Kenya: The key role of national languages in education and training

As we celebrate International Mother Language Day, let’s look at how the Government of Kenya has taken steps to ensure that 18 national languages are being used in the school curriculum, promoting cultural and linguistic diversity.

February 21, 2020 by Lily Nyariki, Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA)
5 minutes read
Students in class at the Nyamachaki Primary School, Nyeri County. Kenya. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Students in class at the Nyamachaki Primary School, Nyeri County. Kenya.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

This is the 2nd blog post in 2020 as part of the collaborative effort between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

“If you know all the languages of the world, and you don't know your mother tongue, or the language of your culture, that is ENSLAVEMENT. But if you know your mother tongue or the language of your culture and add all the other languages of the world to it, that is EMPOWERMENT”
Prof. Ngugi WA Thiong'o

International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

Today there is growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue. They also help strengthen cooperation and support attaining quality education for all, build inclusive knowledge societies, preserve cultural heritage, and mobilize political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development.

Promoting linguistic and cultural diversity in African education systems

For at least five decades, since the 1953 UNESCO Report on The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education, African countries have been struggling to find an effective strategy that allows them to move from an education system inherited from the colonial period to a more transformative and culturally relevant education that takes into consideration African cultures and languages.

In June 2018 in Nairobi, ADEA, in partnership with the Global Book Alliance (GBA), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the African Union Commission (AUC), organized a high-level workshop on National Book and Reading Policies (NBRP) in Africa to support quality education for national development through sustained and improved literacy.

Dr Henry Chakava, a leading Kenyan publisher, presented on “Lost tongues: the struggle to preserve indigenous African languages,” and shed light on the importance of mother tongues in education and training. He pointed out that there are approximately 2,000 African languages, which unfortunately are disappearing, taking with them an entire cultural and intellectual heritage. The same is happening to at least 43% of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken around the world.

Nowadays, in Kenya for instance, six languages have been classified as extinct, and seven others are endangered.

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Panelists in a working group developing course materials in their local language during a workshop in Naivasha organized by KICD. Credit: KICD.
Panelists in a working group developing course materials in their local language during a workshop in Naivasha organized by KICD.

It is in this framework that in the last few years, ADEA – through its Book and Learning Materials Section and its Inter-Country Quality Node on Literacy and National Languages (ICQN-LNL) and strategic partners – has been reiterating the undeniable importance of mother language as a vehicle for broad-based communication and as a formative factor in African educational systems. The use of mother tongues also promotes mutual understanding and the integration of peoples.

The Kenyan case: Local language publishing and education at primary level

In 2018 the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) approved the development of mother tongue learning materials for four communities namely, Gikuyu, Kikamba, Dholuo and Ekegusii. This promoted the development of language activities in these areas.

The new curriculum framework recognizes Kenya as a multi-ethnic community. It further affirms that learning in a language the learners are familiar with will make it easier for them to construct their own understanding and look for meaning in their daily experiences, thus reinforcing their unique strengths.

Under the new curriculum, mother tongue will be taught at pre-primary level, that is, from nursery to grade 3. To this end, KICD organized workshops in November 2019 that brought together experts on indigenous languages.

It is the first time in the curriculum’s history that over 18 local languages are being developed fully such that learners can choose to study their dialects up to the university level. The 18 languages include Abasuba, Turkana, Somali, Pokomo, Maragoli, Kitubheta, Kidigo, Kiitharaka, Giriama, Bukusu, Borana, Kamba, Dholuo, Gikuyu, Kalenjin, Ekegusi, Chiduruma and Maa. Texts will be developed in these languages for use in the classrooms, financed by the government through purchases from local publishers.

Panelists in a working group developing course materials in their local language during a workshop in Naivasha organized by KICD. Credit: KICD
Panelists in a working group developing course materials in their local language during a workshop in Naivasha organized by KICD.

Challenges in local language publications

This move by KICD is commendable as it shows real commitment by the Ministry of Education towards developing mother tongue for educational development. However, a critical stage will be the printing and distribution of these books and this is where capacity issues arise.

Distribution of indigenously published books poses special problems, because indigenous language speakers are concentrated in one area; and where the normal distribution channels such as bookshops and libraries could come in handy, in most cases these are not available.

On the other hand, governments and development partner tenders require publishers to deliver books directly to schools, but this has often become a nightmare for publishers as they do not have the capacity to do so.

We cannot create book awareness and a reading culture without bookshops and community libraries.

A long-term investment in local languages for publishers’ success

Therefore, what is the potential of local languages for publishers? Our view is that opportunities in these languages would come with usage. The case of Kiswahili in Kenya offers a good example. Since it was made a teaching and examinable subject 37 years ago, a lot of opportunities have opened up to disseminate the language through teaching, broadcasting, newspapers, translation, and the writing of books and other reference materials. Kiswahili is now taught at PhD level. This is already happening with Nigerian languages such as Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa too.

To this end, it will be sufficient for the East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) – which has been involved in indigenous publishing since it was founded in 1965 – to make a case for mother tongue writing, publishing and use in Kenya.

EAEP started by publishing original works in Kiswahili and translations from the African Writers Series (AWS) and has since been publishing in English, French, Kiswahili and various national languages and dialects.

Today, it has 1,894 titles on its catalogue: 1,423 titles in English, 10 in French, 360 in Kiswahili and 101 in other African languages. Sales of titles in Kiswahili and other national languages and dialects account for approximately 35% of the company’s total turnover.

Language policies should favor national languages

These statistics show that it is possible to publish successfully in indigenous languages in spite of the challenges described above. A supportive government policy is essential, and one should have the courage, determination and the patience for positive results.

A language policy would make it possible for needed support through incentives or resources set aside to support authors and publishers. This will encourage them to produce quality manuscripts, thus making local language publishing more relevant and attractive.

We should each resolve to do something to save our fast disappearing indigenous languages.

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