Kenya: Multi-Lingualism is Also a Powerful Tool for Economic Integration

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jul 10 13:59:47 UTC 2007

Multi-Lingualism is Also a Powerful Tool for Economic Integration

East African Standard (Nairobi)
8 July 2007
Posted to the web 9 July 2007

By Linet Onyando

Many linguists have argued against multilingual proficiency (the
ability to speak more than two languages) and only a few like Kesinger
and Chomsky consider this a reality.
The two say it is possible for a child to proficiently acquire and
learn more than one language provided this takes place during the
critical period. Though many linguists have argued against the ability
to acquire proficiency in a second language after the critical period,
the motivation behind the urge to acquire a second language is a key
determinant in the ability to learn a new language at whatever stage.

For instance, Europeans visiting Kenya have learned Kiswahili for the
purposes of integration, while Kenyans on international travels have
found it necessary to learn a second language.  In the Kenyan scenario
today, there is a great need for multilingual proficiency. This is
purely in response to the ever-expanding global integration and
instruction. Kenya has, in the recent past, developed a serious
economic relationship with the Arab world. For instance, the
investment of the Libyan oil company (Tamoil Holdings) and the signing
of Bilateral Air Services Agreement (Basa) and many others likely to
follow. Similarly, there are many other Arab countries that may be
interested in dealing with Kenya. This might bring with it the
challenge of what language to use as a lingua franca in dealings
between the two dissimilar worlds.

I agree with Ali Mazrui that there is need to embrace the cultures and
languages embedded in various religions. For instance, the Islamic
religion, which originated from the Asian continent, has its unique
culture and language - the Arabic culture. In addition, it is a high
time Kenya embraced Arabic and encouraged people to learn it for Arabs
make a good number of inhabitants in Kenya. This will bridge the
linguistic gap existing between them and the native Africans in the
country. It is also one way of enhancing peace between Kenya and the
Arab world. For us to achieve vision 2030, there is need to revise our
language policy from the known norm. This is because we are
diversifying our economy and expanding our investments into other
countries that do not necessarily use English.

Arabic, therefore, should be considered as one of the languages of
diplomacy, trade, religion and social integration along with other
major languages of the world.  Since English is widely used in Europe,
Asia, Australia, America and Africa; Arabic, which is used in Asia,
should be considered to enhance linkage with the Arab world

The functions that languages perform in Kenya are the key determinants
of the level of proficiency attained in multilingualism. For instance,
English is used as the language of official communication. This gives
English a higher status, which in itself is a motivation for many
people to learn it so as to become active participants in the society.
It has, however, dawned on many that English alone cannot satisfy all
their communicative needs, especially when dealing with people from
non-English speaking countries. This has led many sectors to invest a
lot in foreign languages in order to satisfy their clients.

For instance, the Tourist Police Unit is currently investing in French
and Spanish to serve tourists who speak these languages satisfactorily
(The Standard July 4. As proposed by Mazrui and Sapir that language is
transmitted alongside culture, the impact of English and its culture
is felt all over Kenya. English has for many years been considered the
only international language. Though there is much to appreciate on the
Western Culture, some elements of it are not compatible with African

Presently the move towards the use of Kiswahili as an international
language, especially within the East African Community, is a step in
the right direction with regard to creating attitude change among the
people. The challenge still remains at the global level. How many
continents are Kenyans capable of interacting with without the need
for translation and/or interpretation? I have to agree with Colman,
who in his book, Language and Economy, states that the more
global/widely a language is used, the faster the development of a
nation because language transmits and transforms the economy. Language
is applied in all the processes of economic transformation; for
instance, processes of production are passed on from one stage to
another through language.

The big question is whether English, Kiswahili or mother tongues alone
are capable of enabling Kenyans acquire technology and/or economic
information from all over the world and disseminate the same to the
local people and the world at large appropriately?
I, therefore, come to the conclusion that Kenyans do not only need
three languages but more languages that will enable them to
effectively communicate and interact with the world. This may be best
achieved by considering the major languages in all the five

The writer is a graduate in Linguistics and Communication from Moi University

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