Is the decision to use vernacular in the early years of schooling a realistic aspiration or a lofty ambition?
BY WANJIKU KIMANI
With the launch of the new curriculum, education in Kenya has been put in the spotlight and regardless of having experienced teething problems, the system is still expected to deliver stellar results with many eagerly awaiting proof of its success. In addition, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development approved the use of learning materials in vernacular for the early years of schooling. This contrasts with previous times when teachers were known to punish pupils for using their mother tongues in school. The indisputable fact is that English is often the second or third language for most students in Kenya, and the debate about the role of native languages in education is still ongoing.
Mother tongue policy
Mother tongue education (MTE) is a field that has been explored in many countries across Africa and the use of English and French as the language of instruction remains contentious. The practice of using English as the primary mode of education is sometimes demonised being said to promote future illiteracy and resulting in young adults who enter the workplace without proper cognizance of the fundamental concepts necessary to succeed in employment. Kenya faces a dilemma with regards to the implementation of MTE due to the wide range of languages found across the country. Some proponents of bilingual education such as the Kenya National Union of Teachers lean towards focus on Kiswahili as the main conveyor of learning outcomes which currently does not receive as much attention as English, even though it is more widespread.
Is Kiswahili a standardising factor?
A study by Grace Bunyi, a Professor of Education observed that in institutions where English is not the native language, teachers taught primarily through repetition and memorisation, which resulted in little student participation and critical thinking. She suggests that Kiswahili should be the first language and used as the primary mode of instruction before English is introduced. UNESCO established the recognition of multi-lingual education which refers to “…the use of at least three languages in education: the mother tongue(s), a regional or national language and an international language in education.” Kiswahili falls under the blanket of a regional/national language and has become lingua franca for many, and a necessity in communication and business. It is said to be spoken by approximately 15 million people as a first language and a further 80 million as a second or third language across 10 East African countries. It is of little wonder that it is now being promoted across the rest of Africa, yet we native speakers are struggling to place it on the mantle it deserves in education and the industry.
Bilingualism on the young adult mind
When referring to young adults in the context of education, a definition is key, and according to Erik Erikson, a widely studied German psychoanalyst, a young adult is broadly defined as a person aged between 20 and 40 years old. Alternatively, Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, who is famously known for his theory of cognitive development suggested that children from the age of twelve onwards can think about theoretical and abstract concepts. And with ever increasing skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning and systematic planning, they were termed as young adults. More recent research in the United States by the State Adolescent Health Resource Centre states that “The front part of the brain, responsible for functions such as complex reasoning, problem-solving, thinking ahead, prioritising, long-term planning, self-evaluation and regulation of emotion, begins to develop in early adolescence with a final developmental push starting at age 16 or 17.” The American Youth Development Institute acknowledges a young adult as one who can partake in more complex thought processes and displays an increased ability to comprehend more than one system for abstract thought. This is especially useful when it comes to the fields of mathematics and the sciences along with the ability to think about “ideas, values and perspectives”.
All these varying definitions can lead to differing conclusions about the level of cognitive development associated with emerging adulthood but more importantly, they overlap on the basis that there is still substantial growth during this developmental stage, which is influenced by many factors including language. Research by Cognition publication revealed that bilingual people perform certain tasks faster than their monolingual counterparts and are better at resolving conflicting information. One of their conclusions was that bilingualism positively influences the ability to pay attention – their study focused on young adults.
Improved quality of teaching
Through empirical findings; multilingualism and bilingualism have been proven to enhance executive control; namely, “the ability to carry out goal-directed behaviour using complex mental processes and cognitive abilities such as working memory and impulse inhibition”, resulting in the overall development of better thinking skills. Furthermore, UNESCO maintains that multilingual education increases the quality of teaching and learning therefore ensuring that students can increase understanding and creativity because of a higher quality of teaching.
Although not conclusive or even remotely decisive, the inclination to promote bilingualism in education is gaining momentum and will hopefully find tentative footing in Kenya – even if it is purely on a theoretical basis.
Wanjiku Kimani is a Digital Marketer and Journalist based in Nairobi. Email: email@example.com