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African Schools Debate Whether to Teach in Local Languages

Second-graders in Alieu Samb primary school hold up chalk boards with French conjugations. Dakar, Senegal, Dec. 7 2017. (Photo: Sofia Christensen for VOA)
Second-graders in Alieu Samb primary school hold up chalk boards with French conjugations. Dakar, Senegal, Dec. 7 2017. (Photo: Sofia Christensen for VOA)
African Schools Debate Whether to Teach in Local Languages
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Many children speak the same language at school as they do at home. However, in many parts of Africa, this is not the case.
In countries south of the Sahara Desert, most children are taught in a common colonial language instead of the language they use at home.

Some people support the method of teaching. They say teaching in an international language is helpful for students. Others, however, argue that it can make learning more difficult for children.

Now, education experts in Senegal want schools to offer classes in local languages, in addition to the traditional French.

A colonial tradition

Alieu Samb is a primary school in Senegal’s capital, Dakar. At this school, second-graders learn to read in French. Like most children in Sub-Saharan Africa, Senegalese children are taught in their country's common colonial language, not the language they speak at home.

Senegal was a French colony until 1960. Today, French remains the official language, although more than 80 percent of the country speaks another language. Officially, the government recognizes more than 20 languages.

However, some Senegalese are pushing for change. Mbacke Diagne is a linguistics professor at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop University. He wants to add local languages to the teaching program.

Diagne says most children entering primary school in Senegal have been speaking Wolof, one of those languages, for at least seven years.

"They have structured their world in this language," he says, "but as soon as they get to school, all this knowledge is set aside in order to impose French."

Diagne and others believe this slows the learning process and makes children less interested in continuing their education.
The Education Policy and Data Center has studied literacy – the ability to read and write – in sub-Saharan Africa. It found that the youth literacy rate in Senegal is lower than the average for other lower middle-income countries. More than half of secondary school-age children in Senegal are out of school.

Groups such as ARED -- the Associates in Research and Education for Development -- have been leading bilingual teaching programs in Senegalese primary schools.

A schoolboy in Alieu Samb primary school leads a reading lesson in French. Dakar, Senegal, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo: S. Christensen for VOA)
A schoolboy in Alieu Samb primary school leads a reading lesson in French. Dakar, Senegal, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo: S. Christensen for VOA)

Awa Ka Dia is with ARED. She told VOA that in bilingual schools, children start learning French at the same time they build literacy skills in either Wolof or Pulaar, another language. She says students’ literacy skills in their native language are later used as a base to read in French.

Currently, ARED operates in 98 primary schools between Dakar, the northern city of Saint-Louis, and the town of Kaolack.

The group’s pilot program ends this year, and Dia hopes results will persuade the government to support a longer version of the program. ARED wants to expand to other areas and add other local languages.

Mixed feelings on multi-lingual programs

But in Alieu Samb primary school, Headmaster Meissa Dieng has mixed feelings about teaching in Wolof.

"Speaking French in school will allow children to really master the language," he says, “but then there is the psychological impact of deconstructing a thinking process that has already been established."

Parents are often the first people to oppose the idea.

Literacy and education expert Chris Darby is with the non-profit group SIL, which serves language communities around the world. He says for six years he struggled with community resistance to a multi-language education project in rural Senegal.

"A lot of the resistance comes from parents, as well as teachers, and right up the hierarchy. But parents are very keen, I think, for children to succeed. And they tend to think of success, as far as what a school can do, in terms of delivering an international language.”

Other African countries also are exploring the possibility of teaching students in local languages. In 2014, the Ethiopian government and USAID, a United States government agency, launched a reading program in seven Ethiopian languages to improve reading skills. And in 2015, Tanzania proposed a policy to remove English from schools and teach all classes in Kiswahili.

Barbara Trudell is Director of Research and Advocacy for SIL Africa. She notes the complexity of supporting local languages in many areas.

"As soon as you move from an international language down into an African national language, choosing one over the other, the rivalries are instantly there,” Trudell said.

“At least that is the thing about French, English, Portuguese, they're sort of seen to be on a different level."

I’m Phil Dierking.

Sofia Christensen wrote this story for Phil Dierking adapted her story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Do you feel it is more important to go to school in your mother tongue, or a widely-spoken international language? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

bilingual - adj. able to speak and understand two languages

curriculum - n. the courses that are taught by a school, college, etc.

deconstruct - v. reduce (something) to its constituent parts in order to reinterpret it.

hierarchy - n. a group that controls an organization and is divided into different levels

impose - v. to cause (something, such as a tax, fine, rule, or punishment) to affect someone or something by using your authority

income - n. money that is earned from work, investments, business, etc.

multi - adj. more than two

psychological - adj. of or relating to the mind

rivalry - n. a state or situation in which people or groups are competing with each other