[lg policy] Why embracing indigenous languages could have major benefits for Kenya
haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Apr 6 11:11:01 EDT 2019
Why embracing indigenous languages could have major benefits for Kenya
- Peter Mose <https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/author/peter-mose> 06th
Apr 2019 00:06:59 GMT +0300
Class one pupils go through their new text books distributed by Kenya
Literature Bureau at Central Primary school in Kisumu county on January
09,2019. The books are competent based curriculum compliant and will help
learners up their academic skills. (Denish Ochieng/ Standard)Kenya is a
multilingual country with more than 42 different indigenous languages. In
addition, foreign languages are used by minorities in major towns and in
some learning institutions. The most dominant foreign language is English
which is an official language alongside Kiswahili.
Foreign languages – especially English – enjoy the highest positive
attitudes in regard to their acquisition and use. To many Kenyans, the
perception is that a knowledge of English is a true sign of having good
Kiswahili, the national language, enjoys widespread acceptance and use.
It’s an inter-ethnic language of communication and generally it is used as
a lingua franca. It is the most common language in Kenyan towns and market
The lowest group of languages in the preference scale are the indigenous
that majority of Kenyans acquire and know well. They are used in homes, in
open-air markets across the country, in worship services and to some extent
in pre-primary and primary schools as co-languages of teaching.
SEE ALSO :The unsung heroes of our mother tongues
But perceptions might gradually shift with the inclusion of these
indigenous languages in Kenya’s new curriculum. The country’s
language-in-education policy states that indigenous languages should be
used to teach children from grade one up to three. This policy has been in
existence from 1976. But the lack of enforcement means that discussions
about the importance of the use of indigenous languages in schools is still
Kenyan language scholars have for decades advocated and written about the
role mother tongues should play in the country. The challenge has been that
those who champion this approach don’t control public resources. The result
is that nothing ever gets done about it.
But that might be about to change with the launch of the competence
based curriculum already under implementation in grades one up to three.
The new school system places emphasis on developing learner abilities
rather than preparing learners to pass national examinations as has been
It is an approach that puts the student at the centre of learning
activities and in which mother tongues are likely to assume fresh
SEE ALSO :4 reasons you should learn your mother tongue
The importance of the rebirth of the use of indigenous languages in schools
in Kenya cannot be overemphasised. It could have a profound effect on
children’s educational outcomes, as well as much broader beneficial effects
on the Kenyan society.
Research shows overwhelmingly that mother tongues are the most ideal tools
for early child education. In a variety of countries -- such as South
Africa, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea -- studies indicate that the mother
tongue medium is the best for early school education. This is particularly
true in Sub-Saharan Africa where research has shown that early education
based on a child’s mother tongue gives them a head start in their literacy
and language learning. A study conducted in Ethiopia recently, for
instance, indicates that pupils who transition to English medium of
instruction in grade five perform better in mathematics. The findings
corroborate those in South Africa.
Research findings commissioned by international organisations including
UNESCO and World Bank concur that a mother tongue is the best language in
early school learning. For instance, UNESCO indicates that mother tongues
are the best sociologically, psychologically and educationally for children
entering primary school.
Kenya’s new curriculum could boost the use of mother tongues quite
Firstly, the methodology itself is likely to affect language use.
The curriculum is designed to build learner capacities by putting pupils at
the centre of learning activities. This implies the use of language to name
things, to discuss with the teacher and fellow pupils. Majority of lower
primary school pupils usually join school with their mother tongues and
this is the only resource they have to negotiate ideas.
The use of mother tongues to do this makes a great deal of sense. And also
suggests that using English at grade one for children in rural and other
areas is inappropriate.
Secondly, new various languages have been published to meet the demands of
the new curriculum. At Kisii University recently, a publisher launched
literacy books in Ekegusii, the predominant language in both Kisii and
Nyamira counties. Materials for other indigenous languages for use in the
new curriculum are being developed. The publication of literacy materials
promises a rebirth of the use of these languages in the school system. This
might help preserve many local languages from extinction.
There could be broader benefits to society too.
Firstly, children will have an opportunity to acquire and develop their
mother tongues. Very early introduction to second languages is in some
cases to blame for the poor language mastery of most young people – they do
not know any of the languages they speak competently. Secondly, it will
improve early literacy outcomes in primary schools.
Recent research indicates that majority of pupils entering grade four have
literacy skills below expectations. Researchers attribute this to premature
introduction of pupils, especially from rural areas and informal
settlements-into the English medium
Thirdly, the new curriculum provides for the study of indigenous languages
as career subjects later on. This implies that learning the languages might
be sources of employment like in working as interpreters, book writers,
teachers and as linguists.
Fourth, it will make Kenya a truly multilingual society. Contrary to
arguments about many languages breeding tribalism, a country with a
multilingual and multicultural ethos is a truly cohesive society; the
population grows to appreciate others as different and not as good or bad.
Finally, counties might consider making some indigenous languages as
additional official languages.
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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