By Peter Mwaura*Guardian
August 21, 2003
Betty Diatta, 34, was attending adult literacy classes near Dakar, the Senegalese capital. The language of instruction was Diola, one of the six local languages the Senegalese government supports in its literacy programmes. But Betty, like many of her classmates, was frustrated. "What use can I make of this language in everyday life?", she demanded.
Betty illustrates the dilemma found all over Africa where French, or English, or Portuguese - languages inherited from the colonial powers - remains the dominant language of the civil service, commerce and academia. Africans with literacy skills in indigenous languages are finding themselves increasingly excluded from the jobs market and even literate social circles.
Throughout Anglophone Africa, English is seen as the key to economic empowerment and progress and is the preferred language of education in African classrooms. This preference has generated an Africa-wide debate - mother-tongue versus second-language education - which Unesco's international literacy institute describes as one of the most important challenges facing African countries this millennium.
Unesco encourages African countries to use indigenous languages for basic education. But pupils and parents seem to believe that a basic education in English, rather than a mother tongue, will give them the upper hand in schooling and the job market.
In a class of 30 at Motse Maria High School, just outside Pietersburg in South Africa, not one pupil wants to be taught in their mother tongue, according to a recent study for the pan south african language board. "We don't find our mother tongue to be that important. You don't make overseas calls in your mother tongue; you don't use it in everyday life. It's not useful," one 16-year-old schoolgirl states.
But research has shown that schoolchildren learn better in their mother tongue - the language they know best - and a start in the vernacular actually enables them to perform better in other subjects as well, including a second language such as English.
This has been ignored in most of Africa. The reasons go beyond the economic value and prestige of English, or what is most pedagogically sound. They are rooted in broad social and political contexts and historical imperative.
English is a colonial language, and it continued to be the official language after independence in virtually all African countries that were under British rule. In some cases it was retained to avoid ethnic tensions; in all cases it was retained because of its prestige and association with power. In contrast, the vernaculars were viewed as backward and inferior so were not developed. Students were made to feel ashamed of their mother tongue and punished for speaking it.
In Kenya, for example, speaking in vernacular was forbidden in schools and punished. One popular method was to embarrass pupils by making them carry around the skull of some dead animal all day.
Today it is difficult to use indigenous languages because they have not been codified and standardised. So there is a shortage of teaching materials and trained teachers in the vernaculars. And this has often been used as an excuse for not adopting the vernaculars in schools.
Even the terms used to refer to vernacular languages are controversial. They include such terms as dialects, minority languages and undeveloped languages - all of which suggest that the languages are not rich in expression and are unsuitable for modern needs.
The long-standing neglect of indigenous languages has resulted in the popular belief that they are incapable of imparting a modern education, including science and technology. The prestigious status of the English language and its dominant role in globalisation, added to the absence of the political will to implement policies that promote the use of indigenous languages, have led to the almost complete marginalisation of mother-tongue education in most of Africa.
A lack of resources and the multiplicity of indigenous languages have also contributed to the problem. Africa's 700 million people speak more than 1,000 distinct languages. In Nigeria, for example, where English still holds sway despite a policy of instruction by mother tongue, around 400 languages are spoken by about 250 ethnic groups.
Aid agencies do not help: they tend to shun projects that do not advance the economic and political interests of their home countries. However, Unesco has teamed up with the World Bank to encourage African governments to review their education policies in order to improve basic education in local languages.
For these policies to work successfully African governments need to enlighten the public about the validity and usefulness of policies that promote education in indigenous languages. They must also demonstrate more serious commitment to promoting those policies themselves, and allocating adequate resources. Otherwise, the promotion of African languages will remain merely rhetorical, and English will continue to take the pride of place at the expense of local languages.
More Information on Globalization
FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C íŸ 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.