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Why mother tongue is still supreme

By | February 17th 2010

By Wachira Kigotho

Two weeks ago, the last speaker of Bo, an ancient language in India’s Andaman Islands, died and with her ended a 70,000 year-old heritage.

The importance of the demise of Boa Sr is significant to us in that her language originated from Africa. She died when a conference on the Integration of African Languages and Cultures into Education was going on in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

The conference was jointly organised by the World Bank backed Association for the Development of Education in Africa, Unesco’s Institute for Lifelong Learning and Burkina Faso Ministry of Basic Education and Literacy. Attended by delegates from 26 African countries, the conference was setting the agenda for advocacy against marginalisation of African languages in education.

According to Ms Odile Bonkoungou, Burkina Faso’s Minister of Basic Education, whereas over 2,500 African languages are spoken in the continent, they are satellites of foreign languages. Putting a strong case for promotion of multilingual education, Bonkoungou said: "Let us return to our African roots and not persist in our colonial past."

Improve quality

Rooting for integration of African languages at all levels of the education system, Assistant Minister for Education, Ayiecho Olweny amplified the vital role of using local languages to improve quality and access to education. "Such policies will enable our countries to forge an identity not based on European languages," said Olweny

The clamour for mother tongue instruction is based on the premise that children would learn faster building upon the existing knowledge base. Studies carried across Sub-Saharan Africa in Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania show local languages could be effectively used to teach literacy, science and mathematics.

Projected gains

But despite such projected gains, attempts to introduce multilingualism in Africa’s education system will be strongly resisted by local elites.

Dr Neville Alexander, a professor of language policy at the University of Cape Town, says foreign language-based education system has served those elites well and they are not ready to lose their social economic dominance through academic reforms.

"Post-colonial elites are prepared to do no more than pay lip service to the promotion of multilingualism or development of the marginalised local languages, but they are comfortable with the status quo maintenance syndrome," says Alexander. The issue is that most of those elites, basically living in urban areas have managed to tame foreign languages such as English, French and Portuguese to their advantage.

For instance in cities such as Dakar, Luanda, Johannesburg, Maputo and Nairobi, there are many elites who consider English, French or Portuguese as their first language or mother tongue.

"Such people are very proud of foreign languages and they aptly refer to them to as our ‘language of the home," says Adama Ouane, the director of Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning.

Unfortunately, where about 48 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries have a language that is spoken by over 50 per cent of the population as a mother tongue, only between 10 and 15 per cent of the population in most African countries are fluent in metropolitan colonial languages. These are the languages that dominate the education systems, effectively establishing intellectual dictatorship of a minority elitist group.

Moreover, early education in local languages may be a good thing, but it is also likely to be opposed by the same people it is expected to benefit. In most African countries, parents and teachers in rural areas regard foreign languages as key to success.

Decades and even centuries of marginalisation have created deep-rooted prejudice in the minds of many Africans towards their own languages. "Many people have come to accept that ‘real’ education can only be obtained in a world language such as English," says Ayo Bamgbose, a professor of African languages at University of Ibadan.

Bamgbose who is a key member of the team that drafted the position paper that was discussed at Ouagadougou argues the negative attitude towards indigenous African languages rests on the idea of the superiority of colonial languages and cultures.

African languages are perceived as carriers of primitive idioms with communicative value only to illiterate hunters and gatherers, farmers and pastoralists.

Improve quality

Amid efforts to improve quality of education in Sub-Saharan Africa, the conference urged the Academy of African Languages which is a specialised affiliate of the African Union to sensitise governments on the importance of local languages. According to Unesco, Africa is the only continent in the world where children go to school and are forced to speak a language that is completely different from that of their families.

For instance, recently when Ghana entered the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), it emerged at the bottom of the ranking index out of 59 participating countries. Botswana and South Africa were other countries that performed poorly, but they were also the countries whose pupils did those tests in foreign language. The issue is that many African children are confronted with foreign languages as they enter school and some never develop adequate literacy skills even after six and seven years of schooling. To survive harsh punishment from inept teachers, such children learn to obey and to keep quiet and never answer questions. Eventually, many children sink into apathy and become indifferent and finally drop out of school.

The vital role of African languages goes beyond their presence in classrooms. According to Dr Anthony Aristar, professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University, a language is not just words and grammar. "It is a web and a network that binds together people who speak the language," says Aristar.

As education experts reflect on language usage in schools, they have also to contend with the issue of survival and preservation of local languages. At risk are those languages that have not been reduced into writing. Unesco predicts in the next 100 years, over 90 percent of African languages will become extinct.

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