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When it comes to Africa, a continent with more than 2000 indigenous languages, every country harbors on average 40 different African languages. Language matters, therefore, are of very high significance for Africa.  In today’s world English has become the “Lingua Franca” . It has also become one of the essential languages for global trade.

In 21st century Africa, English is used in many walks of life;  in media and advertising, in education, law, commerce and government. How is it then that an European colonial language has managed to become so influential?

Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o once described language as “the most important vehicle through which that colonial power fascinated and held the soul prisoner”.


He illustrated this with a disturbing account of receiving corporal punishment, being fined and wearing a “plate around the neck with inscriptions such as “I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY”.   His “crime”? Speaking Gikuyu at his English medium school.  Schools and universities in post-colonial contexts still operate within the logic of coloniality.

These realities have been thrown into sharp relief by revelations that some African schools punish students  for speaking any language but English, French and other colonial language while on school grounds.

In Ghana, students are punished for speaking native languages especially Twi. Ghanaian schools’ language policies proceed from an ideology of our native “language as a problem” rather than “ as a resource”.  This sets linguistic diversity up as a barrier to rather than an advantage for learning.

Sadly this problem isn’t unique to Ghana; It’s been seen in other post-colonial contexts like Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe etc.

More than half a century after independence from colonial rule with its imposition of the language of the colonial master, the education systems in Africa might be expected to reflect on this situation and make the necessary changes but unfortunately they don’t. Linguistic imperialism still prevails.

The misery begins at right from nursery  and continues into university education. In so-called Anglophone Africa or former British colonial Africa, students with a background in languages other than English struggle because English is the only medium of instruction Whereas education in the mother tongue is the order of the day in so-called developed societies.

From the first day  of the African child in school, they are confronted with a medium of instruction which they do not master and which is usually not the language spoken at home or in their community. On top of that, even their teachers very often have only restricted competence in English, due to under-performing teacher training coupled with the fact that its equally not their mother tongue.

It is not surprising therefore that African education systems are a total nuisance because learning does not take place in a language that the learners master or have first hand control over.

Poor teaching practices in an unfamiliar language leads to  learning by memorization and repetition without comprehension. However, whenever teaching happens in the mother tongue, it is successful, including the learning of a foreign language.

Educated in English, French or Portuguese only, African school leavers and graduates are often not as linguistically and cognitively capable as their international peers, who have benefited from mother-tongue based education  throughout their education. The time Africans waste to master foreign languages is the time their counterparts who own the language use in indulging in other relevant researches of interest making them always ahead.


  • A lack of political will on the part of governments in order not to strain political, economic and military relations with the former colonial powers by questioning persisting linguistic imperialism;
  • An adherence to European conceptions of homogenous ‘nation states’ based on a one country, one nation, one language philosophy, which automatically leads to exclusively monolingual strategies in education, fuelled by fear of ‘tribalism’ and secessionism
  • A reactionary ideology, driven by fear of the unknown, that is, a ‘status quo maintenance syndrome’ serving exclusively the elite in power, who fear losing their privileges through social change;
  • Social Darwinist and racist preconceptions about the ostensible ‘superiority’ of European and ‘inferiority’ of indigenous languages, fostering negative language attitudes towards the latter;
  • Ignorance about the pedagogical benefits of multilingual practices on the part of practically all stakeholders in education, that is, decision-makers, administrators, teachers, parents and learners;
  • Ignorance and distrust in the intellectualization potential of African languages through terminology development as part of language planning;
  • Overestimation of the costs of producing pedagogical materials in hundreds of languages, which simply disregards technological advances in terms of digitization, print on demand facilities, etc;

In conclusion, this is not an argument for mother tongue education instead of English medium education. It’s an argument for bi- or multilingual education.

Parents and children should not be forced to choose either English or an African language. Instead, children must be equipped with the ability to learn through and develop all their language resources throughout their schooling.

The continuing denigration of African languages and exclusive valuing of English is evidence of long shadow of colonialism and apathy on the side of African leaders. It also points to the internalization of colonial racism and the continuing power of whiteness. It’s time to realise that access to and proficiency even in English will not be achieved through English-only instruction.

Source: Africa Awakes || Serwaa Ampaafo

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