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Africa: Multilingual Education Pays Off
Jul 20, 2010 (100720)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"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. .. [But] New research findings are
increasingly pointing to the negative consequences of these
policies ... We recommend that policy and practice in Africa
nurture multilingualism; primarily a mother-tongue-based one with
an appropriate and required space for international languages of
wider communication." - Adama Ouane, Director, UNESCO Institute for
In a new report released in June 2010, researchers from UNESCO and
the Association for the Development of Education in Africa
challenge the common assumptions in many African countries that
mother-language instruction as impractical or counter-productive.
To the contrary, a review of recent research and practice
indicates, multilingual education including mother-language
instruction into later years of schooling as well as an
international language, produces better results than an early
transition to exclusive use of the international language.
Multilingualism, the authors contend, is an asset that Africa must
foster for practical reasons as well as reasons of cultural pride.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the introduction and excerpts
from the first sections of this advocacy brief. The full 76-page
document, well-designed and illustrated with Adinkra symbols and
African scripts, is available on the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong
Learning website (http://www.unesco.org/uil)
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on education in Africa, visit
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Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and
An evidence- and practice-based policy advocacy brief
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning
Association for the Development of Education in Africa
by Adama Ouane and Christine Glanz
Developed in collaboration with the Association for the Development
of Education in Africa (ADEA)
UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning
email@example.com / http://www.unesco.org/uil
[Excerpts: The full formatted and illustrated 76-page document is
available on the UNESCO website: http://www.unesco.org/uil For
more information contact Christine Glanz, firstname.lastname@example.org
Direcct link to file:
Lifelong learning for all in multilingual Africa
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-fulfilment. 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.
This advocacy brief seeks to show the pivotal role of languages in
achieving such learning. It aims in particular to dispel prejudice
and confusion about African languages, and exposes the often hidden
attempt to discredit them as being an obstacle to learning. It
draws on research and practice to argue what kind of language
policy in education would be most appropriate for Africa.
The theme of language in education has been a contentious issue
ever since former colonies in Africa, Asia and South America gained
their political independence. In a 1953 landmark publication,
UNESCO underscored the importance of educating children in their
mother-tongue (UNESCO, 1953). Language and communication are
without doubt two of the most important factors in the learning
process. The Global Monitoring Report on Education for All in 2005
(UNESCO, 2004) underlined the fact that worldwide the choice of the
language of instruction and language policy in schools is critical
for effective learning. In a landmark study on quality of education
in Africa, carried out by the Association for the Development of
Education in Africa (ADEA, 2004), 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
language as the primary language 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 are a lot
of confusions that are proving hard to dispel, especially when
these are used as a smoke- screen to hide political motives of
domination and hegemony.
New research findings are increasingly pointing to the negative
consequences of these policies: low-quality education and the
marginalisation of the continent, resulting in the ¯creeping
amnesia of collective memory® (Prah, 2003). Achievements and
lessons learned from both small steps and large-scale studies
carried out across the continent and elsewhere have yielded ample
evidence to question current practices and suggest the need to
adopt new approaches in language use in education.
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. The publicly-accessible
knowledge production of African scholars takes place outside
Africa. The UNESCO Science Report of 2005 indicated that Africa is
contributing only to 0.4 per cent of the international gross
expenditure on research and development, and of this, South Africa
covers 90 per cent.
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 skilfully 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.
We recommend that policy and practice in Africa nurture
multilingualism; primarily a mother-tongue-based one with an
appropriate and required space for international languages of wider
communication. It is important to ensure that colonial
monolingualism is not replaced with African monolingualism. The
bugbear of the number of languages is not impossible to overcome.
It is not true that the time spent learning African languages or
learning in them is time lost from learning and mastering
supposedly more productive and useful languages that enjoy de facto
greater status. It is not true that learning these languages or
learning in them is delaying access and mastery of science,
technology and other global and universal knowledge. In fact, the
greater status enjoyed by these international languages is
reinforced by unjust de jure power arrangements. It is not proper
to compare local languages to international ones in absolute terms.
They complement each other on different scales of value, and are
indispensable for the harmonious and full development of
individuals and society.
This advocacy brief is a short collection of what we know and what
research tells us about the use of African languages in education.
It is a collection and review of relevant evidence and arguments to
inform African decision-makers in their difficult policy choices
when it comes to the use of African languages in education and
governance. Their choice is made more complex still by the fact
that two key stakeholders - namely parents and teachers - have an
ill-informed understanding of the issue and tend to oppose it,
arguing the need to preserve and protect the supreme interest of
the children. Language policy is a political decision, and
political decisions should always serve the best and highest
interests of the community or nation. In this regard, the advocacy
brief also addresses bilateral and multilateral agencies in order
to inform their decision-making when working with African
governments and alert them to the consequences of their actions and
This guide will explore research evidence that will spell out the
strong prejudices, confusions and threats surrounding the language
question. It hopes to show that there is a real intrinsic value and
worth to mother-tongue-based education beyond the emotional
attachment and loyalty to identity, culture and values.
This policy guide was developed in collaboration with the
Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) which
for many years has been one of UIL's closest partners. Furthermore,
we would like to thank Hassana Alidou, Marie Chatry-Komarek,
Mamphago Modiba, Norbert Nikima, Peter Reiner, Godfrey Sentumbwe
and Utta von Gleich, experts in language in education and
publishing, for reviewing the document.
It is very much hoped that this guide will cool the heat
surrounding this debate by providing insights and facts that will
inform clear decisions and effective action.
Director, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning
Multilingualism is a differentiated reality in Africa
The number of languages spoken in Africa varies between 1,000 and
2,500, depending on different estimates and definitions.
Monolingual states are non-existent and languages are spread across
borders in a range of different constellations and combinations.
The number of languages varies from between two and three in
Burundi and Rwanda, to more than 400 in Nigeria.
The underlying reality beyond each multilingual context is complex,
distinctive and changing (Gadelii, 2004): almost half (48 per cent)
of Sub-Saharan African countries have an African language that is
spoken by over 50 per cent of the population as a mother tongue.
With the additional secondary speakers sometimes at mother-tongue
proficiency level, the proportion increases to more than two-thirds
(67 per cent). Sixteen of Africa's shared cross-border languages
have more than 150 million speakers. Outside the education sector,
at least 56 African languages are used in administration and at
least 63 African languages are used in the judicial system (26
sub-Saharan nations allow African languages in legislation). In
written business communication, at least 66 African languages are
used, and at least 242 African languages are used in the mass
In short, the existence of so many languages within a single
country and their right not only to survival but also to
development represent a matter of importance that has to be
considered over and above the categories into which they fall. This
diversity is in itself perceived as an inherent problem in matters
of communication, governance and education.
Such a multiplicity is perceived as a communication barrier and
viewed as synonymous with conflicts and tension. It is assumed that
managing so many speech communities is problematic and costly.
Colonial history, the emergence of globalisation, and the immediacy
and rapprochement between people and communities have enabled
certain selected languages to move centre-stage and maximise their
potential to broker among numerous local languages.
This has led to an increased status and prestige for the colonial
metropolitan languages - and the suppression of African languages,
especially in education - as the door to further learning and
participation in development and knowledge creation. According to
the international language survey commissioned by UNESCO (Gadelii,
2004), only 176 African languages are used in African education
systems, and mainly in basic education: 87 per cent of the
languages of instruction in adult literacy and non-formal education
programmes are African languages; between 70 and 75 per cent of the
languages of instruction in nursery school/kindergarten and the
early years of elementary schools are African. Beyond basic
education, only 25 per cent of the languages used in secondary
education and 5 per cent of the languages in higher education are
African. Although most African education systems focus on the use
of international languages, only between 10 and 15 per cent of the
population in most African countries are estimated to be fluent in
these languages. Nevertheless, these languages, besides their
strong weight in governance, dominate the educational systems, with
the result that there is a serious communication gap between the
formal education system and its social environment.
Recommendations for investing in African languages and multilingual
The findings from research and practice presented in more detail
below lead us to make the following recommendations for policy
making and educational planning in multilingual and multicultural
Africa. These recommendations are in line with the African Union's
Language Plan for Action (2006).
- Normalise multilingualism for social cohesion, individual and
social development through language policies that build on the
natural mastery of two or more languages. Such policies should be
embedded in the social vision for a country, operationalised in
legislation, and reflected in planning, budgeting and research
covering all societal sectors.
- Opt for valuing and developing African languages as the most
vibrant means of communication and source of identity of the
majority of the African people, and construct all language policies
accordingly (e.g. accept African languages as official languages
and as languages for exams).
- Set up a system of dynamic partnerships for education between
all stakeholders (government, education providers, language and
education experts, the labour market, local communities and
parents) in order to establish participatory dialogue and to
mobilise large-scale support for integrated, holistic and
diversified multilingual education that will boost accountability
- Plan late-exit or additive mother-tongue-based multilingual
education, develop it boldly and implement it without delay using
models adapted to a country's unique vision, conditions and
resources. In order for education to be relevant it should, from
the outset, prepare students for active citizenship and enable them
to continue their learning careers.
- Increase access to learning and information, and make teaching
effective by lifting the language barrier, using the languages
mastered by learners, using socioculturally relevant curricula,
further developing African languages for academic use, training
teachers in dealing with multilingualism and cultural diversity as
well as language and literacy development, and by providing
appropriate teaching and learning materials. The combination of
optimising language use, and adopting relevant and high-quality
curricula, teaching methods and materials will result in higher
achievement, lower drop-out and repeater rates throughout the
education system and lead to a system of education that services
individual and social development in Africa.
- Be aware that language choice and how languages are used in the
classroom can hinder or facilitate communication and learning, i.e.
it can both empower and disempower people. Communication is key to
the effectiveness of teaching and learning methods. Communication
is also essential for accessing and creating knowledge.
Furthermore, the linkage of language use in the classroom with
learners' lives outside school determines whether what is taught
can be applied and practiced or not, that is, whether education is
relevant and has an impact on individual and social development.
- Make use of available expertise and resources and continue to
build capacities in the education and media sector, as well as in
the workplace. Share responsibilities with universities, teacher
training institutions, the media, the labour market, businesses and
other resource-rich institutions.
- Conduct interdisciplinary research, consensus-building and
awareness-raising campaigns to update knowledge on language in
education and for development.
- Cooperate across borders and draw on regional resources.
- Make use of the Policy Guide for the Integration of African
Languages and Cultures into the Education System (see Annex 1).
Core questions about mother-tongue-based multilingual education in
The driving force of this document is a renewed interest in dealing
creatively and constructively with African multilingualism, and is
motivated by two main reasons. First, there is enough evidence
(though not unanimously recognised) that multilingualism is an
asset to the development of a nation. Second, Africa needs to
nurture and maximise this characteristic feature for the well-being
of its people, as the continent will always be disadvantaged,
having embraced foreign languages, no matter how rooted these are
in the national linguistic landscape. This issue has been recurrent
on the policy, cultural and education agenda of the continent.
At the 2003 Biennial Meeting of the Association for the Development
of Education in Africa (ADEA), "Improving the Quality of Education
in sub-Saharan Africa", one of the major themes discussed was the
use of African languages as a determinant of quality education.
This was subsequently mirrored in the 2006 Education for All Global
Monitoring Report entitled "The Quality Imperative" . Improving
the quality of education is one of the six goals of "Education for
All". During ADEA's subsequent biennial meetings, the studies
presented on mother-tongue-based bilingual education have created
a momentum for intense discussions and a need for further research.
As noted in the proceedings of the 2003 Biennial:
Participants concluded that African languages were a necessary
choice for these new challenges: "Let us return to our African
identities! Let us not persist in our colonial past" pleaded one of
the ministers. However, reservations continued to be expressed by
the most senior education planners from a variety of countries who
had lived through the challenges of language change in the
curriculum and who were familiar with the opposition to take-up
African languages in schools. A minister recalled a parent in a
village saying to her: "It's not skill in his mother-tongue which
makes a child succeed in life, but how much English he knows. Is it
going to be one type of school for the rich and another for the
poor? At the end of the day we are expected to pass examinations in
English" (ADEA, 2004: 38).
Searching for evidence to make informed decisions
In order to clarify contentious issues and to help policy-makers
and educators to make informed decisions, a comprehensive
stock-taking research project that assessed the experiences of 42
mother-tongue and multilingual education programmes2 in
sub-Saharan Africa in 25 countries over the last four decades was
commissioned by ADEA, supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fr
Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) and carried out by the UNESCO
Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), by a team of six outstanding
scholars. The outcome of this stock-taking review was presented at
the ADEA Biennial in 2006 to a broad group of scholars and
education reform specialists as well as ministers in charge of
education. The key evidence used for this advocacy brief derives
from this study (Alidou et al., 2006).
Since the study was conducted, several countries such as Burkina
Faso (see Alidou et al., 2008), Ethiopia (Heugh et al., 2007),
Malawi, Mozambique and Niger (see Alidou et al., 2009) have started
work to evaluate, improve and revise their strategies and policies
for the use of language in education. Data pertaining to these new
developments were, where accessible, used for this document.
UNESCO's aim for this policy advocacy brief is to provide a
condensed overview of scientific and empirical research pertaining
to language in education in Africa, focusing on language use and
its implications for the quality of learning and education. The
core questions in the debates about the implementation of
mother-tongue-based multilingual education are addressed
systematically. The above-mentioned stock-taking research is an
important resource, but by no means the only one.
It is time for an interdisciplinary approach
The authors of the stock-taking review observe that (a) the
connection between development and language use is largely ignored;
(b) the connection between language and education is little
understood outside expert circles; and (c) the connection between
development and education is widely accepted on a priori grounds,
but with little understanding of the exact nature of the
relationship. Consequently, a much closer cooperation between
linguists, educationists, economists, anthropologists and
sociologists is recommended in the future. Development
communication and the mass media need to be involved as these
fields make crucial contributions to education and learning. Each
stratum has a critical mass of specialists who usually argue from
their respective points of entry. Up to now, they have rarely
consulted one another. Nevertheless, each one finds the issue too
complex to be resolved from just one perspective. It is time for an
Focus on experiences in Africa
As the focus is on experiences of mother-tongue-based bilingual
education in Africa, the data are mainly drawn from Africa. This
choice does not mean that learning in non-African contexts is
disregarded. Often in the past the mistake was to transfer the
results of language in education studies from industrialised
countries and apply them wholesale to the African context although
the linguistic contexts are very different. In Africa, many
students encounter the official language of their country - often
a foreign language - as the medium of instruction in school, but do
not encounter it in their everyday lives. Often African students
are immersed in several languages for their day-to-day
communication, but not in the official language. In industrialised
countries, migrants and ethnic minorities live in environments
where they encounter the official language on a daily basis.
The meaning of "mother tongue" in Africa
In order to root the definition of mother tongue in the African
linguistic reality, we define it in a broader sense as the language
or languages of the immediate environment and daily interaction
which "nurture" the child in the first four years of life. Thus,
the mother tongue is a language or languages with which the child
grows up and of which the child has learned the structure before
school. In multilingual contexts such as many African societies,
children naturally grow up with more than one mother tongue as
there are several languages spoken in the family of the child or in
its immediate neighbourhood.
[The remainder of the document includes discussion of research on
7 core questions, a policy conclusion summary, and annexes with
additional information. The 7 core questions addressed are:
- The impact of mother-tongue-based multilingual education
on social and economic development
- The potential of African languages for education
- How to handle the reality of multilingualism effectively
for lifelong learning for all
- Why teaching in the mother tongue is beneficial for students'
- What kind of language models work best in Africa?
- Is mother-tongue-based multilingual education affordable?
- Under what conditions do parents and teachers support
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