The Language-in-Education Policy Conundrum

Guest Writer
24 May ,2016

Ed: This essay is part of a series of essays on education policy in the country. Find part one here.

by Laila Le Guen

The gap between language policy and actual implementation across educational institutions isn’t given the attention it deserves, and children’s learning is taking a toll as a result. If Kenya is committed to building an equitable education system, the current status quo can’t be maintained.

Children are locked out of meaningful educational experiences

When I attended the Nairobi Research Buzz discussion on the release of the Karibu Centre Report which covers research findings about the pioneering use of educational software in early childhood education settings in Kiambu County, the topic of language unexpectedly crept into the conversation. The main bone of contention was the software content which was designed for American children and had not been localised for the Kenyan context, either with regards to accent or to the use of local concepts. The absurdity of submitting very young children who were not yet able to communicate in English to a literacy test in this language was also brought up. But, you might retort, they have to learn English anyway, so why not start teaching them as early as possible?

The argument that “they have to learn English anyway” is frequently thrown around to justify the imposition of an all-English educational environment from the very first year of formal schooling. The trouble is, teaching English as a language cannot be equated with attempting to teach foundational skills such as numeracy and literacy in English when children clearly do not understand the lessons and are unable to actively engage with the material.

Even more preoccupying is the fact that the perception of preschoolers’ learning abilities is reduced to how well they understand English, even when they haven’t had a chance to be exposed to the language to any significant degree. In the Karibu Centre report, some quotes from teachers made it clear that children’s home languages were seen as a learning challenge (“some students are used to mother tongue so it’s hard for them to learn”, p. 25), a challenge that was seemingly left unaddressed.

Preschool teachers’ ideas about language transmission in the school system are not the issue here: these ideas are accepted as common sense and, given the treatment Kenyan students are subjected to during their school careers, it is a wonder to behold when anyone ends up with a positive attitude towards their mother tongue as a possible medium of instruction. However, these ideas need to be earnestly critiqued so that young children aren’t locked out of meaningful educational experiences due to persistent prejudice.

Clear policy…with no effect on the ground

The case for mother tongue instruction in the early years of education is very strong, and has been well-documented for at least 20 years. Children who are taught in a language they understand show significant improvement in their overall performance, including in second language proficiency, as compared to their peers who learn in an unfamiliar language from the beginning of their schooling. Thus the myth that English has to be introduced as early as possible as the medium of instruction so that children develop expert proficiency does not stand to scrutiny. This strategy is actually counterproductive, especially considering that the benefits of mother tongue education extend far beyond performance on academic tests to include improved self-confidence, increased classroom participation and a more harmonious integration of school with home-based education. To put it in a nutshell, young children need to be taught in a language they understand if we want them to learn effectively, and this in turn has a positive effect on their acquisition of other languages such as English.

Kenyan policy makers have officially sanctioned the need for a three-language model since 1976, but considering the lack of concrete effort to implement this ambitious language policy, you would be forgiven if you believed that Kenya had no such legislation. The 2006 Early Childhood Education service standard guidelines clearly defines a language policy framework:

The language of the catchment area shall be used in all ECD centres with gradual introduction of other languages. (p. 15)

The language of catchment area (mother tongue) shall be used in all ECD centres for communication and instruction, with gradual introduction of English and Kiswahili. (p. 16)

This orientation was reiterated in the 2010 Constitution through the provision of language rights and, more explicitly, in the 2012 policy framework for education. Despite all these policy papers pointing in the same general direction, examples of concrete manifestations of these intentions are still scarce today. So far, the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) in collaboration with Bible Translation & Literacy has produced literacy materials in about 20 Kenyan languages, with ongoing mother-tongue education pilots in Digo-, Orma- and Pokomo-speaking areas. The dearth of literacy materials and other types of publications in nearly half of Kenyan languages poses great challenges, compounded by the fact that most teachers are not yet trained to teach in their mother tongue, since it is often assumed that merely speaking the language suffices.

Besides these very real, material constraints barring the road to mother tongue instruction in ECD, no serious thought seems to have been given to the details of how Kiswahili and English would be progressively introduced, nor to the case of families moving from one county to another where the language of instruction might be different.

This situation is due to a constellation of factors: lack of funding for the development of learning materials in all Kenyan languages, lack of teacher training in the area of mother tongue instruction, fierce resistance from parents, and sometimes education professionals themselves who view local languages as inadequate for educational purposes.

Devolution is an opportunity

With the recent devolution of early childhood education to county governments arises an opportunity for decision-makers to take a fresh look at the stalled language-in-education policy implementation. If this policy was to be implemented by the counties, new niches would open for linguists, education content creators, translators, editors and trainers specialising in Kenyan languages, although this outcome is quite unlikely given the chronic shortage of funding in the education sector.

Granted, the current language-in-education policy is ambitious and will be costly if fully implemented  – it implies developing age-appropriate learning materials in various subjects, as well as training ECD teachers to use languages other than English as the primary medium of instruction. But what we need to realise is that maintaining the status quo comes at the cost of equity, since children who are exposed to English in their daily lives outside of school are given a considerable advantage in that they get to learn in a familiar language. Learning in one’s own language – or at the very least a language one is moderately competent in (say Kiswahili) – should no longer be a privilege but a right, as language issues are deeply enmeshed with the quality of the education received by learners.

Laila Le Guen is a translator and editor based in Nairobi. She is a member of the Ed10 Consortium, a civil society organisation currently involved in the public consultation on curriculum reform. She is particularly interested in the intersection of language, education and technology in the Kenyan context

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