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Daily Nation : February 8th 2014
26 | Weekend LANGUAGE POLICY | Okoth Okombo By all means, teach children in their mother tongue W riting on what he calls ‘The Language of Instruction Co- nundrum in Africa’, Ghanaian scholar Prof Kwesi Kwaa Prah (2009) says: “Of all the problems we face in African education today, the most nettlesome appears to be the question of language of instruction.” Prof Prah and I have shouted at each other on this issue on several occasions, not because we disagree in principle, but because he is an extremist who would like African languages to be used “for the entire educational system”, arguing that “the three to four year foundation is only meant to prepare African children to later use of the colonial languages.” I share Prah’s feelings on the unfortunate situation in which we Africans find ourselves as far as language policy is concerned. It is such concerns that drove me in 2001 to dedicate my professorial inaugural lecture to matters of language policy in a University of Nairobi public address entitled ‘Language Policy: The Forgotten Parameter in African Development and Governance Strategies.’ I discussed various lan- guage policy options and recommended for Kenya and other countries in similar multilingual situations a three-language model comprising: one, an international language of wider communication (e.g. English); two, an intra-national language of wider communication (e.g. Kiswahili); and, three, a sub-national community language (read, ethnic language), which will be a language of instruction for at least four years of elementary education (during which time the two languages of wider communication are compulsory subjects). Three-language models are seen as the desirable minimum for multilingual countries such as Kenya. Extremists like Prof Prah would want to completely replace international (usually former colonial) languages with indigenous languages as languages of instruction. In the Kenyan debate, the contentious issues revolve around the thinking that using children’s mother tongues (or languages of the catchment area) as languages of instruction in the initial stages of primaryschool-education will (i) not promote the spirit of national cohesion, (ii) in some undefined sense, be retrogressive, (iii) impede mastery of the curriculum, and (iv) put the rural learners at a disadvantage relative to their urban counterparts for whom the language of instruction will be Kiswahili or English from the very beginning. On the national cohesion question, it needs to be repeated that people never fight one another simply because their languages are different. There are always fundamental issues based on real or perceived lack of equity in the distribution of power, infrastructure, jobs and business opportunities. Language simply serves as an easy signal of the boundaries around which the battle On the national cohesion question, it needs to be repeated that people never fight one another simply because their languages are different” lines are drawn. Our political leaders, who often appeal to ethnic sentiments, are well educated Kenyans many of whom went to the same prestigious public schools. They are not ordinary villagers who speak only their mother tongues. Concerning the claimed retrogressive nature of the policy, one can only marvel at the distorted thinking behind this claim. The path of progress for our education and the democratic participation of the Kenyans in development discourse is in the use of more and more of our indigenous languages, while leaving the necessary space for international languages. Concerning the fear that the use of our indigenous languages in the initial stages of school education may impede the mastery of the curriculum, it is important to remember that most of our current professors had all their education up to Primary Four conducted in mother tongue. Indeed, to use my own example, I only started learning English in Primary Three. The situation recommended in the controversial policy involves starting the teaching of English and Kiswahili as subjects at the very beginning of early SATURDAY NATION February 8, 2014 Caine Prize picks ‘next Bulawayo’ school education. The language of instruction policy is about the language used to teach children, who still do not understand English, nonlanguage subjects such as religion and environmental education. The policy requires that such subjects be taught in languages that the learners acquired at home so that they may understand what their teachers are saying. This is to go on for three years to give the children time to learn English enough for it to be used as the language of instruction in the rest of their schooling. Even though I started learning English in Primary Three, there is no indication that it placed me at any significant educational disadvantage relative to my agemates who grew up in Nairobi and Kampala. Of course, curriculum de- velopers must give teachers guidance on how to go about the implementation of the policy in the classroom. On that there can be no controversy. Professor Okoth Okombo teaches at the department of Linguistics and Languages, University of Nairobi BY JOHN KIBET The race for this year’s Caine Prize hit the homestretch this week when the list of judges was unveiled. Award-winning author Jackie Kay will chair the panel that will sift through the short stories submitted last month. Buoyed by 2013 nomina- tion of one of its past winners, NoViolet Bulawayo, for the Man Booker Prize last year, the Caine Prize for African Writing announced in their call for this year’s submission that “we are looking for the next NoViolet Bulawayo.” The fast-rising Zimba- bwean writer who became the first African woman to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was the Caine Prize winner in 2011. Significantly, her winning short story, Hitting Budapest, opens the Booker shortlisted novel, We Need New Names that went on to open the floodgates of literary acclaim for Bulawayo. Two of Kenya’s writers have won the Caine Prize in the past. They are Binyavanga Wainaina (2002) and Yvonne Owuor (2003).
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