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Are African languages important for education?

Zambian primary schools now start by teaching in mother tongue
Zambian primary schools now start by teaching in mother tongue

It’s now widely accepted that nursery and primary school children do best when taught in their mother tongue. But what about for older children in Africa, who normally learn in the national language? Laurinda Luffman investigates.

In Zambia, the government has just rolled out a new education programme which requires state schools to teach the youngest primary school pupils (grades 1–4) in their mother tongue. So in the capital, Lusaka, pupils in some areas returned to school this January and found their teachers giving lessons in Chewa (also known as Nyanja). This was the cause of great excitement for one young boy in Lusaka who admitted he found it easier to learn in the language he spoke at home.

This is a significant step for the Zambian government, though schools face many challenges to implement the new directive. According to Zambian teachers, the main problem is a lack of materials and resources in local languages, as well as a shortage of fluent speakers among staff at some schools.

But there’s no doubting the reasons behind the change. As early as 1953, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) urged African countries to educate children in their mother tongue. Numerous studies have shown that teaching in a child’s native language is one of the key factors in determining the quality of learning and educational achievement.

Starting with the mother tongue

The practice of teaching in the mother tongue has therefore been spreading across the African continent. UNESCO commissioned a survey in 2004 and found that 70–75% of learning in nursery and early primary years was conducted in African languages. However, only 176 different languages were represented, when there are well over a 1000 spoken across the continent as a whole. And by secondary, UNESCO found that only 25% of basic education was being taught in local languages, with just 5% at higher education level.

zambia-school-lusaka-a.jpgMany African parents, as well as African governments, believe it’s important for older pupils to be immersed in the official language of their country, particularly when this language is internationally recognised. So for example, in Rwanda, while Kinyarwanda (spoken by most Rwandans) is used for the main language of instruction during the first three years at primary school, from grade 4 onwards primary school pupils should be taught in English. End-of-primary school exams are also set in English.

Since French was the official main language in Rwanda up until 2008, the country’s education system has had to cope with huge changes over recent years in the shift to English. A shortage of qualified English-speaking teachers and a lack of resources and materials in English have been the main problems. However, the Rwandan government is firm in its belief that pupils should adopt English as early as possible. English is seen as important for building a new unified national identity and ensuring that Rwandans can take advantage of growing trade with the Anglophone East African Community, as well as internationally.

Only time will tell

But the fact remains that only around 4% of Rwandan families speak English at home. And those who do tend to be in the capital or other main cities, while the majority of rural Rwandans continue to use Kinyarwanda. Taking secondary school entrance exams in English at grade 6 therefore proves immensely challenging for many children and some educationalists say the adoption of English discriminates against a whole sector of rural Rwandan society.

The 2010 UNESCO study – ‘Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education’ – supports this view. The study argues that not only should local African languages be used at primary level, it’s also vital for mother-tongue education to be retained at secondary and higher education levels. This is because it’s easier for teachers to convey and for pupils to grasp more complex ideas, such as in science and maths, when using the language with which they’re most familiar. Where teachers have to give lessons in a less familiar language, they really need training in second language teaching to give lessons competently.

Children at school in RwandaIn addition, research suggests three to four years is not long enough for primary school pupils to acquire enough knowledge of a second language to use it as their main language of learning. So for example one study found that year 5 students who had to switch from Setswana to English knew only around 800 words in English on average, but needed 7,000 to be able to follow the year 5 curriculum. Other studies have shown that girls in particular are slower to answer in a language less familiar to them for fear of being ridiculed. According to the World Bank, girls are therefore more likely to participate in class when learning in their mother tongue.

Despite all the evidence, there is clearly some way to go before African parents and governments are persuaded that keeping African languages in school at higher levels is beneficial. But until dual-language education becomes more widely accepted, many children may be failing key exams who might otherwise have passed with flying colours.

SOS Children has worked in Africa for over four decades, providing a new home to children who cannot live with their family. Today, we support the most vulnerable children in 45 African countries, including Zambia and Rwanda. Find out more about our work there...