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Africa: Multilingual Education Pays Off

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jul 20, 2010 (100720)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"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 Lifelong Learning

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 (

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on education in Africa, visit

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Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education

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)

June 2010

UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning /

[Excerpts: The full formatted and illustrated 76-page document is available on the UNESCO website: For more information contact Christine Glanz,
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 poor advice.

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 NikiŠma, 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.

Adama Ouane
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 media.

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 education

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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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 and transparency.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Conduct interdisciplinary research, consensus-building and awareness-raising campaigns to update knowledge on language in education and for development.
  9. Cooperate across borders and draw on regional resources.
  10. 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 sub-Saharan Africa

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 fr 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 interdisciplinary approach.

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:

  1. The impact of mother-tongue-based multilingual education on social and economic development
  2. The potential of African languages for education
  3. How to handle the reality of multilingualism effectively for lifelong learning for all
  4. Why teaching in the mother tongue is beneficial for students' performance
  5. What kind of language models work best in Africa?
  6. Is mother-tongue-based multilingual education affordable?
  7. Under what conditions do parents and teachers support mother-tongue-based education?]

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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