‘Different languages of instruction could help African education move forward’
The high number of students that we are used to in the West would never have been possible if Latin were still the language of instruction in our universities. In his PhD defence on 16 September, Bert van Pinxteren will argue that Africa could gain a lot from a similar language switch in secondary education.
Starting in their final years of primary school, African children are usually taught in the language of their former colonisers: English, French or Portuguese. But the vast majority of Africans do not speak these languages well enough to be educated in them.
This is an important issue that Bert van Pinxteren examined in his dissertation, Language Education and Identity in Africa. Van Pinxteren earned his research master’s degree in African Studies in Leiden late in his career. His research, which he did as an external PhD candidate, stemmed from this. He used methods from intercultural and social psychology based, amongst other things, on data from the Afrobarometer surveys that are conducted every few years in more than 30 African countries.
‘Within ten years, there will be so many children enrolled at school in many countries that it will be a problem to ensure they all have a good enough command of the language in which they are being taught.’
More and more Africans continue to study
While 70 to 80 percent of children in developed countries continue their education after primary school, the percentage is much lower in Africa. ‘Botswana is an outlier with 25 percent, but 15 percent or less is more common’, says Van Pinxteren. ‘African countries are investing heavily in their education and the rate of enrolment is growing. Within ten years, there will be so many children enrolled in many countries that it will be a problem to ensure they all have a good enough command of the language in which they are being taught.’ Then the growth in education will stagnate because not enough children speak English, French or Portuguese at an acceptable level.
Van Pinxteren: ‘Imagine if all our education [in the Netherlands, ed] after secondary school was in English. Then almost all children would have to leave secondary school with a command of English at the B2 level. This is not possible anywhere in Europe. Estonia does it best, and even then only 40 percent of pupils achieve that level.’ Can you imagine: in Africa, after the first years of primary school, pupils are taught in a language that is foreign to most of them.
Opting for a designed language
The solution: instruction in the children’s own language. But which language is that? ‘Africa is said to have 2,000 living languages. But according to the ethnological standards that indicate that number, we have 11 living languages in the Netherlands. Limburgish and Sallands, for example. However, children who speak Sallands can get an excellent education in Dutch. Thus, I’ve concluded that it is not necessary to offer education in 2,000 languages.’
Van Pinxteren makes a distinction between ‘discerned’ and ‘designed’ languages: the latter are a subset of living, discernable languages in which official communication takes place in a certain area. Dutch is one example. ‘A large majority of people already know the language or can learn it easily. In my research, I show that in most areas of Africa one can also choose such a designed language, which would make education accessible to almost all people.’
Since 1945, Indonesia has successfully achieved such a language switch in education, explains Van Pinxteren. ‘Bahasa Indonesia is based on Malay, but it is grammatically simpler. Now that we can see that a language barrier will impede the growth of African education, it is important to deal with it. Otherwise, economic growth will also come to a halt.’
‘A small elite has mastered the language of the coloniser, in which the government still communicates. The general public can barely understand it, if at all.’
Designed language for government too
Not only schools, but also the rest of government should communicate in strategically chosen designed languages, Van Pinxteren explains. ‘Colonisation created an enormous divide in many African societies, which still persists today. A small elite has mastered the language of the coloniser, in which the government still communicates. The general public can barely understand it, if at all. They cannot follow the social debate either, let alone participate in it. The way we discuss the inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the Netherlands, for example, is beyond most people. That stands in the way of cultural renewal.’
Two legal systems side by side
The divide caused by colonisation goes even further, says the PhD candidate. ‘Two legal systems sometimes exist side by side. For example, a widow in Kenya with children may be completely dependent on the kindness of her in-laws because she is not allowed to own land herself. At the same time, under the other – English-speaking – system, she would be allowed to do so and would be able to earn money to send her children to school.’
COVID-19 crisis helps slightly
There is still a long way to go until the language switch, Van Pinxteren predicts. Perhaps the coronavirus crisis is helping a little. ‘In the past, it didn’t matter what ordinary people did in their dwellings, but now health risks can only be reduced if you reach everyone with information about measures and vaccines. This has forced governments to communicate in local languages.’
On Friday 17 September the African Studies Centre will hold a seminar based on this dissertation.
Text: Rianne Lindhout