What place for African languages in schools?

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 through:

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 soft.

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

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.

6 thoughts on “What place for African languages in schools?

  1. In independent Africa, the attempts to introduce native languages in the school programs in some cases failed because there was not a proper information directed to the nation to obtain the awareness of the importance of these languages nowadays. Often, secondary political objectives were attributed to these attempts, because of the lack of information.

  2. This is an interesting debate. Maybe there will be no African languages spoken in school in the future. My son had problems when he started school because he spoke too much of Swahili and little English. They dont even teach Swahili at the school which I found rediculous. But you have teachers speaking English tainted with their mothertoungue. This world…this colonial residues…

  3. very interesting subject this! since primary school we were punished or caned if found we were Swahili speakers. i myself am ashamed that much as i like writing, i am a little useless at writing my ow language yet i am so fluent in English! its also a pity that even though Swahili was declared the national language, it is all pretty much the same. there is so much pressure to be perfect at English.

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