Wanted: Fit for purpose language policy in Kenya

Shipping and Maritime Principal Secretary Nancy Karigithu has been under fire, especially from coastal leaders and scholars, following her remarks that lack of basic English language skills inhibits Coastal youth from getting maritime jobs in foreign shipping lines.

Unless the youth are able to cultivate proper English skills, the PS observed, they will continue to miss out on lucrative jobs in the blue economy. Coastal scholars, led by Prof Halimu Shauri, have termed the remarks as ‘marginalisation and discrimination’ of coastal people. Be that as it may, I think Karigithu’s remarks point to a much broader issue that Kenya, and indeed other African countries, needs to confront, namely: A fit for purpose language policy.

In the 21st century, learning is at the heart of the modern world’s endeavours to become a knowledge economy. It is the key to empowering individuals to be today’s world producers and consumers of knowledge. It is essential in enabling people to become critical citizens and to attain self-fulfillment. It is a driver of economic competitiveness as well as community development. Good quality learning is not only about becoming more competent, polyvalent and productive, but also about nurturing diversity and being well rooted in one’s culture and traditions, while adapting to the unknown and being able to live with others. This kind of learning entails developing curiosity and responsible risk-taking.

The issue of language in education has been a contentious one ever since former colonies in Africa, Asia and South America gained their political independence. For instance, in its landmark publication in 1953, Unesco underscored the importance of educating children in their mother-tongue. Undoubtedly, language and communication are two of the most important factors in the learning process.

In addition, ‘The Global monitoring report on education for all’ has underlined the fact that worldwide, the choice of the language of instruction and language policy in schools is critical for effective learning. In a groundbreaking study on quality of education in Africa carried out by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, the language factor emerged strongly as one of the most important determinants of quality.

Yet, more than 50 years since the first Unesco statement, and despite a plethora of books, articles, numerous conventions, declarations and recommendations addressing this issue, including a range of conclusive experiments of using local languages in education and polity, most African countries continue to use the former colonial languages as the primary languages of instruction and governance.

Africa is the only continent where the majority of children start school using a foreign language. Across Africa the idea persists that the international languages of wider communication (Arabic, English, French, Portuguese and Spanish) are the only means for upward economic mobility. There are objective, historical, political, psycho-social and strategic reasons to explain this state of affairs in African countries, including their colonial past and the modern-day challenge of globalisation. There is a lot of confusion that is proving hard to dispel, especially when these are used as a smokescreen to hide political motives of domination and hegemony.

Africa’s marginalisation is reinforced by its almost complete exclusion from knowledge creation and production worldwide. It consumes, sometimes uncritically, information and knowledge produced elsewhere through languages unknown to the majority of its population. The weakness of the African publishing sector is just one example.

Ninety-five per cent of all books published in Africa are textbooks and not fiction and poetry fostering the imagination and creative potentials of readers. Africa has the smallest share in scholarly publishing, which is mirrored by the international Social Science Citation Index which, despite its cultural bias, covers the world’s leading scholarly science and technical journals in more than 100 academic disciplines. Only one per cent of the citations in the Index are from Africa.

It should, of course, be acknowledged that there are brilliant African elites that have tamed the formerly colonial languages so masterfully that they have appropriated these languages and contribute skillfully and creatively to the development of new knowledge, integrating sometimes African reality or reading the world from African perspectives.

However, an African Renaissance calls for a deeper understanding of and greater resort to African know-how, values and wisdom, and a new lens through which to read the world and participate in the sharing of knowledge and use of technologies to open up new paths and ways of living.

Africa’s multilingualism and cultural diversity is an asset that must, at long last, be put to use. Multilingualism is normality in Africa. In fact, multilingualism is the norm everywhere. It is neither a threat nor a burden. It is not a problem that might isolate the continent from knowledge and the emergence of knowledge-based economies, conveyed through international languages of wider communication.

Consequently, the choice of languages, their recognition and sequencing in the education system, the development of their expressive potential, and their accessibility to a wider audience should not follow an either-or principle, but should rather be a gradual, concentric and all-inclusive approach. So, no PS Nancy Karigithu, proficiency in the English language is not a badge of honour for Kenyan youth.

Dr Wanjawa teaches at Pwani University