AFRICA: Integrating languages and culture into education

Representatives from more than 20 countries this month adopted a policy guide for promoting multilingual and multicultural education throughout general education systems in Africa, with a view to transforming societies.

Participants at the Conference on the Integration of African Languages and Cultures into Education held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, expressed their belief that "the use of local languages and cultures helps ensure access to education for all and a significant improvement in learning quality".

The conference was jointly organised by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, Adea, the Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning, UIL, and the Burkina Faso Ministry of Basic Education and Literacy.

It followed on from a 2005 conference in Windhoek, Namibia, where a study commissioned by Adea, UIL and the German coooperation agency GTZ demonstrated the need to promote multilingual education to improve learning outcomes and the efficiency of African education systems.

Opening the conference Odile Bonkoungou, Burkina Faso's Minister of Basic Learning and Literacy, noted that while more than 2,000 languages were spoken in Africa, they were regrettably still 'satellites' of foreign official languages and "stagnating at the margin of national systems, at the risk of gradually losing their richness and disappearing". She talked about promising trials of bilingual education in Burkina Faso's literacy and non-formal education programmes and plans to scale them up gradually.

Patrick Ayiecho Oliveny, Kenya's Deputy Minister of Education who was representing the Conference of African Ministers of Education, said everyone agreed it was "high time African languages were taught and integrated into education" and that policies to integrate African languages into education systems at all levels would "improve educational quality and access, but also enable our countries to forge an identity that is not based on European languages".

He said learning a lingua franca such as Kiswahili, which is spoken in Eastern and Central Africa, would broaden learners' opportunities for employment in the African market.

Ahlin Byll-Cataria, Executive Secretary of Adea, said the conference was the culmination of a long process involving many experiences in the use of African languages for teaching, study of the feasibility of implementing policies and practices and raising awareness in technical and financial partners. The process had led to the African Union including priority for promoting African languages and cultures in its Plan of Action for the Second Decade of Education for Africa.

Adama Ouane, Director of the UIL, said Africa remained the only continent where most children started school using a foreign language. But numerous studies had proved the effectiveness of using local languages for improving learning results, and the adverse consequences of current policies based on the belief that the major international languages were the only paths to upward economic mobility. He stressed that "Africa's multilingualism and cultural diversity are assets, not a burden".

In order to introduce multilingual and multicultural education policies successfully, the guide adopted by the conference said necessary action included establishing policy and legislative frameworks, developing monitoring and evaluation strategies, raising general awareness and advocacy, developing regional networks, strengthening institutions and capacity building, curriculum development and training, and research.

Conference participants included ministers, researchers, technical and financial partners and education experts from 26 countries including Central Africa Republic, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Libya, Malawi, Togo and Uganda.

They recommended that governments ensure the guide was distributed and its policy guidelines implemented, and proposed the mobilisation of regional economic commissions through the African Academy of Languages, Acalan, to develop a strategy for promotion of cross-border languages.

They also called on governments to facilitate the formation of partnerships with academics and the education community and between the public and private sectors, to set up inter-country quality centres, and to discuss the issue at the next meeting of the African Union's Conference of Education Ministers.