One of the millennium goals was that in 2015, all children would get primary education. By and large, this goal was a success. The facts are clear: whereas in 1990, just over half of the children between 6 and 12 years old in Sub-Sahara Africa attended primary school, in 2015 this had risen to almost 80%.
This really is progress. Yet, it is not enough to meet the new Sustainable Development Goal of inclusive and equitable education for all. That goal is not only about primary education – it addresses secondary and higher education as well.
Sure – progress has been made in secondary and higher education as well – but there is still a long way to go. Less than half of all children can go to secondary school – in Europe, all children can. Less than 10% of the children can move on to tertiary education – in Europe, the figure is well over 70%. Then, there are gender issues… The conclusion is obvious: a lot of the talent that Africa has is unused or under-used.
What is the best way to address this? What does language have to do with it? How can African countries ensure that they make the best use of their limited budgets? What is needed is that African countries distance themselves from their colonial heritage more. How so?
Experts have proven beyond doubt that it is best if children are educated in their mother tongue. It only makes sense to teach them another language once they have a certain level of knowledge of their own language.
The importance of mother-tongue education
Unfortunately, that is not how education works in many African countries. According to the Education Commission, half the children in low- and middle-income countries do not get educated in their mother tongue. In Sub-Sahara Africa, this figure is a shocking 90%.
Especially after the first few years, most children receive their primary education in a language that is totally foreign to them – English, French, Portuguese. The immediate effect of this is that far too few children reach the desired final level.
In fact, children in middle-income countries in Africa achieve only half as much as children in middle-income countries in Central and South America. Not because African children are more stupid – but because educational systems do not get their priorities right.
Elisabeth Zsiga and others have edited a very instructive book that brings a lot of information on this together.
In that book, Kingsley Arkorful reports on a successful programme for children unable to attend normal primary schools. It runs in Northern Ghana: the Schools for Life programme. This programme takes nine months and stresses basic skills: reading, writing, arithmetic.
This is mother-tongue education. Most teachers are not qualified, but they are native speakers. English is not taught. At the end of the programme, children can go to normal primary school, entering at the level of the 4th year.
It turns out that these children do just as well as other children. In other words: a nine-month programme in the mother tongue is just as effective as three years of normal primary school!
Stephen Walter has found out that in the Philippines, teachers who teach in their mother tongue are 30% more effective than teachers who teach in their second language. That’s clearly where there is massive scope for achieving more with the same amount of money.
There are ideological reasons for using local languages as well. But even without making that argument, the case for mother-tongue education is a compelling one.
Obstacles – real and imagined
But if all of this is known, why don’t African countries change course? I can see several reasons, all more or less related to the colonial heritage.
One reason is that local languages have not been stimulated, because of the perceived need of building ‘national’ identities. Local languages have been neglected for too long. In Europe, there are separate institutes defending local languages.
For most African languages such institutes do not exist. Over a century ago, missionaries have developed orthographies for many African languages; however, they are often of low quality. Some languages have been mapped by competing missionaries and therefore have more than one orthography.
Sometimes mutually intelligible dialects have been dubbed different languages. Often, new terms have not been developed in local languages. As Prah has demonstrated, this contributes to the false idea that there are so many languages in Africa that offering an education in all of them would be impossible.
Lastly, education in Africa is often seen as a springboard for success. But success is seen as tied to the language of the civil service, the law and the corporate sector – so, the language of the former colonial power.
Attempts to change that will be met with resistance, even though science knows that it is easier to learn a second or third language if children are better educated in their mother tongue.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long ago called for a renaissance of African languages. More recently, Nkonko Kamwangamalu has called for prestige planning as a way of increasing the currency of indigenous African languages. So far, they remain a minority.
However, there is no doubt that in order to make education more efficient and to give access to more children and youth, using indigenous African languages will be essential, not only at the primary, but also at the secondary and tertiary levels. Of course that will itself lead to problems – but still: this is the big challenge facing African education in the 21st Century.
Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture, intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.