By Florence Gichoya
Last month’s proposal by the ministry of education that primary schools should start teaching in vernacular has elicited intense public debate including the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT). Sobriety in debating the issue is necessary, with a clear understanding that the proposal doesn’t seek to substitute the role of English and Swahili in education.
A lot of negativity in adapting mother tongue (MT) is evident, despite Kenya’s language diversity. In the recent past, many parents have not been teaching their children MT. The result is a society of young people who can hardly express themselves in their vernacular language. Although it is not mandatory to speak one’s MT, we can’t divorce ourselves from our cultures. Kenya has been plagued by tribalism and we have developed a negative attitude towards speaking and identifying ourselves with our MT. Parents should be involved in imparting a positive attitude on vernacular language. If we can appreciate our native language, then we can accept and appreciate other languages.
According to the Cheavens report (1957) on Vernacular Languages in Education around the World, children who learn vernacular language before switching to a second language tend to develop better social skills.
Last year, South Africa gave a directive that all public primary schools start teaching a vernacular language in 2014. South Africa has 11 official languages, making it the country with the most official languages in the world.
Research has shown that children can learn different languages at the same time. Children are more accommodative of other people’s customs and norms and as a result, promote harmony. We will finally be able to use our diversity as a source of strength.
For instance, a Borana child in Narok can have the privilege of learning and speaking Borana and Maasai languages. Children will eventually get rid of stereotypes and be accommodative of other cultures. Learning a vernacular language will help the learners to have an identity by connecting with their cultural backgrounds hence creating holistic individuals.
Vernacular languages have opened opportunities in the fields of arts, theatre, publishing houses and media. We can attest to the success stories of the vernacular radio stations in Kenya. They are profitable and have listenership that rivals English and Swahili stations.
As the government and various stakeholders implement the directive, there are genuine concerns on how the curriculum on vernacular languages will be developed and standardized considering there are different languages across the nation.
A big challenge would be changing the society’s attitude towards teaching MT. There is also the question on how children should be examined. At this juncture it would only be fair to use vernacular as a language of instruction and not taught as a subject. There is need for the government to consult with all the stakeholders in order to make the initiative a success.
Despite all our different views on this issue, a general consensus is that some phrases, idioms and proverbs are more expressive in their native state. Food for thought!