[lg policy] English rules in Uganda, but local languages shouldn’t be sidelined
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Thu Nov 5 16:48:59 UTC 2015
English rules in Uganda, but local languages shouldn’t be sidelined
November 5, 2015 5.55am SAST
Lecturer, Department of African Languages, Makerere University
Lecturer in African Languages, Makerere University
Medadi Ssentanda is affiliated with Makerere University and Stellenbosch
Judith Nakayiza does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive
funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this
article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic
The Conversation is funded by the National Research Foundation, the Knight
Foundation and Barclays Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a
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English is Uganda’s official language - but wouldn’t it make sense to adopt
a few more along with it? Joshua Wanyama/Africa Knows
There are 41 living languages in Uganda. But only three are ever mentioned
in debates about the East African nation’s official language: Luganda,
Swahili and English.
All three are controversial, and present an interesting starting point for
a debate around the choices Uganda could exercise in choosing a language
Ultimately, we believe it makes sense for more than three languages to be
elevated to the status of national language. This would hardly be an
unprecedented model on the continent. South Africa has 11 official
languages. Zimbabwe has 15.
The linguistic status quo
English has been Uganda’s lone official language since independence in
1962. In 2005 Swahili, which is foreign and so viewed as being neutral, was
proposed as the country’s second official language. But this has yet to be
ratified by parliament.
Luganda and Swahili are used as languages of inter-ethnic communication.
English dominates all formal communications in the spheres of education,
the judiciary, politics and government.
The official status of Swahili is more symbolic than functional, mainly
because of Uganda’s association with regional intergovernmental body the
East African Community. Swahili features on Ugandan shilling notes and
notices in courts of law. The country’s language policy also prescribes its
use in primary and secondary schools, but many schools disregard this.
Luganda, on the other hand, is the language of the biggest ethnic group in
central Uganda. It works as a language of inter-ethnic communication, of
wider communication and as a lingua franca. It is used in all domains:
education, media and telecommunication, urban hip-hop, trading and in
The status of English
English gained its status as the language for government officials and
aristocrats during the colonial period. It was associated with a higher
social class, status and prestige.
There is no recent census on the use of English. But in 1972, the linguist
Peter Ladefoged revealed that only 21% of Ugandans were able to hold a
conversation in English.
English remains the major medium of instruction despite the introduction of
a local language policy in primary schools. All in all, Ugandans consider
English to be the way to success and a better life.
Swahili as an option
Swahili is an African lingua franca and shares with English the
most influential trans-ethnic language in East Africa.
In 1972, Ladefoged estimated that 35% of Ugandans spoke Swahili fluently.
Today, with no language census data, we can only paint a picture on its
The language has a fraught history in Uganda. By the time European
Protestant explorers arrived in Buganda in 1877, followed by Catholics in
1879, Swahili was used as a language for inter-ethnic communication, in the
courts and as a language for trade in East Africa. In 1928 it was declared
the official language in education and administration. This was met with
stiff opposition from Buganda and bishops who sent a petition to the
colonial secretary. The policy was reversed and Luganda was reinstated as
the official language in the administration.
In Buganda, Swahili was said to be a language of slavery and bondage and
its association with Islam made it a rival to Christianity.
In 1972 during the presidency of the dictator Idi Amin Dada, Swahili was
again declared the national language of Uganda and introduced as a
compulsory language on radio and television. Government employees were
ordered to use Swahili, increasing its use. But the end of the regime also
saw the end of the official use of Swahili.
Although the central region became hostile towards Swahili, in Northern
Uganda it had a different status and image. The inhabitants of Northern
Uganda, for instance, were recruited into the King’s African Rifles from
1902 through to the 1960s to serve in colonial government’s army. Joining
the army was prestigious. When they returned home, they came back with a
new language: Swahili.
Swahili was admired and learnt by the relatives of the army officers. It
spread in the region. Even today Swahili is used in Northern Uganda as a
Unfortunately, despite its long history in Uganda, Swahili has failed to
attain prominence as has happened in other East African countries.
A number of negative attitudes developed about Swahili that have diminished
its status. Its use by undisciplined and unprofessional soldiers during
periods of political unrest between 1970 and 1985 did not help its image;
it became marginalised and associated with torture and theft. Its use in
the army also made it look like a language of command rather than a
language for social interaction.
Although in 2005 Swahili was given a new impetus in Uganda’s national life,
ten years on it still awaits the ratification of parliament.
Luganda – the controversial indigenous tongue
Luganda is the most widely spoken indigenous language and the most widely
spoken second language alongside English. The native speakers of Luganda
are the Baganda, who constitute 18% of the population.
Luganda is spoken primarily in the south eastern Buganda region of the
country, along the shores of Lake Victoria, as well as up north towards the
shores of Lake Kyoga.
Its use has spread to other parts of the country, mainly in the urban
centres where it is used in business, transport, church, media and as the
medium of inter-ethnic communication. Baganda, who belong to Uganda’s
subnational kingdom of Buganda, are both numerically and geographically the
primary ethnic group of the capital city of Uganda, Kampala.
Luganda is one of the first African languages to document the country’s
indigenous history through translations of the Bible, evangelical and
In 1912 it became the official language of the government. In 1928 it was
replaced by Swahili because of complaints from other ethnic groups who
thought Luganda and its speakers were favoured above others. But Buganda
contested this decision and Luganda was reinstated as the official language
of the administration.
Baganda chiefs who became administrators during the colonial time promoted
the use of Luganda even in areas that did not primarily speak Luganda. It
later developed into a language for literacy and education and the language
of the church. Until recently, most parts of Western and Eastern Uganda
used Luganda in church and education.
Recent studies also indicate a preference by locals to use Luganda over
their local languages in education because parents believe that it opens
doors to urban life.
But it has also been repeatedly turned down as the potential national
language. According to speakers of other languages, the strong
ethno-linguistic identity displayed by its primary speakers has acted as a
turn off. Secondly, naming Luganda the national language would be viewed as
favouring the Baganda.
So what’s the solution?
Uganda is not the only country in Africa that has struggled with the
question of national languages. South Africa and Zimbabwe have gone the
multi-language route. Uganda could do the same.
Wouldn’t it be helpful and prudent if, say, Runyoro-Rutoro;
Runyankore-Rukiga, Luganda, Ngakarimajong and Ateso were elevated to
official status? These are the major languages in Uganda and are fairly
representative of all the country’s peoples.
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