“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” Chinua Achebe

There are said to be over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria. There is no clear agreement about the total number of languages spoken in Africa, some say 3000+. Due to different movement-related events, of which the most relevant is colonisation, there are much fewer lingua francas. These are mainly English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic. They are often considered foreign languages, but are used as languages of educational instruction in many African countries. The question of the status or utility of these languages has been the subject of much debate. The importance of language as a tool of communication in all spheres of national life cannot be overstated. As Nelson Mandela once said ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language… that goes to his heart.’ Profound communication especially in education is essential to socio-political existence.

The history of African languages in education is quite colourful. Prior to colonisation, the modes of education had been based on African traditional religions and instruction was solely oral. Many African languages are therefore tonal and creative. They are adaptable. At colonisation, churches and schools preceded administrators who travelled into the hinterlands. Schools were set up primarily to enable communication between the coloniser and the colonised. In that sense they were mainly centres of instruction and not education. ‘Educating’ is teaching by EXPLAINING how something is done, while ‘instruction’ is simply TELLING how something is done. The goal of teaching/education is facilitating mastery. Telling/instructing involves an active teacher and mostly passive learners. The result of telling is that learners remember some of what the teacher said and assessment becomes a test of memory and not proficiency. The result of teaching is that a learner has absorbed and internalised information and progressed towards proficiency. A learner who has been educated may surpass her teacher in knowledge. A learner who has been subject to instruction only can never surpass the level of their teacher. This process is especially marked by the fact that the fluency and proficiency of teachers in the language of instruction is variable. (Does this sound familiar?)


Going back to Mandela’s quote, we cannot deny the role of spoken languages in the internalisation of information. It is also not possible to overemphasise the role of education in personal and national development. Thus languages and languages-in-education are and remain very political.  In South Africa, when Afrikaans was made a compulsory language of instruction in schools in 1974, this sparked the Soweto Youth Uprising. Currently, even though South Africa constitutionalised the equity of its multitude of languages, in practice, African languages still exist at the bottom of the hierarchical communicative space. Speaking indigenous languages is banned in most African schools. Many textbooks are imported or written in an European language; in Eritrea, education is in English and about the world outside Africa. So the language, serves to create a cultural barrier within a country, between the world of knowledge and the world of reality. This goes back to the history of language use in schools. The purpose of colonial education was to stifle resistance, provide local support staff who could communicate in the required European language and elevate a select few. It was never to educate. As true education did not serve the purposes of empire.

This resulted in the introduction of non-lyrical European languages and the written text. Consequently many Africans only write fluently in a European language, but speak one or more African languages fluently. This is evident in the fact that there are many more African creative writers writing in European languages than in African languages. So in African schools, learners simultaneously struggle with language and text; this doubles the mental effort required to learn. Furthermore this use of language has contributed to the disappearance of African languages and customs – languages that sustain a peoples’ worldview. Another double edged consequence is that the ability to speak a colonial language influences the measure of success attainable for Africans. In Nigeria you are more likely to succeed, if you can speak English than if you can speak Idoma. Assessments unintentionally act as two-fold tests – they test both the subject matter and lingua franca proficiency. Assessments do not consider problems arising from secondary fluency, as these are done in European languages. Someone who is perfectly able to count in her own language would be assessed as having poor numeracy skills in a language she is very unfamiliar with.


There  evidence from a study done by UNESCO of the benefits of ‘own-language’ instruction.

‘In Cameroon, children taught in their local language, Kom, showed a marked advantage in achievement in reading and comprehension compared with children taught only in English. Komeducated children also scored twice as high on mathematics tests at the end of grade 3. However, these learning gains were not sustained when the students switched to English-only instruction in grade 4. By contrast, in Ethiopia, children in regions where local language instruction extends through to upper primary school performed better in grade 8 subjects than pupils taught only in English.’

For the above reasons and many more, there have been suggestions for language reform in education across Africa. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of the foremost proponents of this side of the language debate. He said in his famous book ‘Decolonising the Mind: The politics of language in African literature’:

‘I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages …were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment. .. I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation.’

I have taken these arguments further in a recent article. However, we cannot resist the argument that indigenisation of the language in education presents political, economic and logistic problems. Whose language do we educate in? How many copies of textbooks do we need in different languages? Would teachers be able to work wherever they wanted to? Would this stifle internal migration? Furthermore, it has also proved difficult to combat resistance based on the belief that indigenisation is ‘dumbing-down’. Many parents want their children to speak a European language. The benefits are evident.

Birgit Brock-Utne, has suggested a solution. She proposes ‘taking students beyond dichotomies by having them learn both a foreign language and other subjects well by using a familiar language, in Tanzania that would be Kiswahili, as the language of instruction and learning the foreign language, in this case English, well as a subject.’

This is just one suggestion. My position is this: it is clear from the evidence – the mountains of evidence – that current language in education policies across Africa, impede learning and development. The only people making anything from this are the booksellers and massive publishing houses. We need innovative African solutions for problems that are uniquely ours. Furthermore we need to step away from the way in which we regard English. We regard it as foreign. But is it really? What is foreign? What is language? A language is defined by lack of mutual intelligibility. More than our accents, the way we use English in Nigeria and European languages in Africa is unique. We have taken ownership of English. (And we are not talking about pidgin which can be classified as a separate language if so desired.) Nigerian English carries the weight of our experiences. We have married it with the music of our shores, with the rhythm of our lives. English has become tonal and creative, it has become adaptable.We can no longer seek the easy cop out by saying English is not our language. Neither can we claim supremacy of correct syntax. Language is nothing more than a tool of common usage. If 200 million Nigerians use it commonly in a particular way, then that way becomes correct. Do not come and go and start arguing with me upandan.

In conclusion, we are multilingual with a multiplicity of equal status languages. Our education system should reflect that. Thank you.

unheard of things



  1. […] One of the major mechanisms for colonisation is the idea of knowledge. ‘Knowledge is power’, is a cliché, because it is true. The consequence of the colonial encounter between Europe and Africa was to establish thereafter the parameters for global power and the gateway of acceptable language, knowledge, jurisprudence and thought. I discuss these issues in an article titled ‘Decolonising Education in Africa‘. I also examine the role of language in a previous blog post. […]

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