Let us rethink the policy on our mother tongues

Nsubuga Najib

What you need to know:

  • I have severally interacted with parents that consider the proficiency of the English language as a key indicator for their children’s learning progress.

Today, Uganda joins the rest of the world to celebrate the International Mother Tongue Day, held annually on the 21st February. This year’s international theme by UNESCO is “Multilingual education is a pillar for learning”

In order to promote early learning and the preservation of the native languages, the government passed a policy that requires all rural schools to use the dominant languages spoken in their areas as medium of instruction for children aged 3-6 years and English taught as a subject.

Urban areas were spared for their cosmopolitan and multilingual nature, since they attract children from different backgrounds.

Research on the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction indicates that children learn easily when instructed in their native language known as their first language. The mastering of the first language is also believed to be a great foundation for learning the second language and others.

Besides aiding effective learning, a mother tongue promotes self-esteem and critical thinking, a foundation of human identity, facilitates social interaction and cohesion, supports the acquisition and preservation of traditional knowledge and the vehicle through which culture is passed on from one generation to the other.

It is however believed that a learner needs 12 years to master their first language, yet in our case, instruction in the mother tongue stops at age 6 and switches to English in the prospective years. This therefore means that learners have difficulty in mastering both the first and second language.

It is thus not surprising that a literacy assessment study by Uwezo Uganda, revealed that over 40 percent of learners in rural communities can barely read and understand concepts in their mother tongue. 

The implementation of the policy on the use of the mother tongue as medium of instruction at early years has faced numerous challenges. The years set out in the policy are known for kindergarteners in Early Childhood Centers (ECD) that are privately owned. The policy doesn’t provide for the establishment of ECD centers at government schools, making it hard to influence.

A key non-technical hindrance to the implementation of the policy is the hostile mindset that takes the mother tongue to be backward and English as modern and the mark of academic achievement. 

I have severally interacted with parents that consider the proficiency of the English language as a key indicator for their children’s learning progress.

In this age, we still have schools that make it punishable for learners to speak their mother tongue at school and parents are very okay with it. It is therefore not surprising that a number of educated adult Ugandans are uncomfortable or cannot freely express themselves in their mother tongue.

This year’s theme and celebration should help us as a country to appreciate the value of an all-round multilingual education beyond the limitations of the current policy. The country needs to appreciate the possibility of a multilingual curriculum and the value of education programs that give learners at all levels a chance to explore using both their native and English languages.

This should, however, come with deliberate efforts that include comprehensive mindset change for all stakeholders, development of multilingual programs, investment in teacher training with emphasis on multilingual instruction, emphasis on competency-based learning and assessment and development of the necessary multilingual learning materials for learners at different levels.

The development of learning materials needs critical investment in the professional development of the different languages to be considered.

The transition from the status quo to a multilingual education system cannot happen robotically and instantly. It should start with small deliberate actions most especially the enforcement of the current policy on the mother tongue as the foundation for more robust changes. Without being deliberate, we risk the extinction of our mother tongues, our pride.

Mr Nsubuga Najib is the Principal Research & Culture Officer, Kingdom of Buganda.