Kenya: Promoting local languages is retrogressive in this new age

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jun 9 01:33:03 UTC 2006

Promoting local languages is retrogressive in this new age

Publication Date: 6/9/2006

I have noted demand on mother tongues and wish to express my disagreement.
I agree with John Mwazemba (DN, May 29) and Patrick Kamau (DN, May 22)
that Kenya is losing its identity and direction. But I dont quite see how
mere promotion of mother tongues will entrench the nations culture and
identity. Writers in vernaculars, including Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o, insist
that it is only through local languages that African ideologies can be
communicated to the people and the cultural content in creative art

But in a culturally diverse country like ours, perhaps what we now need to
focus our attention on is a cohesive and common language that can unify
the people. Since languages are meant to highlight the roots, philosophy,
culture, heritage and communicative needs, I suppose that, if promoted as
a national language, Kiswahili can serve us well. Therefore, in
determining a language direction for this country, I would strongly
advocate English as the official language and Kiswahili as the national

Evidence shows that people understand things better if taught in their
first language. Even then, it is difficult for our generation to determine
exactly what our first language is, especially with the emergence of
other, mixed, languages, including Sheng. With the new generation, the
majority of whom have very little or no touch with their ancestral homes,
it would not be very fruitful to force them to master their ancestral
cultures and languages. Promoting the vernaculars becomes even more
complex when we factor intermarriage into it, which has the potential of
unifying the country and bridging the cultural conflicts.

Moreover, even if we wanted to teach mother tongues in schools, we would
be hard put because there are few vernacular authors. For this country to
effectively compete with others, it is imperative to find our space by
stressing languages that can help us to forge ahead. Many Western
countries are stable in spite of messy politics because they are often
homogeneous in language and culture. China, with its massive population
and a rich culture, now realises the importance of de-emphasising the
local dialects and laying more emphasis on the English language.

In many other Asian, including Middle Eastern, countries, there is a big
demand for language teachers, especially English, at all levels of
instruction. Perhaps, we should learn a lesson from Tanzania, where one's
tribe really doesnt matter. There they see themselves as one nation and
identify as brothers and sisters, all speaking Kiswahili. Therefore, what
we need to do as a country is to de-emphasise the use of vernaculars to
promote a common and unifying language. We need a language policy to
propel us to greater heights of socio-economic gains and for global

George O. Gopal,

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list