GUBBELS: Oh this is interesting. Actually, our program is like an action learning project. The PAMBE Ghana-supported school is called La’Angum. La’Angum in the local language means "teamwork." And we have a saying..."many hands make light work." They said, "We have worked very hard. It is our school. It's for our children. But we know that many other people, far away, have also contributed." So it is really an effort. All of us together. So La’Angum is the name of that school. So there are three things. There is the mother tongue first, and then there is the hands-on approach, child-centered approach, and then the community involvement aspect of it.
GRILLOT: Providing them ownership of that. Well, fascinating story Alice, thank you so much for being with us today on World Views, and best of luck to you and your community in Ghana.
IDDI-GUBBELS: Thank you so much. Thank you.
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