The Future of Languages of Kenya: Adopting the Principles of Environmental Conservation


By Kibiwott Peter Kurgat 

The problems facing local languages in Africa are akin to challenges faced by conservationists dealing with the environment. In other words, the problems attendant to conservation can be shown to inform challenges facing linguistic diversity in Africa.

Issues that have been seen as inimical to the development and promotion of the local languages include current educational policies and uninformed politics that have acted as factors that inhibit at best and, at worst, frustrate any attempts to make mother tongues an important part of national development.

Suggested solutions to environmental conservation can therefore be seen to illuminate on appropriate (informed) solutions that can help a country harness its cultural and linguistic diversity for the betterment of society in general. Borrowing from the principles of conservation, suggestions are made that can be taken on board in order to stem the threat to linguistic diversity in the Kenya.

The Future of Languages of Kenya (Kenyan Flag)

Kenya has been described as one of the African countries with a language policy that consciously promotes two languages, namely, Kiswahili and English (Lodhi 1993). Photo Credit: AfricansConnect


This paper argues that African linguistic diversity is part of the world’s heritage, which faces challenges and threats to its use as a sustainable resource in many ways akin to the world’s biological heritage. It also argues that Africa’s linguistic diversity is a complex issue that needs more than just an African solution. It requires concerted effort by all those who appreciate diversity as a resource to be treasured and who regard its sustenance as part of Africa’s contribution to “building universal culture and general stock of knowledge” (Kembo-Sure 2002:28).

Furthermore, Africa’s development is hinged on Africa creating policies that will empower the majority, who are the primary users of this diversity of languages to enable them to effectively participate in nation-building through the usage of these diverse languages as a resource. In the following discussion, therefore, the major issue that has been raised concerning Kenya’s linguistic situation is highlighted. This issue is that there is an urgent need for the nation to address the challenges posed by and on its linguistic diversity.

The paper will begin by providing a brief historical background, through highlighting both educational and political issuesthat have promoted the current status quo. This will also include a brief discussion of the current place of English and Kiswahili and vernacular in education. Concepts from ecology and conservation will also be used to show the extent of similarities between biological environments and what may be termed as “linguistic ecosystem” obtaining in Kenya and how these concepts can point the way solving threats to linguistic diversity.

Language in Education in Kenya: A Brief Historical Background

At the turn of the 19th Century, and for over six decades, the administration of Kenya underwent different states, starting as a sphere of influence, then part of a protectorate and finally a colony of Great Britain. Through omission or commission during this time,a number of educational policies that have contributed to the threats to linguistic diversitywere practiced. Indeed, within 25 years after Kenya ceased to be part of the East African Protectorate (it became a colony in 1920), the Phelps-Stokes Committee, which made two visits to Kenya, (1920-21, and 1924) noted that colonialism had begun to suppress and discourage the use of mother tongues in the colony (cited in Adegbija 1994).

In response to this criticism, the colonial education department introduced the use of African languages but still put hurdles in their development. For example, (and unfortunately, even after independence up to the 1980s) children in schools were made to carry discs or placards with writings such as “I AM STUPID” (Ngugi wa Thiongó 1981:11) whenever they were found speaking vernacular (and in some schools even speaking Kiswahili was “a crime”).

It should be noted here also that until 1983, Kiswahili was in the school syllabus as just another course given only three (3) hours on the timetable as compared to English which had (with Mathematics) eight (8) hours a week.

This is notwithstanding the fact that ten years earlier, in 1974, what seemed to look like the first official language policy of independent Kenya’s first government had been announced. At the time, the government designated Kiswahili as the national language and English as the official language of government. However, this pronouncement (made by (the former President) Jomo Kenyatta), neither went far enough to say how this policy would be implemented in the education sector nor did it say what would be the status of the other forty or so “national” languages (languages of Kenyan nationals!).

This kind of scenario seems to have given birth to a state of laissez  faire, which obtains up to now. Even when this policy was further developed through the recommendations of the Presidential Working Party on the 2nd University also known as the Mackay Committee(1981), which recommended that Kiswahili be made a compulsory and examinable subject, there is yet no clear language planning body in Kenya.

The Current Status Quo

In the education context, Kenya can be said to have adopted a mainly bilingual policy. In rural areas the mother tongue in the catchment area is generally used in the first three years of basic education. In urban areas, however, it is Kiswahili that is used at this level. Thereafter, English becomes the medium of instruction in the other levels.

At the macro-level, Kenya has been described as one of the African countries with a language policy that consciously promotes two languages, namely, Kiswahili and English (Lodhi 1993). However, the problem currently, which is being addressed more robustly than hitherto, albeit mainly by academics, is that, despite the promotion of the two languages (though admittedly, English is still seen as the more prestigious language) and the attendant arguments that they serve at best as necessarily “neutral” languages of wider communication, the majority of Africans who still live in the rural areas and number as much as 80% of the total Kenyan population, use the forty (40) odd mother tongues in most of their day-to-day transactions (Mbaabu 1996).

It seems to me, therefore, that it would logically follow that the overall cost of the above scenario is that the pre-eminence of what have been termed “metro-languages” will continue to deprive most Africans access to knowledge, is an impediment to their adequate participation in national politics and in most processes that would be necessaryfor the majority to be involved.

In other words, given this scenario, only less than 25% of African people know ex-colonial languages well enough to develop educationally, economically, socially and politically (Webb and Kembo-Sure 2000). This, it has been again argued, “slows down national integration and development of the nation-state, with a national culture, creates insecurity and feeling of inferiority among those who have to operate in the foreign language of the ruling elite” (Lodhi 1993:82).

To exacerbate the problem further, both colonial as well as post-colonial policies have largely, to say the least, neglected Kenya‟s indigenous languages to the extent that the popular, but mistaken belief obtaining on the ground (largely because of the laissez faire attitude of policymakers) is that Kenyan indigenous languages are not able to cope with modern realities of being effectively used to impart a meaningful education, which include aspects of modern science and technology.

Thus, the exaggeratedly high prestige that has been accorded to the English language and the fact that at the moment it seems to play a dominant role in the process of globalization, and the lack of political will to put in place policies that are supportive of the use of mother tongues, has created a serious situation in which mother tongue education exists on the margins. The result of this current state of affairs in which English is still given a higher status over other languages (including Kiswahili) is frequently manifested in, for example, job advertisements which state that employers would prefer prospective employees to have good communication skills (which in most cases means good communication skills in English!).

It should also be noted that normally, learning this second language is in formal situations that are far removed from the everyday experiences of the learners, and therefore plays very little meaningful role in their lives (Webb and Kembo-Sure ibid)Further, the policy of promoting the two languages, and particularly English, seems to have given rise to another problem, namely, that students have not become fluent in theuse of either language.

One reason that has been suggested is the nature of the target language. English for example, is different from most Kenya languages in terms of structure. Attempts to learn the language has sometimes led to mother tongue interference (wa Njoroge 1985). Perhaps it is instructive to note that almost if not all universities inKenya now teach some form of Communication Skills in English to undergraduatestudents. In some universities, it is also becoming increasingly necessary for studentswho are studying Kiswahili to be taught Communication Skills in Kiswahili to help them cope with studying the language at the university level!

It is also noteworthy that even with the promotion of Kiswahili as a national language, only a small percentage of the population is able to participate effectively on the issues of the day. All these, it isargued, have contrived to lead to further neglect of (the other) local languages and in effect put users in a position of disadvantage when it comes to political participation (Webb and Kembo Sure 2000).

Citizens of a country are only able to participate in meaningful development if they use alanguage they understand. This, again in my view, would be in a language that they are, among other things, also literate. And since one of the indices of peoples ‟quality of life (PQLI) is literacy, then Africa will lag behind in this particularly since fighting illiteracy here is likely to be “bogged down by ……dependence on the language of former colonizers” (Mbaabu 1996:10).

It seems, therefore, logical to say that basic education needs African languages, the language of the common African, not the languages of former colonizers (currently the languages of the elite). The promotion of mother tongue use, it is further argued, will create a shift that will result in our “implicating indigenousness in both objectives and practice of social, intellectual and emotional development of Africa and Africans” (Wane 2006). This will enable us to “evoke alternative paradigms of education, development and social growth through decolonising our ways of “knowing, teaching and learning” (Wane ibid).

To download the full study in PDF, click here: The Future of Kenyan Languages Adopting the Principles of Environmetal Conservation(PDF)

Kibiwott Peter Kurgat School of Arts and Sciences United States International University P.O. Box 14634 Nairobi 00800. Email: 

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