Kenya: universities accused of killing African languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 23 12:18:58 UTC 2006

Universities accused of killing African languages

By Stephen Korir

UNIVERSITIES obsession with foreign languagess, as well as inadequate
reference materials on African mother tongues has undermined the
development of African languages. The investment, use and promotion of
international languages in tertiary institutions as well as the
universities has been overemphasised at the expense of Africas diverse
mother tongues. Schools, middle level training colleges and universities ,
particularly in East and Central Africa, have also contributed to the
dismal performance by students in languages during examinations. The
practice has also limited a large proportion of learners to a few
international languages by failing to mount courses in a wider scope of
foreign languages.

These sentiments were expressed at a regional conference on language
policy and education held recently at a city hotel. Many publishers are
said to shy away from printing mother tongue publications due to perceived
limited readership, an issue that is compounded by urban societies
averseness to their children speaking their first languages. Universities
and tertiary institutions, it was noted, have failed to pioneer centres
for teaching and promotion of the use of Africas multiple languages in the
international fora. Maseno University which recently launched a faculty of
African language studies was hailed as the only one attempting to
inculcate a culture of promoting african languages. Participants at the
Regional conference were consistent in their calls for the need to
strengthen teaching of first languages long neglected history hence
joining the books of the least developed or rather less used in the
process rendering them useless for many professionals.

The participants further stressed the need for nurturing more courses on
foreign languages such as Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish among
other widely spoken languages of the developed countries to enable local
people compete with their counterparts at the same level for the various
opportunities in this era of globalization. Mother tongue was seen as the
appropriate medium of communication by the children at early stages of
development and lower primary classes in particular as it was the only
language they may express themselves in freely since thinking as a process
is expressed through language and the more the communication skills, the
more likely that the child will be empowered to think and express opinions
and experiences. Use of mother tongue not only enables the children to
start embracing their culture and values, but also facilitates smooth
transition from home to school environment ensuring that child develops a
sense of self confidence to participate freely in all activities

Local languages should also no longer be seen as useless as they are also
are also becoming resourceful owing to the outside worlds growing
interests in the fields of theology, history, singing and literature of
the particular communities as explained by one of the speakers. Those
proficient in spoken and written versions of these languages can land jobs
as translators, writers and even mass communications industry especially
in this advent of vernacular stations. The increasing rural to urban
migration too provides another opportunity for those who have mastered
first or mother tongue languages to utilise them for gain by way of
tuition to the children whose parents feel they risk losing touch with
their communities a programme pioneered by some parents in the city.

According to Education PS Prof. Karega Mutahi, the government is focused
more on development of these languages through the production of quality
learning materials. According to the PS all mother tongues are recognised
as unique and with roles to play in the development and the adult life of
the children. He regretted that teachers handling mother tongue classes
(1-3) did not benefit from any formal training in the teaching of such
languages during their training adding that the situation was compounded
the poor reading culture amongst pupils in upper primary classes,
secondary and even teachers apathy to literature in mother tongue. As a
way forward, the conference resolved that publishing of reference
materials on all the languages be encouraged and self study reading
culture be promoted amongst all learners was further felt that there is
need for a regional language policy on Kiswahili as one of the widely
spoken languages in East and Central Africa. .

Kenya's language policy on education stipulates that the particular
catchment language be used as the medium of instruction at the Early
Childhood Development Centre and the lower primary level . It is also
recommended that English be taught during a pupils formative stages so as
to lay a sound foundation for pursuing future prospects in various spheres
of life.

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