parent teaching child

The future of African languages in Education

The latest issue of Jalada, an online magazine that focuses on African literature, contains a story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and its translation into 30 other African languages. This makes it the most translated story in Africa.

I managed to read this story in five of the translated languages: English, Kiswahili, French, Sheng and Naija Languej. I should have been very proud of myself. Five languages is quite something and not many people can boast that. However, I felt disappointed because I could not read the story in Lubukusu which is my ethnic language, the language that should have been easiest for me to understand. It is quite funny that I could not grasp the words of a language that is used at home but I flowed easily with languages that are used out there away from my immediate environment.

I grew up in a multi-ethnic community. It was a salad of different languages coming together and so the only way children could learn their mother tongue was if they used it at home. In our house Kibukusu, or in its greater Kiluhya context, was used as a secret code for the grown-ups. If our parents wanted to communicate something to each other that they did not want us to understand, our native language was their go-to.

Going to school, anyone who had an accent from speaking their mother tongue was made fun of and even in some cases punished because only the official languages were to be used. This caused a rift, a strained relationship between my classmates and our mother tongues. If you ask my agemates whether they can understand their ethnic languages, a few will say they can listen and understand when it is spoken but they cannot speak it well.

As cousins we once made an effort to learn the Luhya language. We had a classroom setting with chairs and exercise books ready to learn it from my grandfather who became our teacher. Being the holiday season and the necessity of learning kiluhya through immersion and not formally as we do with other languages, we quickly abandoned the classes.

The Patashule Library realises the importance of African languages in the future of our nation. We acknowledge the challenges that comes with adopting African languages. For example, our country Kenya has about 42 different languages. How do we ensure none of them goes extinct considering the inter-tribal relations going on and glibalisation which advantages international languages to our own local languages.

We sought this answers from Professor Wandia Njoya, the head of the Department of Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University who helped us understand where we are as a nation and as a continent at large. This is what she had to say:

My position on Kenyan languages in education is the same as that of Cheikh Anta Diop – the Senegalese scientist.
Diop says that Africa should invest in 3 or 4 main international languages. He says that if we do that, the other thousands of African languages will not suffer as much as they do when we teach in French or English.
Take for example Kiswahili. Because Kiswahili is closer to other Kenyan languages than English or French, a kid doesn’t have to struggle to learn Kiswahili as much as they struggle to learn English. Kiswahili also co-exists better with other Kenyan languages, because the cultures, history and people are still roughly the same.
English, however, requires such a psychic and cultural leap, that learning it makes learning other Kenyan languages suffer.  You have to start knowing the culture of Britain and US to understand many of its expressions. You have to learn new histories. That’ why Kenyan parents think that one must learn either English or Kiswahili or vernacular, but not all three. But that notion is false. Research shows that kids under the age of six can learn to speak up to 6 languages fluently.
Diop says that that leap also delays African children’s learning of science. A six-year old French kid will learn maths faster because it is taught in his or her vernacular. An African kid first has to learn English or French before learning math and other science.So if an African kid could learn science in Kiswahili, Wolof or Yoruba, it would take a shorter time, even if those languages would not necessarily be their vernacular.
Based on that, I believe that we should invest in Kiswahili because it is widely spoken, not only in Kenya but in 8 other countries. Unfortunately, we like to be idealistic and romantic and say all Kenyan languages can be taught in school, but to me that is just identity and political bravado. It’s not practical. We have to be realistic. First, we need a language that extends national borders, not just our ethnic ones. There’s a saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy – meaning that any language can become a national or international language if it has political and economic power behind it. Kiswahili can be that language. The reason Kiswahili has taken so long to become the language of science and academia, even after Tanzania made it the language of instruction, is because Kenya – the stronger economic country in the region – didn’t join Tanzania.
Second, investing in Kiswahili will protect the academic and scientific development of other African languages, rather than English which does the opposite.
My position on Kenyan languages is simple – let us put our money where our mouths are. We sing about the importance of our languages, but our universities are not training teachers who would teach those languages and in those languages. The linguistics departments are shrinking because universities, parents and students think journalism and PR are better careers. I’ve nothing against those careers, but a country can’t survive on them alone. Linguists are the people who translate scientific, technical and academic documents. But it takes decades and money to train and pay them for that work. The government needs to look beyond immediate profit and invest in translation and research.
The other thing we should do is have a language policy. Ideally, it would aim at all citizens being able to communicate in Kiswahili, English and a third Kenyan language. The counties can take care of the third language, but the national government can take care of English and Kiswahili.
You may be surprised when I say English should still be taught. That’s because, we can say all we want about cultural pride and mkosa mila ni mtumwa, but when push comes to shove, parents want their kids to have access to many opportunities. The reality is the English remains the global language of commerce and power. That’s why it hasn’t been overtaken by the Chinese. If we refuse to teach kids English in school, we will have a scenario where the rich Kenyans will send their kids to schools abroad so that they can learn English. That’s what happened with the Tanzania elite.

I think our main problem as Kenyans is that we’ve over politicized language and made it solely an issue of identity and tribal dominance, when there are issues like academics, training, translation, power, class and international reach, that also need to be considered. The politicians like it that way, because making us focus on identity means that our voting patters remain solely ethnic. I look forward to when we have policy makers who are not so obsessed with proving a point to our former colonial masters or keeping us in cultural cocoons, and who take a more sober look at language and education.


photo of Wandia Njoya borrowed

photo of Wandia Njoya adopted from