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World Bank & language of instruction in Africa

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  • Don Osborn
    I recently ran across a reference to a book on higher education in Africa that treats among other things the issue of educational policies regarding language
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 11, 2004
      I recently ran across a reference to a book on higher education in
      Africa that treats among other things the issue of educational
      policies regarding language of instruction: _A Thousand Flowers:
      Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African
      Universities_ (edited by Silvia Federici, Constantine George
      Caffentzis, and Ousseina Alidou; Trenton, NJ : Africa World Press,
      1999). The table of contents and an excerpt are available at
      http://shop.store.yahoo.com/africanworld/0865437734.html ; excerpts
      of the excerpt are included below.

      It's relevant to issues of multilingual literacy to consider the
      roles of national policies and international donors with regard to
      approaches to education, materials produced, etc.

      I'd be interested in any comment, including whether anything has
      changed in the last 5 years.

      Don Osborn


      On the surface of things, the World Bank has generally identified
      itself with the more nationalist school of thought, that encourages
      the use of African 'mother tongues" as media of instruction at least
      in the lower levels of elementary education. In spite of the
      rhetorical commitment of several African governments to the promotion
      of African languages as instructional media, the World Bank has
      compiled data demonstrating that, in the overwhelming majority of
      cases, the imperial languages - English, French and especially
      Portuguese - continue to be predominant, from the earliest phases of
      the educational process, almost throughout the continent. And, by all
      indicators, these Euro-languages are becoming increasingly
      consolidated in the African educational process, as in other domains
      of African society. The present direction in Africa, then, is towards
      a maximum convergence between Euro-languages and secular education,
      and, conversely, towards a maximum divergence between Afro-ethnic
      languages and the school. This is a picture that obviously portends a
      gloomy future for the "development" of African languages, and
      explains to some extent, the persistent calls by some nationalists
      for policies assisting the (re)centering of African languages in
      education and in the lives of the African people. Like many
      functionalists, who argue that English in Africa and in the "Third
      World," has become vital in its own right, in spite of its colonial
      roots, the World Bank too recognizes that fluency in the imperial
      languages "may help promote political stability and build national
      unity as well as serve economic purposes." Unlike the functionalists,
      however, the World Bank tries to project an image of sensitivity to
      the pedagogic advantages of using the tongues that are more familiar
      to the average African pupil, as media of instruction. It notes
      that "Current research suggests that... the acquisition both of oral
      fluency and of literacy in a second language is most successful when
      there is a strong foundation in the first language..." (World Bank
      1988: 44) Against this backdrop, the World Bank claims that the most
      effective educational approach is one that begins instruction in a
      local language and switches to the second language - almost
      invariably the European tongue of colonial origins - at a later stage.
      However, in spite of its proclaimed conviction about the pedagogic
      and educational value of "mother-tongue" instruction, the World Bank
      claims that it cannot impose an educational language policy on
      African countries. Each country, we are told, must be free to
      determine which language policy is best commensurate with its own
      unique political, economic, cultural and linguistic peculiarities.
      This same institution that has been coercing African governments into
      overhauling their educational structures virtually overnight,
      suddenly becomes mindful of the national sovereignty of these
      countries, and of their right to linguistic self-determination.
      Still the World Bank does not seem to regard the linguistic
      Africanization of all primary education and beyond as a worthwhile
      effort. Its publication on strategies for stabilizing and
      revitalizing the universities, for example, makes absolutely no
      mention of the place of language at the tertiary level of African
      education (Saint 1993). The World Bank's structural adjustment
      prescriptions with regard to African education further betrays its
      Euro-linguistic agenda. The shortage of instructional materials in
      local African languages is, in many instances, as widespread today as
      it was in the 1950s, when UNESCO carried out its survey
      on "vernacular" instruction.
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