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Why are schools punishing children for speaking African languages?

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire looks at the various reasons for ostracising African languages in African schools and shows how unconvincing they are, arguing for more vigilance in the defence of the use of local languages in African schools.



In various schools in Uganda, and some other parts of Africa, children as young as five are punished for speaking African languages, indigenous languages and mother tongues at school. The modes of punishment differ. The most common one in Uganda is wearing a dirty sack until you meet someone else speaking their mother tongue and then you pass the sack on to them. In some schools, there are specific pupils and students tasked with compiling lists of fellow pupils and students speaking mother tongues. This list is then handed over to a teacher responsible for punishing these language rule-breakers. According to Gilbert Kaburu, some schools have aprons that read: “Shame on me, I was speaking vernacular” handed over to an offender of the No Vernacular rule, who then is tasked with finding the next culprit to give the apron. Most of the punishments, in their symbolism emphasise the uselessness of the African languages.

Commenting on a photo of two children in Uganda wearing dirty sacks as punishment for speaking their mother tongues, Zimbabwean writer, Tendai Huchu says:

“That sums up our self loathing and inferiority complex. Junot Diaz once said we do a better job of enforcing white supremacy ourselves than white supremacists ever could. I should add, notice how the punishment consists of wearing sack-cloth. The image is telling. You are rags if you speak your own language.”

Halima Hosh, agreeing with Tendai Huchu opines:


“It’s outrageous. What a slave mentality that a colonial language is considered higher or better/more worth than their own local language. Unbelievable. Do the Europeans learn any African language in school? No. Why not? Because we are not proud of our heritage, not proud of our languages, not proud of Black African history. These teachers need to be fired.”

This image of two kids forced to wear sacks for speaking Luganda in school generated much discussion on Facebook this week.

This image of two kids forced to wear sacks for speaking Luganda in school generated much discussion on Facebook this week.

The loud symbolism and absurdity of the punishments for speaking local languages and the colonial roots of the practice aside, there is no convincing argument for the contemporary ostracization of African languages in African schools, fifty years and thereabouts after independence. The justifications for the present-day banning of African languages in African schools range from the need to prioritise the learning and quality of English/French (insert any other European colonial Language) over the local languages to the building of national unity and identity through globalisation. Below I show the demerits of these arguments.

Speaking African languages affects the learning of English

It has been argued that vernacular affects the learning and speaking of English (or any other colonial language) thus children need to unlearn their mother-tongues so they can learn and speak English better. Speaking English with indigenous language-inflected accents to those who make this argument is not a good job of speaking the language. There is effort put into enforcing a British accent (whatever that means). The assumption is that the less local language you speak the better your English speaking and writing abilities and vice versa.

Henry Odhiambo II, who studied from a school where children would be caned for using their mother-tongues at school in rural Kenya says that:

“it instilled so much fear that when we met outside school the kids weren’t sure what language to speak to each other thinking they may be reported and get a beating, the sad thing is that what was being spoken would pass for gibberish if a true English speaker were to give their own honest opinion.”


From Odhiambo’s experience, we see that children lose confidence so young for being punished for speaking ‘vernacular’ yet confidence is an important attribute for good learning. Learning by punishment is not necessarily effective learning, thus the more children are forced to learn English by sacrificing their mother-tongues, the worse their English language proficiency gets.

English is needed as a common language

For many a multi-ethnic African country, with several indigenous languages, it is argued that it is important to ‘enforce’ English as a common language. Kibibi (not her real name) says that unless you start conducting official business and exams in vernacular, which she has problems with because it reinforces differences, it is important to enforce the speaking of English. She adds that she was bullied for being ‘uppity’ in primary school because she could not speak Luganda, which is not her language and thus is not spoken in her home.

The vulgarisation of ethnicity in many African countries was essential to the divide and rule policy of the British as it emphasised the de-tribalisation of a class of elite that would be left in charge of the colonies at independence to easily transition into neo-colonies. This elite was deliberately mis-educated to hate their own ethnic identities while the majorities of the populations were deliberately left to continue their life as normal in their ethnic organisations. In multi-ethnic countries like Uganda, the offspring of the Anglicised elite feel that ethnicity is a negative influence on the growth of national unity. They thus support a de-tribalisation policy.

The problem is that de-tribalisation in post-colonial Africa is impossible. People are tied to their ethnic identities and education does not necessarily de-tribalise them. Neither is it true that speaking the same language guarantees unity. Rwanda and Somalia are good examples. Despite linguistic unity, the two countries have had enough experience of civil strife. Kenya, with its Kiswahili promotion policy and English preference since 1963, still experienced ethnic strife in 2007. Co-existence is not necessarily homogeneity. There can be unity in diversity, including linguistically.


English is the international language of business

It is also argued that English and other colonial languages offer advantages to children in today’s global language. It is their passport to the global stage. Business within the hallowed walls of the Bretton Woods institutions, or at the World Economic Forum is not yet conducted in IsiZulu, Yoruba, Luganda, Lingala and other African languages and so African children need to know an ‘international’ language to survive at that stage.

Shiphrah Nidoi suggests that:

“we can learn western languages without shunning our own. English is our official language, it is internationally recognised. For popular African languages to be recognised internationally, we need to stand our ground and draw attention to them by speaking the languages. Embrace your heritage, it is beautiful. The world will go with what goes.”

I agree with Nidoi. Despite the fact that indigenous languages are not effectively supported by state policy and none has been made Uganda’s official or national language, communication in the country happens more in indigenous languages than English (the official language) or Kiswahili (the national language). Mass retail trade in Kampala is largely impossible without the knowledge of Luganda, the most spoken indigenous language in the country. Multinational companies in the telecommunications sector have to translate their adverts to a minimum of four indigenous languages to reach the target markets. There are far more indigenous language radio stations in the country than English speaking stations, reaching a much larger audience. The Luganda daily tabloid-newspaper Bukedde sells more copies than any other daily newspaper, many of which are in English. Global businesses thus need the indigenous languages to be able to penetrate African markets.


I will not speak vernacular in class

It is illogical to abandon the indigenous languages while the populations that provide market for products stay hooked to them. We are losing our competitive advantage over foreign companies in our own markets. The list of the United Nations official languages (or any other international organisation) is not fixed. More languages can be added if there is proof that they are important for the conduct of their business. The core purpose of language is communication and people in the business of running international organisations understand this hence the encouragement of multilingualism in diplomacy and international relations schools. If Africans do not support the use of their own languages, no one will do it for them.

Amos Kasibante, who once confronted a Uganda Education Minister in the 1980s over the policy of punishing children for speaking indigenous languages is livid about the situation. He asks:

“Why are politicians who are engaged in anti-colonialist rhetoric not challenging this practice? How can it survive today under the fundamental change ushered in by the NRM (the Yoweri Museveni-led National Resistance Movement came into power in Uganda in 1986 promising very many reforms, with a decolonisation rhetoric underpinning many of the suggested reforms)? How come there is no flood of protests in the media about the prevalence of this practice? How come the Ministry of Education is quiet about or oblivious to its existence? How come that even churches are quiet about it and even some church schools could be perpetuating the abuse?”

Barbra Natifu agreeing with Tendai Huchu and Halima Hosh reasons that the practice is a consequence of colonised minds. She suggests that the language debate should be re-tabled and the dehumanising treatment of children stopped. She labels the punishment of children for identifying with their own cultural and linguistic identities a crime against humanity. In her opinion, this must end and the education curriculum reformed to incorporate indigenous languages.

There have been debates as to the extent and relevance of indigenous languages in the Ugandan curriculum at many levels. No such debate exists when it comes to English. In 2012, a proposed new curriculum scrapping Ugandan indigenous languages from the Ordinary Level sparked an outcry in local language rights activists’ circles, including an online petition to the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament. The idea was reportedly dropped.


In the same country Uganda, there is a policy that the language of instruction at early primary school education levels is the predominant indigenous language of the area, up to Primary Three. In Primary Four, teachers are guided to use both the indigenous language and slowly transition to using English. This policy is however grossly disregarded by a number of private schools, especially in urban areas whose logic according to Gilbert Kaburu, an Education expert, is to prepare pupils early enough for national examinations set in English. Most government-aided schools in the rural areas comply and indeed there are cases when it is suggested that their dismal performance in national examinations is due to the use of indigenous languages in the lower levels of education.

There is hope that with sustained advocacy, that the ostracization of indigenous languages will end. The Ministry of Education can be put on pressure to monitor schools that implement a No Vernacular policy. The Ministry can also be pushed to ensure the implementation of instruction in local languages in the early stages of primary education. We are the same people who lose out in the global marketplace, but also in our own home-grown markets because we are losing our competitive advantage in the name of speaking others’ languages best. The core purpose of language is communication and to communicate with the larger mass of the African population, one needs to speak the African indigenous languages.