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Could Kenya really lose its minority languages?

February 21, 2024

Kenya is a multilingual nation with dozens of Indigenous languages. But it risks losing this language diversity unless Kenyan children are taught them at school.

School children play on pullup rings and a rope bridge in a playground
Six languages have become extinct already in Kenya, and 16 are at serious risk of disappearingImage: Thomas Frey/IMAGO

"Our mother tongue unites us people from the Luo community," said Isaac Oguto, who comes from Kenya's Nyanza region in which Lake Victoria is located. Around 4 million people speak Luo in the East African nation, mainly in the west. Other Luo speakers live in Uganda and Tanzania.

Luo, also known as Dholuo, is one of the most widely spoken of Kenya's 42 Indigenous languages — although some estimates put the number as high as 60 or 70.

All of the country's Indigenous languages are minority languages. The largest, Kikuya, is only spoken by 17% of Kenyans, while others, such as Turkana or Borana, are spoken by less than 1% of the population.

Kenya's linguistic "diversity" and the "development and use of Indigenous languages" is even protected in its constitution.

"For many years, people of my tribe have been speaking their mother language more than other languages," said Ramadhan Sadan. His first language is Borana, which is spoken in nomadic pastoral communities living in the border regions between Kenya and Ethiopia.

"In Kenya, there is a relatively strong and positive attachment to Indigenous languages," according to linguists Angelina Nkuku Kioko and Josephat Rugemalira in an analysis on the future of Kenya's mother tongues.

"But you speak English to colleagues and the boss at the office, Kiswahili to the house servant, and the Indigenous language to your tribesman to signal belonging."

Kiswahili — which is widely spoken in East Africa — is one of Kenya's two official languages, the other being English.

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Talking to DW on the eve of International Mother Language Day, marked every year on February 21, Borana speaker Sadan stressed that communities need to preserve their mother tongues.

But a raft of factors hinder the passing on of Kenya's vernaculars. For one, like elsewhere in Africa, the British colonial legacy of the education system prioritizes English.

Another reason is the rise of inter-ethnic marriages. Then there's the rapid migration of young people from rural to urban centers where they are no longer surrounded by speakers of their mother tongue.

"When children go to upcountry, they should not get mixed up with other languages," warned Lucy Wambui Mwangi, a Kikuyu from Kenya's central region.

A throng of people walk down a narrow late in the second-hand clothes section of Gikomba Market in Kenya's capital, Nairobi
Moving from a rural community to an urban centers like Nairobi can make it difficult to maintain, or pass on, your mother tongueImage: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

But it seems it is too late for that. Nearly 60% of those sampled in Kenya's capital Nairobi don't speak the mother tongue of either parent at home, finds 2023 research by African language professor Chege Githiora from London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Another survey found that more than a quarter of all households in Kenya, or 27%, spoke Kiswahili as their primary language in 2021.

Six languages have become extinct already in Kenya, and 16 are at serious risk of disappearing.

Teaching Indigenous languages to pre-primary pupils

Kikuyu speaker Wambui Mwangi believes that "helping children know their mother tongue" is the key to preserving Indigenous languages in Kenya.

In this, Kenya is ahead of many other African nations — on paper at least. To help preserve and promote its diverse cultures, and improve children's learning, Kenya's Ministry of Education has approved the development of learning materials in 18 Indigenous languages from nursery to Grade 3.

The National Curriculum Policy also states that the language of instruction until Grade 3 should be the language of the catchment area, that is, the Indigenous language spoken in that region.

Numerous studies show that children who are first taught in their home language are more successful at school, have higher literacy levels and are less likely to drop out.

A row of children sit in a room looking at the teacher
Kenya's linguistic 'diversity' and the 'development and use of Indigenous languages' is protected in its constitutionImage: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

But this language-friendly policy is often thwarted, as several studies show. There is still a lack of teaching materials in local languages and on top of this, teachers might not speak the language of the region to which they are sent.

Children who speak a variety of languages can also be in one classroom together, meaning teachers may fall back on to English or Kiswahili as the language of instruction. 

A 2023 case study of schools in Kenya's Kiamba district, which is just north of Nairobi, found that parents felt the current curriculum was "ineffective" in teaching Indigenous languages.

The parents "suggest that more resources, such as trained teachers, textbooks, and teaching materials, are needed to improve the effectiveness of the curriculum. They also suggested that the curriculum should be more practical and interactive to make learning more engaging and enjoyable for the students," the study notes.

Two school students have their heads together as they look at a math book in the classroom
In Kenya, students have to learn new concepts, like math, while they are still learning English, the language of instructionImage: Beryl Achieng/DW

English promoted as global language

Then there is the issue with English being the only language used for teaching from Grade 4 onward — while Kiswahili is part of the curriculum, it is taught as a language and not used as a medium of instruction. Indigenous languages become optional.

"The rationale for this policy is predicated on neoliberal ideals equating English language proficiency with greater opportunity and access to global sources of power, knowledge, and wealth," finds a 2023 policy brief looking at Kenya's educational policies.

And parents themselves may believe — erroneously — that speaking their mother tongue to their school-aged children may hamper their proficiency in English, which of often seen as the only way to a good education and wealth.

A world-first study looking at factors that put Indigenous languages under pressure found that more years of schooling increased the level of a language's endangerment.

To combat this, the researchers highlight the importance of build school curricula that fosters Indigenous language proficiency. While the study examined languages worldwide, Kenya can also take note.

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James Shimanyula in Nairobi contributed to this article.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.