[lg policy] What place for African languages in schools?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jul 6 15:29:26 UTC 2012

What place for African languages in

I have thought a lot about the place indigenous languages should occupy in
the education systems in Africa. The answer is of course not going to be
straightforward nor uniform across the continent but it is worth giving it
some thought.
I had the privilege to study in my own native language, French, and from a
very young age, I was made aware that this was indeed a chance not
everybody was given. Here is what Abdulaye Bah from Guinea (Konakry) went

In primary school during the colonial era, it was forbidden to speak one’s
mother tongue. In Pita, Guinea, where I attended primary school, as soon as
we had grasped a certain level of French, if the teacher heard one of the
children speaking his language in the morning, he would hand him what was
known as the token. The first child then had to hand it to someone he had
caught doing the same. At the end of the school day, the teacher would ask
the first kid he had given the token to, who was the second student to get
it and this person would in turn name the next, this until the last student
who was supposed to have the token. The teacher would thus identify all
those who had spoken their mother tongue. He would then split us into two
groups and order us to slap each other. If one of us was a bit reluctant,
the teacher would take over by slapping the child who was considered too

[original post in French by Abdulaye Bah, translation by Marie-Laure Le

My grand-parents told me the very same story (among other humiliations)
about their school days in a remote village of north-western France in the
1930s where Breton was the then dominant language but classes were carried
out entirely in French.

This type of ‘educational’ methods unfortunately didn’t disappear after
African countries gained independence, as testified by Mohamed’s school
experiences in Kenya in the 1990s:

I was in this boarding school where you got caned and/or wore a dunce sign
for speaking anything other than English 6days>>
>>>or Swahili the remaining day. And a primary school at that.
They fancied themselves to be a posh ‘English’ sch of sorts. Too bad it was
in the Dickens mold.

[On Facebook]
Like I mentioned on Twitter, my boarding school (primary) barred us from
speaking anything other than English 6 days/week and Swahili the other day
(the latter aimed at ‘preserving our national language’) and students who
deviated from the above wore a dunce sign and/or were spanked at the end of
the day.

Other schools had an emphasis on English too, though they were not as
strict. Speaking vernacular languages was heavily frowned upon, viewed as
‘backwards’ and divisive.

In Nigeria, the situation does not seem to differ much according to @baroka:

Yes, there were penalties. This was in primary school. Most private schools
have negative attitude to native language use.
Corporal punishment. Sometimes, little fines.

As I was talking to a number of people in my circles, some surprising and
rather encouraging testimonies came up, which again pointed to the fact
that the reality is far from uniform from one school to the next:

Edna from Kenya[sent to me on Facebook]
-) my school mates had an open minded approach we loved Gujarati being in a
predominantly Indian school we were exposed to that we had to say a prayer
every friday in Gujarati

@fowora there were no rules abt langs at recess and many spoke their native
lang. Attitude determined at home tho

Many governments have encouraged the teaching of indigenous languages to
some level, some going as far as offering an African language as the medium
of instruction in the first years of primary school.

The case for teaching indigenous languages in school, especially using them
as the medium of instruction, does however raise some concerns. For
instance, which language is appropriate in a linguistically diverse area?
And what of students who come from a different background and have to catch
up with the local programme?

Rosemary from Nigeria tells us how her cousins were disadvantaged in school
when they returned from the UK without a sufficient knowledge of Yoruba:

My Yoruba cousins left UK for Bauchi, where all pry sch learning was done
in Hausa till year 3/4 so my cousin skipped 3yrs

A lot of these very complex questions are left voluntarily open. I would
love to hear from you, the readers, and know what your ideal language
policy would be like and how you think we can improve attitudes towards
African languages in school.


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