Mary Walker: English hampers learning in Kenya

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Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safe house for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage.

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Mary Walker

I saw a sign in Nairobi the other day for Ultimate Spa and Beauty Palour and it got me thinking of all the funny, wonderful and sometimes very ironic advertising that one sees around Kenya. Whether a misprint or not, the British spelling of words is the rule here, so is it possible that this beauty salon is in fact advertising its services in skin-lightening treatments?

While some of the signs that I see are the result of misspellings or confused turns of phrase, others are just plain funny as in the Holiday In (sic) Hotel and Butchery on the way to Narok. Some of the businesses clearly are interested in providing one-stop shopping for their clients, such as a shop I walked by the other day in a particularly industrial area of Nairobi that sells “Tires and Sanitary Ware.”

A less funny example is Kenyan textbooks, all in English, that are littered with misspellings, grammatical errors and incorrect mathematical solutions. English is the official language of Kenya since independence from England in 1963 and is mandatory from the start of primary school. But Swahili is the language that unifies Kenyans and is spoken in all settings — with family, in beauty salons, in taxis, between employees in most work settings and on the street — with the exception of school. Students at all levels speak Swahili among themselves when they are not in class. I’ve watched students struggle with a concept that is taught to them in English and invariably switch to Swahili to finally sort it out among themselves. This is just one of the many issues that formerly colonized people face: The language they are expected to master today was imposed on them at some time in their past, but only through formal education. It is not their language of choice, nor is it the language that is most practical in most settings for the majority of people.

From a linguistic perspective, this reflects itself particularly when a person is struggling to verbalize something in English, they will invariably switch to their “native” language to do so.

In this context, it makes perfect sense why so many Kenyan students perform so poorly in school: They are not only trying to learn the material, but also in a language that is not theirs from birth. Imagine what it must be like to try to learn chemistry from a teacher speaking in Lithuanian, for example, even if you’ve had a year or two of Lithuanian taught to you by a non-Lithuanian teacher. And the link between English literacy and access to education is obvious. Only those who are able to go to school have any chance of developing a real and practical literacy in English.

And with each new round of public school English teachers, who themselves were taught by teachers who didn’t learn English from a native English speaker, inevitably there are many problems with literacy. From what I’ve seen, students struggle so much trying to understand what their teachers are saying that the content is often lost on them. I truly believe that the concepts being taught are not the issue but rather the English proficiency. Obviously, English is helpful in many professions in Kenya. But I can’t help wonder how much higher the practical literacy level — and thus ability to function in different spheres within the Kenyan social, political and economic community — would be for the vast majority of Kenyans if English proficiency weren’t such a linchpin of the education system here.

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