Optimising Learning, Education and Publishing in Africa: The Language Factor

This publication presents the results of comprehensive research that assesses the experiences of mother-tongue and bilingual education programmes in 25 sub-Saharan African countries in recent years.1 Its overall conclusion is encapsulated in the statement Language is not everything in education, but without language, everything is nothing in education (Wolff, Chapter 1). The need for the research arose out of UIL’s work on mother-tongue education (Ouane, 1995, 2003) and especially the large-scale study carried out by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) for the 2003 ADEA Biennial Meeting The Challenge of Learning: Improving the Quality of Basic Education in sub-Saharan Africa.2 One of the major themes discussed during this meeting was the need to adapt curricula to the use of African languages. The contributions on mother-tongue education and bilingual education created a momentum for intense discussions and a subsequent need for further research.

As noted in the proceedings of the Biennial Meeting:

“Participants from the floor concluded with the presenters that African languages were a necessary choice for the new century: “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 of 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).

In order to clarify contentious issues and to help policy-makers and educators to make informed decisions about language education programmes, curricula and reading materials, ADEA decided to team up with its partners to undertake the necessary research to provide information and guidance. Hence, ADEA commissioned a research project in 2005 to take stock of the situation and analyse further possibilities for mother-tongue and bilingual education in formal and non-formal education in sub-Saharan Africa. Given their experience and interest in the subject, the UNESCO Institute for Education (UIE) (renamed UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning or UIL in July 2007) and the GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit, renamed GIZ in January 2011) organised and coordinated the study with ADEA. The results of the research are presented in this book.

The research on mother-tongue and bilingual education in sub-Saharan Africa set out with the following four objectives:

  1. to document and analyse research and experiences of African countries with regard to the use of African languages as the medium of instruction and the adaptation of curricula to local context and culture;
  2. to explore state-of-the-art of mother-tongue and bilingual education with emphasis on its situation in Africa;
  3. to analyse the role of publishing and to explore experiences of publishing in African languages; and
  4. to facilitate policy dialogue on issues in the use of African languages and bilingual education.

Evidence-based recommendations for language-in-education policies and language use in education are made to support policy-makers and other stakeholders. The focus of the research was on scientific and empirical evidence pertaining to language use and its implications on the quality of learning and education. Existing educational programmes and related language policies were critically assessed. The researchers gave priority to studies which are supported by sound theoretical and empirical evidence, according greater weight to independent evaluations while consulting and paying due attention to internal evaluations including those commissioned and remunerated by the programmes’ stakeholders. This study examines several factors which account for the successes and failures of bilingual and multilingual education programmes in Africa. These factors include linguistic, technical, financial, institutional, political, social and economic issues. Additionally, key elements contributing to quality education – aspects of cost-effectiveness, equity and equality – are taken into consideration. Initially, the researchers looked at a selection of countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia); further countries were included during the research when the research team were able to access additional case studies. For an overview of the countries and programmes reviewed, see the Appendix of this book. Each expert selected one or two themes based on the team’s joint analysis of which issues would need to be addressed. Furthermore, two African publishers from Guinea and Namibia share their experiences and strategies for publishing in African languages.

The research team found that the interconnectedness between language, communication and effective teaching and learning is misunderstood outside expert circles; and the connection between development and education is widely accepted on a priori grounds, but with little understanding of the exact nature of the relationship. For the future, a much closer cooperation between linguists, educationalists and economists is therefore recommended.

ADEA, UIL, GIZ and the research team consider this review and research a milestone for the improvement of the quality of education in Africa. Since the report was discussed in an expert meeting in 2005 hosted by Namibia and at the ADEA Biennial in 2006 hosted by Gabon, it has laid a new foundation for indepth discussions among experts, practitioners, stakeholders and government officials charged with education planning and implementation as well as evaluations of such programmes and the development of new strategies for mother tongue and bilingual education in Africa. In order to support decisionmakers with key evidence from this research and a broad array of experiences and sources from around the world, UIL in collaboration with ADEA has published an advocacy brief on why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education (Ouane and Glanz, 2010). In January 2010, as a measure to facilitate the promotion of mother-tongue-based multilingual and multicultural education and learning cultures, Ministers of Education from 18 African countries adopted policy guidelines on the integration of African languages and cultures into education systems, which were informed by evidence from this research (ADEA, 2010; Annex 1 in Ouane and Glanz, 2010).

African Ministries of Education and Financial Planning, practitioners, researchers and funding agencies are called upon to build on the experiences and resources that have been developed for mother-tongue and bi- or multilingual education in Africa and to expand them. The current research suggests that socio-culturally relevant curricula using African languages as the medium of instruction for at least six years and implementing multilingual language models in schools will not only improve the quality of education but also increase the social returns to investments in education. It will liberate a critical mass of creative energies and empower individuals and communities. Ultimately, it will boost the social and economic development of African nations and improve the continent’s economic development and contribution to knowledge creation.

Adama Ouane
UNESCO Institute
for Lifelong Learning


Ahlin Jean-Marie Byll-Cataria
Executive Secretary
Association for the Development
of Education in Africa

To read the publication, click on “Optimizing Learning“.

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