It’s time our schools, universities started teaching local languages

Wednesday March 18 2020

The University of Nairobi on May 11, 2018. It's time universities in the country started teaching African languages, besides Kiswahili. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


There is a saying out there that language is the key mark of an individual’s identity. Those who believe in this argument say that one’s language carries that person’s culture and determines how the person sees and behaves in the world. This thinking claims that, therefore, language is the determinant of group/ethnic/racial identity. In this sense, (speaking) Kiswahili makes one a Mswahili, and therefore, distinct from, say a Teso. Of course this is only partially true. But language indeed has something to do with the way we see, understand and behave in the world.

For instance, this conversation here will only make sense — or be seen as nonsense — by those who understand the English language. This is because anyone who understands the English language will be able to read, interpret and comment on the thinking that informs this debate.

Thus, the English language will have established a common ground, a shared world, an acceptable logic, and a meaningful experience and understanding between the writer/speaker and the reader. This is why it is always difficult to establish rapport with someone during an encounter when the other person speaks a different language.


Yet, considering that the majority of Kenyans don’t speak, though they may partially understand, English and Kiswahili — the two official national languages — why is it that the various Kenyan languages aren’t taught formally in our schools?

There isn’t a single Kenyan school, college or university that teaches any of the more than 80 languages spoken across the different speech communities in this country. How is it possible that more than 50 years since the end of colonialism — which ironically did encourage the teaching of African/Kenyan languages — our languages don’t feature in our syllabi, except at the lower primary school level?

Even in classes 1, 2 and 3, where teaching and learning was done through “mother tongue,” this is only done in the countryside, assuming that the teacher is a local one. Once the learner joins upper primary, the “native” language is thrown out.

Yet beyond the school the child is expected to hear, speak, understand and think in English! The language the child speaks at home, at the market, at the riverside, when playing, in church, literally on all social occasions, is frowned upon. At school, one is condemned for uttering a word in one’s home language — in some schools even Kiswahili is only allowed during the Kiswahili lesson.

Many are Kenyans who carried around the infamous “disk” — evidence that one had deviated from English during the school day. The trauma caused by the indignity of one being made to carry some piece of wood because of just speaking one’s mother tongue haunts many Kenyans to date. Just ask Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

But how can a society in which millions of Kenyans — schooled and unschooled — still transact most of their social life in the languages they were taught to speak by their mothers not make “their” languages part of the school curriculum?

Why isn’t there a single secondary school, college or university in Kenya that has a local language — local here means one spoken in the immediate vicinity of the institution — in its syllabus? Why is Dholuo not taught at Maseno University; Lulogooli at Masinde Muliro University; Kamba at South Eastern Kenya University; Kikuyu at Dedan Kimathi University; Meru at Meru University or Nandi or Marakwet at Moi University?

Most of these universities claim to have departments of linguistics, foreign languages and African languages. Yet they do not teach any African language except Kiswahili. Indeed, one doubts that there are professors of African languages in this country.


For if we had experts in Ekegusii, Oluluhya, Kigiriama, Somali, Itesoot or Kikuyu, they would be teaching these languages, and not simply supervising postgraduate students who are writing a thesis on one or another aspect of these languages. One suspects that there are more experts on these languages in universities abroad than here.

It is this disinterest in local languages that led to a shocking debate among local scholars recently when a student defended her doctoral thesis in Kiswahili. Some professors doubted if Kiswahili had terminologies equivalent to literature review, methodology, theory, objectives, rationale! These scholars were simply saying that they can’t think of their own African languages as capable of intellectual debate! Again, Ngugi wa Thiong’o could just be right: in order to decolonise ourselves and our societies, we need to go back to our languages.

Which then raises the next significant question: When our universities advertise that they teach translation, what or how many languages are they able to interpret?

For if there are no departments researching and teaching the local languages, where from are the experts that do the translation in these universities if they aren’t merely teaching theories of translation or simply teaching foreign languages? Granted, there is more money to be made in translating between English, Kiswahili, Spanish, German or Italian. But what about translating between English, Kiswahili and other Kenyan languages?

Consider that the Bible has been translated into several Kenyan languages, beginning with the full translation of both testaments into Kiswahili in 1890. Why don’t we have the Constitution of Kenya translated into all the 80 plus languages spoken in Kenya? If the Constitution is the one document that establishes the contract between Kenyans, and between the ruled and the rulers, why is it that it is still most spoken about in English, a language very few Kenyans speak let alone understand?

If our universities claim to be centres of academic excellence, as training the human resources needed for the country to progress, as matching the best in the world, why have they ignored studying and teaching the languages that the majority of Kenyans — who pay the taxes that these universities depend on — use daily?

There must be thousands of people out there who would be interested in learning a Kenyan language other than theirs, just the way thousands of Kenyans pay millions of shillings and spend countless hours to study Mandarin, German, French, Italian, Spanish or English.


The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]