Multilingualism and Cultural Diversity

What is your opinion about multilingualism and cultural diversity? In an African context do you see it as an asset or a curse?

An interesting paper from UNESCO published in June 2010 Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education challenges many common assumptions about African mother-tongues and multilingual education.

The following caught my eye from the introduction.

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.

Think about it for a moment.

This brief is the product of an in-depth research and consultation process, which was initiated in 2005 and carried out in consultation with experts – the majority from Africa – in language, education and publishing and African Ministries of Education. It addresses seven common concerns about mother-tongue-based multilingual education in sub-Saharan Africa in the light of experiences of mother-tongue education in Africa since the 1950s. It also draws on a broad array of experiences and sources from around the world. The focus on African experiences redresses the mistake made so often in the past: namely, the practice of applying to this continent research results from regions with very different linguistic contexts and learning environments. Drawing on research results from Africa, the brief makes concrete suggestions as to how education systems can be shaped to foster individual and social development in African contexts.

I think it makes some really important points. I like the fact that the brief is focussing on research from Africa.
Here are some facts for you to think about:
  • 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.

For me, that last point is the most poignant. In many African communities there is a really low level of fluency in international languages. For the child going to school for the first time the classroom, instead of being a place of discovery, becomes a puzzle, a nightmare.

I have seen 7 year olds in their first week in a school in Mali that used only an international language, French, looking so utterly bewildered and lost. It was painful to observe these classes where even the most basic of instructions were not understood by the children. It wasn’t until the end of the week when the teacher saw little girls peeing on the ground outside the classroom that the teacher realised the children didn’t know where the school toilets were. They had not been able to ask and he had not thought to show them!

Contrast that to another school on the same site where the teacher spoke to the children in a language they understood, Bambara. ‘I’m like your mummy’ she said to them in their first moments in the classroom. ‘If you need anything come and ask me’.  The children and the teacher were relaxed and by the end of the first week the children were really getting the hang of school and enjoying learning.

Of course language was not the only issue in those classes I described, there were differences in pedagogy too. But the issue of the language used in education in Africa is a major one, and I think this paper goes some way in addressing this through evidence-based policy recommendations from African research.

How to get a copy of the report

You can download a pdf of Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education? from the UNESCO site.

Suggested Books (US)

  • (See chapter on Mali)

Other books on Africa linguistics

Other books on Africa education

Multilingual Education, a new Open Access Journal Africa Linguistics : Adoption of a Policy Guide for Successful Integration of African Languages and Cultures into Education Languages and Education in Africa, Book Nigeria : Languages and National Policy on Education Report : Language and Education – the missing link

  2 Responses to “Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education”

  1. [...] I will also use this opportunity to link to two posts about 1. language instruction in Eritrea; and 2. a UNESCO report (June 2010) on why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingua…. [...]

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