[lg policy] Kenya: To teach in vernacular or not; that ’s the question

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Sep 21 14:17:13 UTC 2009

To teach in vernacular or not; that’s the question

By DAVID ADUDA  Posted Sunday, September 20 2009 at 16:50

Local languages are not only transitive instruments in basic
schooling, but a lasting feature of the entire education system. At
the core of the debate was the question: Is the current policy that
stipulates that children in lower primary school be taught in their
mother-tongue viable?  Answering a question raised by Nominated MP
Millie Odhiambo, Education Assistant minister Ayiecho Olweny fumbled
about language policy and catchment areas, but failed to clarify
issues. The debate about the language of instruction has a long
history, dating back to the colonial times. Way back in 1949, the
colonial government set up a committee under one L. J. Beecher, to
examine the scope, content and methods of an education system for

It recommended, among other things, the use of mother-tongue, arguing
that this would encourage more African children to enrol and remain in
school and ultimately, master the skills to enable them proceed to the
subsequent levels. The beecher report's conclusion that “the most
effective medium of instruction in the preliminary stage of a child’s
education is his mother-tongue”, did not go down well with African
leaders, who saw it as a tactic to condemn their children to inferior
education.  But in 1953, Unesco was to buttress the Beecher Report’s
argument, stating thus: “It is axiomatic that the best medium of
teaching a child is his mother-tongue. Psychologically, it is the
system of meaningful signs that in his mind works automatically for

The language debate was to resurface again in 1964 when the
independent government set up the Kenya Education Commission, headed
by Prof Simeon Ominde, which vouched for the use of English and
Kiswahili in the education system. The Ominde Report argued that
mother tongues were not suited for modern schools. Even then, there
were various efforts to entrench local language learning in the
system. The Ministry of Education was to later issue guidelines asking
schools to use the language of the catchment area in lower primary.
This meant the use of mother-tongues in rural schools and English and
Kiswahili in urban and other heterogeneous settings.

Informing the language policy is evidence from education psychology
and sociology. Learning starts from the known to the unknown. A child
coming right from home is only familiar with the language used within
that setting. Naturally, it follows that introducing that child into a
school system requires the use of a familiar language, which is where
the mother-tongue comes in.  Thus, the use of mother-tongue is meant
to encourage all children to enrol and stay in school. It ensures that
no child misses school because of an intimidating foreign language.
Granted, the challenge that Ms Odhiambo and other MPs, and even the
general public, are grappling with is: does the mother-tongue policy
serve the national interest? Does the use of mother-tongue
disadvantage some children given that national exams are set in
English and Kiswahili?

Kenya’s demography is changing fast. More people are moving to live in
multi-cultural set-ups in towns and semi-urban settlements.
Inter-marriages and other social dynamics mean that mother-tongues are
no longer tenable as instruments for teaching. National exams that are
set in English and Kiswahili are competitive as they determine social
mobility. Theoretically, children exposed to English and Kiswahili
earlier have a headstart over those who started off learning in
vernacular.  But this is not entirely true. There is ample evidence
that children who learnt in their mother-tongue in early years are not
disadvantaged. Good performance is determined by many factors such as
the learning environment, quality of teaching and resources.

Not only are local languages transitive instruments in basic
schooling, but a lasting feature of the entire education system. In
fact, in 2001 Kenya’s Council for Higher Education prepared an
ambitious report requiring universities and national polytechnics to
incorporate local languages in their curriculum. In our case, we need
to confront the question: How do you reconcile a situation where there
are children who risk missing out on school due to use of foreign
languages, on the one had, and putting them at risk of doing badly in
exams due to poor mastery of national languages they learnt later in
life? In sum, the debate about the language of instruction in schools
boils down to poor policy interpretation and ineffective curriculum

daduda at nation.co.ke


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