Mother Tongue in Education: The African Experience


The long spell of colonial rule in Africa, might have, temporarily, solved the problem of communication between African countries themselves, on the one hand, and these countries and the rest of the world, on the other. However, this created a complex linguistic situation on the ground that African governments have, since, been unable to solve. And as a result, national educational systems are constantly on the limp and need urgently to be revamped, but the burning question is: how?

Africa is home to thousands of languages and idioms. These numerous languages can, tentatively, be classified in the following manner:

      1-      Tribal language: an autochthonous idiom spoken by the members of a given tribe only. Unfortunately such languages are in imminent danger of extinction.

      2-      Community language: a native language used by several tribes in a given geographical area.

      3-      National language: a native language or languages used within a given country for communication and cultural purposes.

     4-      Trans-national language: a native language or languages used in more than one country, such as Pular, Swahili, Wolof, etc.

     5-      Official language: a foreign language or languages imposed by colonial powers as a lingua-franca for use in administration, business circles, trade and schools: such as French, English, Portuguese, etc.

It is a known fact that the issue of mother tongue[1] in education in Africa is saddled with pitfalls and drawbacks, even if many African countries have, seemingly, devised waterproof strategies to promote the use of such native languages in school curriculum. And as if the actual situation of mother tongues is not complex and intricate enough, globalisation is adding more salt to injury by insidiously pressuring people, through the magic of ICT, to drop altogether their  “useless” native languages as well as some colonial languages for the English language.

The present paper will attempt to shed light on and discuss the situation of mother tongues in the African educational systems from such angles as:

–          Establishment of true national curricula;

–          Textbooks;

–          Teacher training;

–          Language policy;

–          Literacy, etc.

And aim at painting the true picture of the situation both in some North African and Sub-Saharan countries that were colonised by France the last century, given, somewhat, that the colonial educational legacy is similar.

     Omnipotence of colonial legacy

The worst thing about French colonialism is not so much its pronounced paternalism in Africa but its linguistic carbon print on African national identities which acted as an umbilical cord difficult to sever and led to an era of disguised linguistic and cultural imperialism legitimated by the so-called world francophone movement.

Initially, this movement was purely cultural with the primary objective to perpetuate French presence in Africa, but in the early 80s, as English language, emboldened by the digital revolution moved ahead to become the universal language, the French attempted to check its ineluctable advance by calling the world to adopt cultural specificity “specificité culturelle” and multiculturalism. But this cultural specificity was only good for the defense of French culture from English hegemony, not the other way around for other small countries, because French officials continued to defend bitterly their linguistic imperialism especially through their own autochthonous pressure groups present in key political spheres and in trade and business.

Indeed, when the French first set foot in Africa in early 19th century (Algeria 1830), they engaged into a massive cultural colonisation making French the official language of education, administration and business, and discouraged the autochthonous people from using their national languages and scripts.

This dislike of local idioms springs from the fact that Islamic religious lodges in North, Central and West Africa resisted this foreign occupation and rallied large swaths of population under the banner of Holy War jihad against the Christian occupiers.  So, it took the French quite a while to “pacify” their colonies, alienating in the process large sections of the population that became many decades later political and armed decolonisation movements.

In Algeria, though the religious leader Emir Abdelkader failed to oust the French, yet his bravery and memory lasted long enough o ignite the national movement of FLN that led this country in 1963 to independence from French colonialism.

Algeria, after independence, disheartened by the atrocities of French occupation and then cultural colonialism made Arabic the official language of the nation and, somewhat attempted, to no avail, to make English the first foreign language in school.  This politically-motivated move had dire consequences on the country.  On the one hand by adopting Arabic, Tamazight-speaking Algerians were discriminated against and their culture disregarded. On the other, the arabisation of the educational system created a militant and vociferous Islamic elite Front Islamique du Salut -FIS- that vowed to reislamise the society.  This political movement, first acclaimed by the have-nots of the military regime made the FIS win the parliamentary elections of 1988.  Threatened, by this energetic and flamboyant political movement, the army-controlled government annulled the results of the elections.  This led to a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of 900,000 people over a decade of turmoil.

In Morocco and Tunisia, independence did not mean the end of French linguistic imperialism, but on the contrary French language flourished even more in all spheres of life in spite of the arabisation process started in the 70s in the educational system but never reached administration and business.

A somewhat similar situation is witnessed in Western and Central African nations.  The French left decades ago but their language and cultural influence remained vivid.  In Senegal, a French-educated intellectual, Leopold Seda Senghor, a nationalist with a mild stance on colonialism encouraged a return-to-the-source movement glorifying African identities.  This cultural movement that called itself negritude was in no way a negation of the French linguistic supremacy, because right after independence most Western and Central African nations adopted French as the official language in education, politics and business.  This is the state of affairs in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Central Africa, Gabon, Congo, etc.

The change in attitude towards mother tongues came, not through the concerned countries but through an African intellectual, Ahmadou Tahar M’bow, who was elected Secretary General of UNESCO, and immediately launched a series of field programmes aimed at the rehabilitation of African languages in the following areas:

1- African languages and idioms as vehicles of daily communication between intra-national and trans-national communities, often separated by colonial artificial borders;

2- Full rehabilitation of national languages and the subsequent recognition of oral literature and music;

3 – Use of national languages in educational curriculum and literacy programmes

These “revolutionary measures” had as an immediate outcome:

1- Recomposition of the national identity around the local languages;

2- Recognition of the African identity; and

3- Review of the national curriculum

As a matter of fact, since, the French language, though it kept its quality of official language, lost its cultural and educational supremacy in favour of African languages that were in the past belittled by the French colonial power.  In fact, during the colonial period the French encouraged the locals to write in the language of Molière because it was the language of fine literature and even set aside money to publish their work and make it known worldwide.

        Actual status of mother tongues

The rehabilitation of national languages in Africa started in early 1980 at the university level by serious research undertaken by linguists on different idioms spoken in a given country or area.  Students motivated by the writings of their professors joined in the fray and went into the field investigating local languages in their different aspects: phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics and language use.

However, the need for the recognition of national languages as full vehicles of communications and means of durable development made itself felt around 1982 when many countries launched massive programmes of literacy in the countryside with the aim to help population to become financially independent and take care of their own lives rather than wait for governments, that, all in all, lack financial means, to come to their rescue.

As such, local associations for durable development were founded in black African countries with the help of international organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, etc.  These associations with little means and much determination launched their first literacy programmes “dans la brousse” (in the bush), with in mind, the following noble objectives:

1-      Alphabétisation des populations rurales;

2-      Aider la femme et la jeune fille à sortir de l’anonymat ;

3-      Combattre certaines pratiques ancestrales néfastes: pratique de la magie, mutilation génitale féminine, etc.;

4-      Inculquer les règles de l’hygiène et les bases de la santé reproductive et l’économie sociale ;

5-      Aider la population rurale a sortir de la précarité ;

6-      Permettre a la gente féminine de devenir financièrement indépendante ; and

7-      Permettre aux familles pauvres de sortir du besoin.

The salient feature of this venture was that it offered a community-based programme which guaranteed its continuity and success in the long run.  The external intervention is limited to technical help and financial support.  By making such a programme, a homespun product, the target population would identify with it and strive to keep it going for the benefit of everyone.

These community-based literacy programmes scored quite a substantial success in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and various other sub-Saharan countries because people realised that not only they could become literate in their own mother tongue but they could also learn a trade or a business and become financially independent.

As matter of fact these literacy mother tongue programmes allowed many communities to become known nationally and to improve the economic lot of their members and their social status. This unexpected change defeated gradually long-established and long-entertained fatalism and managed to give hope to people who believed deep down that they are “done damned” and they are born to be poor and die poor.

These literacy programmes gave people faith in their mother tongues and contrary to the pre-conceived idea of the colonial times that these idioms are good for religion only, they realised, to their astonishment, that they could be of much use in their economic pursuit.

But Mother tongues cannot only be means for economic improvement of the local population, they can, also, be of much use in such important areas as:

1- Raising awareness as to what concerns health issues;

2- Improving political education concerning participation in elections both as voters and candidates;

3- Highlighting the benefits of good governance; and

4-Encouraging people to undertake literacy pursuits in their mother tongues.

In his paper entitled “Complacency and Oversight in the use of Mother Tongues in HIV/AIDS Sensitization Campaigns: the case of Rural Areas in North Eastern Nigeria,” Baba Mai Bello, argues for the use of mother tongues in awareness-raising campaigns in rural areas:

“By analyzing and evaluating the present state of sensitization campaign vis-à-vis the linguistic compositions and needs of the communities in this region, we argue that the campaigns against HIV/AIDS in rural areas of this region may be fighting a loosing battle since they do very little, owing to language limitations, to reach their target audience.  With the aid of a research-administered questionnaire in select parts of some rural areas, we aim to demonstrate how the low awareness of HIV/AIDS as compared to urban areas may be directly linked to the absence of mother tongues in these campaigns, suggesting once more the importance of mother tongues in public awareness campaigns.”[2]

Realising the importance of mother-tongues in both human development and nation-building, UNESCO and other international organizations convened an international forum in Dakar, Senegal, 26-28 April 2000, during which 150 countries pledged to provide universal basic education:[3]

…ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality.

Nadine Dutcher, a researcher affiliated with the Center for Applied Linguistics, based in Washington, DC, discusses in her paper (Dutcher, 2003) discusses amply in a paper entitled: ”Promise and perils of mother tongue education” through the child’s first language or mother tongue, drawing from the speaker’s experiences with three national programs, each in different phases:[4]

1-       “those that are in the preparatory phase, such as the mother tongue education program in Vanuatu;

2-       relatively new programs, such as the mother tongue primary education program in Eritrea, and;

3-      well-established programs, such as the intercultural and bilingual education program in Guatemala.”

The paper goes on to discusses internal support of mother tongue-first education programs—the decision to begin, language planning and development, materials preparation, teacher selection and training, research and evaluation—and external support such as the role of national and local government, community involvement, the difficulties of taking a pilot program to a national scale, and the role of outside agencies:[5]

“We know that most children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, demonstrate increased self-confidence and continue to perform better than those who start school in a new language. The outlook for successful education is brighter when the school builds on the foundation of the mother tongue in teaching a second and third language. Such is the promise of mother tongue education. But there are perils as well. They include the possibility of ineffective teaching for a number of reasons and lack of support for mother tongue education on the part of teachers, parents and government.”            

National curriculum: reality or fiction?

In the euphoria of national independence from colonial powers, African national governments used a populist slogan: create an educational system to replace the colonial one.  The populations responded favourably to this idea whereas specialists shivered at the thought pointing out, at no avail that such a daunting task might take decades to achieve and enormous funds, which both were difficult to come by.

Realising that they cannot stand by their promises, the African governments proceeded to apply some cosmetic changes on the form leaving the content in its colonial shape.  As such, all important topics were taught in the colonial language, as in the past, only few insignificant subjects were done in national languages and none in tribal languages or local idioms.  As a result, there were a lot of levels of alienation for the African learner.

In the colonial period, the African learner had to first acquire the colonial language in the primary level of education before he could have access to the other levels of education.  Because of this linguistic hurdle, only the lucky few, the offspring of notables and military and political elites made it to the top, in the long run.

So, in the first decade of independence no serious changes were brought to the curriculum in content and philosophy, it remained pretty much as it were during the colonial times.

However, African countries encouraged and emboldened by the stand taken by UNESCO as to what concern African native languages, under the aegis of Mokhtar M’bow, started taking a more positive attitude towards their national languages and viewing them as tools for durable development rather than obstacles.  This first started in the field of literacy, after scoring several successes and getting a positive response from the focal population, African educational authorities started thinking of using mother tongues in school curriculum with the introduction of Arabic in Chad, Wolof in Senegal, and Pular in Mali.

Both R. Wildsmith-Crismarty and M. Gordon from the University of Bayreuth in Germany argue quite convincingly in a paper entitled “Can the use of the Mother Tongue Aid the Development of Concept Literacy in Maths and Science”:[6]

“The use of non-indigenous languages as media of instruction in the educational domain has been perceived as the reason for the failure of modern science and technology to take root in Africa.  In South Africa, low national pass rates at matriculation level bear testimony to the failure of students to grasp scientific and mathematical concepts that are explained in English.  If scientific terminology was to be created in the African languages, students might be able to construct correct conceptions.”

The writers of the above-mentioned paper report on a study that attempted to come up and conceive a multilingual resource book as a supplement for mathematics and science teachers:[7]

“Core concepts in mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry and biology were identified from senior school curriculum and translated into two African languages, besides Afrikaans and English.  The initiative aimed to encourage teachers to use the Resource book to introduce the concepts in the mother tongue in order to aid understanding in contexts where the language of instruction is English.”

The use of African mother tongues in educational curricula has been for quite some time the focus of interest of the African Union (AU) with in mind the full rehabilitation of African languages in education, literature, media and everyday life.  The AU has entrusted the Academy of African Languages (ACALAN) with the mission to fully promote mother tongues in the African continent “Mother Tongues across border.”  This project focuses on the East African region involving 13 countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, The Seychelles, Madagascar, Comoros and Mauritius.

For Naomi L. Shitomi from the School of Arts and Social Sciences of Moi University in Kenya, the above long-awaited initiative responds to an urgent need.  She states, quite unambiguously, that mother tongues are fragilised by globalisation:[8]

“With the advances of English at the international level and various national levels; and the official standard languages at the local levels, e.g. Kiswahili in the Eastern Africa region; and the colonial legacies pertaining to the language issue, mother tongues continue to be subjected to marginalization and pressure that often relegates them to non-prestigious and depreciated positions.  The non articulation of the position and role of mother tongues in various national constitutions and insensitive language policies; socio-economic deprivations; ethnicity and negative politics that demonize indigenous identities and expressions and further marginalizes them.”

This interesting statement echoes an earlier call of emergency to attend to African mother tongues expressed in realistic manner by the preamble of UNESCO’s “Language Vitality and Endangerment document:[9]

“The extinction of each language results in the irrevocable loss of unique cultural, historical, historical and, ecological knowledge.  Each language is a unique expression of the human experience of the world.  Thus, the knowledge of any single language maybe the key to answering fundamental questions of the future.  Every time a language dies, we have less evidence for understanding patterns in the structure and function of human language, human prehistory, and the maintenance of the world’s diverse ecosystems. Above all, speakers of these languages may experience the loss of their language as a loss of their original ethnic and cultural identity.”

Mother tongue in education: how to go about it?

Bearing in mind that Africa is the home of thousands of languages, some of which are spoken, maybe, by less than one hundred people, the question is: which languages to use in education,  and what criteria to use to make such a decision?

The eligible languages are undoubtedly those that are the most used by speakers in a given country or geographical area.  The criteria that have been used in several African countries are as follows:

1-      Most used language in a given region;

2-      Most used language in a given country; and

3-      Trans-national languages.

These three criteria have helped many African countries determine which languages to use in education.  The fact is that even if these languages are not mother tongues, to the majority of the people, yet they use them as a lingua-franca in various fields of communication.

Pular and Hausa are trans-national languages that are used by millions of people in West Africa and even those for whom they are not true mother tongues, they still consider them to be their national idioms and do use them extensively in their daily business more than foreign official languages simply because they vehicle an African culture close to the heart of the population and not an alien way of thinking and reasoning.

The success in the use of mother tongues in sub-Saharan Africa can be attributed to diverse factors, some of which are as follows:

1-      Cultural relatedness;

2-      Linguistic applicability;

3-      Social readiness;

4-      Popular adherence; and

5-      Official receptiveness,

The first five years were field testing years for the whole package and the results were truly beyond expectations in most countries of the region and mainly in: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Senegal.

In the face of these encouraging results in Africa and also in other parts of the world, UNESCO proclaimed in 1999 the International mother Language Day with the intention to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. According to UNESCO, many studies show that instruction in mother tongue is more effective for achievement not only for the first language but also for other subject areas and for second language learning.

It is a known and accepted fact that the use of mother tongue as a medium of instruction in early days of schooling contributes to improved classroom learning and related academic achievement.

But, unfortunately despite all this, mother tongue in education is still far from being a widely-accepted model, often due to social, economic, political and even technological challenges.

So, the question is: why is mother tongue an issue in education in Africa? What does mother tongue education look like in practice? Is it truly worthwhile in terms of real costs and benefits?

Actually education in mother tongue is a world-wide issue and it exists also in developed countries in the form of the issue of education in standard or nonstandard language as reported by Cheshire (2005: 2342):

“It might be thought that the main issue for the classroom would be how best to teach the standard to speakers of nonstandard varieties, but the situation is complicated by social attitudes towards standard and nonstandard language. Stereotypes about “incorrect”, “careless” and “ugly” speech persist, despite of 40 years of sociolinguistic work demonstrating that dialects and creoles are well-formed language systems. Ignorance and prejudice still exist among teachers – they have been found, for example, in recent studies carried out in Britain, Canada, New York City, the Caribbean, and Australia (Siegell1999). Furthermore speakers of the nonstandard languages themselves often hold the view that their language is “broken” and “poor”…”

Fortunately these “biased” ideas are not held by educations experts who believe like UENSCO (1968)[10], whose specialists stated quite unambiguously as early as in 1951, that early education as well as literacy are best dispensed in mother tongue, at a time when colonial languages had the upper hand in education as well as everyday life and vernacular languages were seen as folklore more than anything else, as Romaine (1995: 242) has rightly pointed out,

“The traditional policy, either implicitly assumed or explicitly stated, which most nations have pursued with regard to various minority groups, who speak a different language, has been eradication of the native language/culture and assimilation into the majority one.”

In Turkey where Kurdish is a minority language whose existence is not recognized, the situation was even worse. Thus one Kurdish woman who attended a special boarding school provided for Kurdish children described her heartbreaking experience vividly (Clason and Baksi 1979: 79, 86-7, translated by Skutnabb-Kangas 1984: 311-12):

“I was seven when I started the first grade in 1962. My sister, who was a year older, started school at the same time. We didn’t know a word of Turkish when we started, so we felt totally mute during the first few years. We were not allowed to speak Kurdish during the breaks, either, but had to play silent games with stones and things like that. Anyone who spoke Kurdish was punished. The teachers hit us on the fingertips or on our heads with a ruler. It hurt terribly. That is why we were always frightened at school and didn’t want to go.”

The case of Diembering School in Senegal

Linguists, education experts and teachers all agree that today that the way out of the educational quagmire in Africa, Asia and many parts of the world, where the language of the colonizer became the official language and as a result the sole vehicle of education, is by rethinking the language or languages of instruction (Dutcher, 2003:2) and reassessing totally the sacrosanct foundations of education philosophy inherited from European nations, that have never faced the problems and perils of alienating their learners by teaching them in languages other than their mother tongues.

The benefits of learning in one’s mother tongue are no longer disputed. But is it affordable to implement mother tongue as the first language of learning and teaching for all learners? And if it is, where can one find the necessary expertise and ideas to make it happen? Here below, Rudy Klaas shares the story of a mother tongue project in the small village of Diembering, south-west Senegal, which may begin to answer these questions:[11]

“In 1998, school teachers in Diembering attended a mother tongue literacy teacher training event run by SIL International. The teachers then convinced their headteacher to try out the methodology in their school. This first initiative was a success, and convinced parents that their children would learn better in their mother tongue. The mother tongue programme that followed sought to reduce the high failure rates in schools that resulted from students’ poor development of basic literacy skills in their first few years of education. In 2002, the government launched a separate experimental multi-lingual education programme in five locations, including Diembering.”

This revolutionary approach, for conservative education officials in Senegal, bore fruit immediately and shed the light and attracted attention to mother tongue education. Obviously, the changes witnessed within this school are not accidental, in anyway, but the result of the change of the language of instruction.

Klaas reports two kinds of changes basically categorized within the area of students’ success in exams and students’ increased confidence:

1-       11 out of 18 students who were using mother tongue in all lessons passed their exams. In the two classes using French for instruction, only two and four students respectively out of 20 passed, and;

2-       Mother tongue classes are more student-centred, with more use of interactive teaching methods. On-going monitoring shows that students are more confident and enthusiastic.

Klaas goes on to say with much strength that detailed figures are not available yet on how much the experimental mother tongue classes cost per student. However, these classes in Diembering produced almost four times the level of exam passes than the traditional classes – but certainly didn’t cost four times as much to run. So the mother tongue class approach is clearly worthwhile. The cost of producing traditional class books is not that different from producing the same book translated into a mother tongue. Translation costs don’t have to be high either; some work can be done voluntarily, if time is taken to find motivated translators. Students from mother tongue classes often complete their learning goals faster than those in traditional classes. This can reduce overall education system costs, especially if it reduces the number of students who repeat years.

And concludes quite convincingly that:[12]

“If a country spends less money on education that doesn’t work, it costs them more in the long term than if they spend more money on education that does work!”

While the Senegal attempted with much courage an important and beneficial change of direction in language policy and its aggregate, language use in education, a heated debate is taking place to no avail both in North Africa (Chtatou, 1994: 43-62) and in South Africa, two different geographical regions having different cultures and using different colonial languages as vehicles of education.

For Mamphele Ramphele, a South African academic, businesswoman and medical doctor, the post-apartheid South African government is failing to recognize the importance of national cultures and national languages, one of the means to assert sovereignty as a nation that is proud of its heritage. She states quite convincingly that learning through the first language or mother tongue allows greatly to anchor knowledge and education in the child’s immediate environment made of his family, his community and society at large as well as daily interactions and dealings. She goes on to emphasise that pupils who are taught in the first years of their schooling in their mother tongue and taught foreign languages as languages and not vehicles of instruction tend to pass all their exams with flying colours and to go on further in their education. Other than that, pupils become alienated:[13]

“Our current approaches alienate children from their cultural roots and make parents’ participation in the education of their children difficult. How can they participate in a process in which their primary medium of communication is rendered irrelevant? How can they help their own children learn when the language of instruction becomes a barrier to communication from the first day of school? An even more profound impact of this language policy is the undermining of the parental authority so essential to shaping the values and world-view of children at this stage of their development. Why should children respect parents who only speak a devalued language? South Africa is not alone in undermining indigenous African languages. Professor Pai Obanya, a retired Nigerian education strategist, suggests that education in Africa tends to alienate elites from their roots and undermine their capacity to be effective agents of change to promote sustainable development. « Education is mainly about acculturation, to be learned is to be cultured. Starting off an acculturation process with non-first language tends to lead to a situation in which the person could become knowledgeable but not cultured, and developing a feeling of belonging nowhere. » Elites in Africa are contributing to this trend by educating their children in private schools, where the teaching of indigenous African languages is minimal. Many see the inability of their children to communicate in their mother tongue as a badge of honour.”

Mother tongue literacy In Mali

It is a known fact that all African countries are multilingual and multicultural, if not multiracial; this wide variety did not create disunity in the past, on the contrary it contributed to cement good relations and fruitful economic ties between different nations and ethnic groups. However, when colonialism disembarked on the African soil on the 18 th century, to control the rich land of this virgin continent, employed the old but efficient tactic of “divide to rule” and thus nations stirred by colonial agents went on the war path and started exterminating each other and playing in the hands of the colonisers. Encouraged by this course of events, the colonial powers, in the name of progress, imposed their language and culture and sought to downgrade or even destroy local cultures and languages. They downgraded these local idioms and pushed them over the years to total extinction, imposing instead their language on the educational system, administration and daily business.

On the education scene this had a negative impact on learners, children felt dislocated from their families and cultural background at first and later totally alienated. Many of them dropped out of school as a result and went to swell the ranks of the already existing armies of the unemployed putting much unwanted strain on the weak economic fabric of their poor countries. On the literacy front, things got worse because people shied from learning in European languages. Realising that such an approach would not lead to any results, whatsoever, UNESCO changed its approach and called upon many African countries to adopt local languages. The response was immediate; many countries in Black Africa recognized their local idioms and transcribed this political change in their constitutions and went on to create ministries devoted to literacy and national languages.

In Mali, the National Directorate of Literacy and Applied linguistics (La Direction nationale de l’alphabétisation fonctionnelle et de la linguistique appliquée (DNAFLA))  was created in the 70s to promote national languages and use them as a tool in the local development. Since its creation this highly active institution has overseen dutifully literacy programmes nationwide and it is credited for much success in the area of informal education. As a result of this the Malian government has issued Order No. 89-0341/MEN-DNAFLA of 15 February 1989 setting forth the composition and functions of regional and local commissions for the elimination of illiteracy. This Order created in each regional and local administrative unit a commission for the elimination of illiteracy under the authority of the Party and Administration. The duties of the commissions are as follows:

1-       To conceive, coordinate, and manage literacy activities;

2-      To support and control facilities involved in literacy activities with a view to adapting them to local circumstances;

3-      To promote and increase the use of national languages; and

4-      To inform and sensitise the population and mobilise human, material, and financial resources. Further provisions of the Order set forth the members of various commissions, among other things.

Today Mali is cited as one of the prominent successes in literacy in mother tongues in Africa. Indeed DNAFLA, very much field-oriented, started mother tongue literacy programmes in the most remote bush areas that did not even had a road let alone a school or other basic amenities such as running water and electricity. Initially, people were very suspicious of the programme, they thought maybe the government wanted to spy on them to tax them or something. Men refused to join in and preferred to sit under their village tree, known in francophone Africa by the sobriquet: arbre à palabres (chat tree), and sip tea, while women decided to join in these functional literacy programmes. During the first year of the experiment women learned the three Rs and the programme to help them become financially independent set up a honey- producing co-operative. At the end of the second year the women became income earners and saw their status move up within the society. Men realising the social importance of the exercise decided to join in.

The success of this important programme had a domino effect in the country, today DNAFLA strong with this experience is moving forward with more assurance and credibility to implant functional literacy nationwide and call upon international organization to join in the effort.

The situation In the Maghreb

While the situation of mother-tongue education is progressing satisfactorily in sub-Saharan countries and vernacular languages are used more and more in literacy programmes and early education curriculum with good outcome, in North Africa the situations is very fuzzy as what concerns national languages. The pan-Arab ideology, though outdated and vanquished, is still alive in the mind of Arab leaders who see recognition of national languages as a threat to the supremacy of Arabic language and culture and their shaky dictatorships based on tribal allegiances and conservative religious positions.

Both in Morocco and Algeria, the governments recognised under pressure the Amazigh movement and set up for the purpose government bodies to manage the Amazigh population cultural needs and requests or make believe so.

In Algeria, on The 27 th of May 1995, after months of unrest in the streets, schools and universities of Tizi Ouzzou and various other Algerian provinces, The State Presidency (présidence de l’Etat) signed an official decree creating the High Commission for Berber Culture (Haut Commissariat de l’Amazighité(HCA)).

This institution was created hurriedly to stifle the Berber movement known among the militants as: Tifsa Imazighen ( the Spring of Berber Culture); However, this decision fell short of the expectations of the Berber militants, who wanted to see their language recognised as an official language alongside Arabic since the constitution of 1996 did not make this wish a reality. For Abrous, from the University of Bejaia, there was never an intention to recognize the Berber language fully. For him creating HCA was just a means of triggering a carefully-planned phagocytosis.

In Morocco, the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (Institut Royal de la Culture Amazigh (IRCAM)) was created by a royal decree of king Mohammed VI in Ajdir, Khenifra, a historical site of the Berber Middle Atlas on the 17 th of October 2001, after noticeable pressure of the vociferous Berber civil society. The creation of this academic institution and placing it directly under the authority of the palace had two main objectives both serving the authority of the king: checking the inexorable popularity of the Islamists and using it as an umbrella against Berber extremism. And since, this institution has served the agenda of the conservative monarchy beyond expectations.[14]

After the official recognition of Tamazight by the Algerian establishment, the Berbers were faced with very hard choices concerning the outright implementation of this highly symbolic political decision in the field, especially in such sensitive areas as: the script, the introduction of the language in schools, curriculum, training of would-be teachers of the language, etc.

The Berbers of Algeria had to struggle, from the word go, with the difficult and highly emotional issue of the standardisation of the language that was hitherto oral. Finding an acceptable script and writing up a grammar was not an easy task, given the multitude of dialects available and the diversity of attitudes and opinions on how to make a national unified language out of them.

As to what concerns the script, while researchers, linguists and experts favoured the use of phonetically-modified Latin alphabet, to give the language, according to them, an international status and make it accessible to ICT, the students in Arabic-speaking areas preferred by far Arabic script that they already know and feel comfortable with. Indeed, in Batna 4000 students ceased taking their Tamazight classes dispensed in Latin alphabet, unless it is replaced by the Arabic one, as stated by Mrs Bilek, deputy director in charge of Teaching and Training at HCA (haut Commissariat à l’Amazighité.)[15]

            Teaching Tamazight was from the start riddled and handicapped by a government decision to make it optional for students and local education authorities. Thus, though the teaching started right after the official recognition of the language in 1995, yet not much success has been achieved in the field, on the contrary large number of students dropped out of the courses for reasons still unknown today.

The courses after duly starting in the Wilayas of Al-Bayadh, Tipaza, Oran and Illiz, ceased unexpectedly. As for the courses continuing in Biskra (209 students in 2005) and in Tamnrasset (321 students), they are exclusively taken by students coming from other Wilayas mainly Boumerdes,, Tizi-Ouzou, Béjaia, and Bouira. Today, onlt 11 Wilayas are still offering tuition in Tamazight language from the 16 initially selected for this. So rather than get generalised, as it would be expected, the teaching of this language is shrinking dangerously.[16]

So, tough the government has created a national centre for the teaching of Tamazight (Centre national pédagogique et linguistique pour l’enseignement de Tamazight (CNPLET)) by decree in 2003 and recognized the tongue as a national language and inscribed it in the constitution of 2003, and likewise has taken upon itself to offer the course in the exams of baccalaureate starting from 2008, yet the militants and Berber nationalists feel total disenchantment with the inexorable regression in interest for Tamazight among the population. Is it due to the lack of national interest, government hidden hurdles or the outright speedy rise of Islamism among the Algerian rank and file, who see the recognition of Tamazight and the interest shown for it as an attempt of the omnipresent enemies of Islam to sap the Arabic language, the language of the holy Koran.

All that can be said is that the teaching of Tamazight in Algeria is not a successful experience and this is corroborated quite clearly by Youssef Merahi, the head of HCA (haut Commissariat à l’Amazighité) in the following terms:

“Treize ans après son entrée à l’école algérienne, en1995, l’enseignement public de la langue amazighe est encore « au stade de l’expérimentation » [17]

On the air of the Algerian national radio, channel II (Chaine II), in 2008.

He goes on to say that though the language has been granted the status of “national language” in the article 3 of the Algerian constitution, yet unfortunately its teaching cannot be obligatory in schools. According to the statistics of HCA, the number of students registered in Berber language classes is 160 in Algiers and 66 000 in Tizi Ouzou, which is one of the Berber Wilayas. As such, because of the optional status of the Berber language, 96% of learners are in Berber-speaking Wilayas of Tizi Ouzou, Bouira and Bejaia the remaining 4% are located in the rest of 7 Wilayas of the country. This disparity is also due to the fact that besides Kabyle, Chaoui and Toureg, the other Berber dialects are not taught i.e. Chleuh, Chenaoui and Mozabit.

Thus, the Secretary General of HCA has called upon the government, in general, and the Ministry of National Education, in particular, to change the official attitude towards this national language and give it a much-needed boost by undertaking teachers training at the university level and helping create a daily newspaper.

In Morocco, teaching in Tamazight various subjects in school is still a wishful thinking because even teaching the language has not been able to take off the ground, let alone using it as a language of tuition alongside Arabic and French. The Moroccan educational system is definitely schizophrenic in outlook and content. Moroccans are taught subjects in Classical Arabic or Standard Arabic for some, while speaking at home and in the streets various regional variants of Moroccan Arabic, commonly known as Darija, or Tamazight. At the high school level and the university, they find themselves using some of the same subjects in French and wonder why they had to spend all these years wasting their time learning a language that cannot be marketed. No official wants to recognize that actually Morocco is not an Arabic-speaking member of the Arab League but rather a die-hard francophone country.[18]

For the two Berber researchers Hassan Banhakeia et El-Hossein Farhad, the introduction of Tamazight in the Moroccan educational system is itself unheard of democratic revolution in the ultra conservative Moroccan scene:[19]

« Bien que la seule et véritable révolution «démocratique» à retenir par l’histoire moderne du Maroc soit l’introduction de l’amazigh dans l’institution scolaire, l’état des lieux de cette langue demeure une question difficile à décrire. Cette difficulté émane essentiellement de la nature du sujet où sentiments et raison fusent dans un même corps, le dit et le fait prennent deux voies nettement discordantes. N’y a-t-il pas alors impossibilité réelle de réconciliation entre langues, entre cultures, entre visions collectives au sein de la société? En fait, il n’y a pas d’institution meilleure ou plus efficace pour développer l’amazigh et pour lui rendre sa véritable considération au sein de la communauté que l’école (enseignement, apprentissage, formation, information, idéalisation, symbolisation…), et pour nous de jauger l’authenticité ou non de cette réconciliation (qui pourrait mener vers la réelle démocratie). L’on parle alors d’ouverture sur l’amazigh. Néanmoins, une question reste posée: l’école marocaine «déjà bilingue», c’est-à-dire au fond doublement ségrégationniste, peut-elle vraiment recevoir le «corps amazigh» comme étant un élément propre, légitime et vivant? »


For the two researchers the total failure of the Moroccan educational system, after half century of independence, can be attributed undeniably to the outrageous all out arabisation of the system. Pupils find themselves face to face learning first a language they are not familiar with and later taking specialised subjects in this same language, they can hardly understand let alone master. In self-defense they reject both the language and the subjects and end-up as hardened dropouts totally alienated from their culture and even their society.

Until now, the Moroccans have miserably failed to resolve the enigma of their linguistic identity and as a result the public school continues to pay the price: And according to the above-mentioned researchers, the main reason for the bankruptcy of the Moroccan educational system is undoubtedly the absence of both mother-tongue and culture from the system. This educational system is out of contact with the reality of the learner because it is panarab, oriental, islamist and wahhabi, in other words it is beyond the cultural reality of the receiver and therefore he rejects it with all his might and moves on to something else, instead[20]

« Il demeure évident que la principale raison de l’échec au sein de l’enseignement marocain est l’absence de la langue maternelle et de la culture propre: l’amazighité. L’enfant ne se découvre pas, et l’école va le dépayser davantage. Comment se présente-t-elle l’éducation sans l’essence du citoyen placé dans l’Histoire? Sans l’attache à la terre? Sans l’attache au Temps? Sans l’attache à ses spécificités d’être humain? Le système d’enseignement qui est de nature spécifiquement panarabiste, orientaliste, islamiste, wahhabite… s’en passe complètement: il est alors un programme de ruptures. Aussi les politiques d’enseignements sont-elles faites par des ministres arabistes et / ou wahhabites qui opèrent des ruptures «historiques» au lieu de ramender les parties de ce corps millénaire. »

Since the creation of the IRCAM in 2001, this institution took upon itself to introduce Tamazight in school, but like in Algeria this proved to be a difficult task given that most of the decision-makers in the government are people who see Tamazight as a personal threat to their political career. So after many meetings with different ministries and government bodies, Tamazight was officially introduced to the Moroccan educational system hurriedly by the authorities as if to prove that it is not a viable vehicle of education.

Introducing a new language within a given educational system without prior:

1-      Field study of the pedagogic needs;

2-      Training of trainers (TOT);

3-      Training of teachers;

4-      Setting up a curriculum; and

5-      Devising of textbooks: for both teacher and student and field-testing them.

is condemning it to programmed failure, and that is exactly what happened. IRCAM continues to maintain verbally afloat the idea, but in principle it is dead for the reasons stated above and most of all for the fact that learning Tamazight is optional and this means for many education officials not even bothering trying to teach it, let alone work towards making the concept work. For Ali khadaoui, a Berber studies expert, Tamazight has no constitutional status and as such no future:[21]

« La langue amazighe n’a pas de statut légal inscrit dans la Constitution. Ce qui rend son enseignement public facultatif et dérisoire, comme le stipule la Charte Nationale de d’Education et de la Formation, seul document légal servant de cadre de référence à tous les acteurs de l’Education et de la Formation au Maroc.

-cette langue n’est enseignée que dans une dizaine d’établissements dans l’ensemble du pays ;

Cette absence de statut officiel fixé le pouvoir politique et inscrit dans la constitution rend aussi difficile la  construction des curricula valables pour cette langue pourtant parlé quotidiennement par les trois quarts au moins de la population.

– une formation au rabais de quelques jours, dispensée par des personnes non qualifiées à des personnes qui, souvent, ne connaissent même pas la langue qu’elles sont appelées à enseigner. »


Not only mother tongue is in on the limp in North Africa in school curriculum, but there is not even a thought about introducing it in literacy programmes. Though governments have recognized the existence of Tamazight, this recognition remains basically a political move not meant to be fully implemented in the field. Otherwise, before introducing Tamazight in schools, they should have taken into consideration sub-Saharan countries experience and started with literacy, bearing in mind that the most disadvantaged people both in Morocco and Algeria are Berber women and girls, who live in total seclusion in high and inaccessible mountains. This female illiteracy has negative effects on the education of children, family hygiene, and reproductive health, to say the least.[22]


These areas remain badly in need of community-based literacy programmes in Tamazight, the very same programmes that have had astounding success and still do in such counties as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Senegal, etc. because they have not only allowed females to become literate but also to start small businesses or co-operatives, and thus doing become financially-independent and contribute to the development of their home village and area.

All in all, mother-tongue education in North Africa has long way to go before it becomes a profitable venture for the poor population.


After decades of education in foreign languages inherited from the colonial period and deeply ingrained in the psyche of some politicians, decision makers and educators, sub-Saharan Africa is waking up to a new reality: durable development can only be achieved genuinely by returning to the roots and rehabilitating fully and irrevocably national languages and cultures and accepting cultural diversity as a symbol of grandeur and not decrepitude.

With this reality in mind, many African countries have revamped their language and education policies and reassessed their development priorities in the light of this change. Fully recognizing national languages is tantamount not only to developing education and giving it a new direction but also to revive the oral cultures and preserve them from extinction especially at a time of threatening globalisation blown out of proportion by digital revolution.

In North Africa, a lot has still to be done in this area, starting urgently with the full recognition of national languages and cultures and using them in schools and all walks of life.



Abrous,D. 1995. Le haut commissariat à l’Amazighité, ou les meanders d’une phagocytose. Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 34 : 583-590.

Brenzinger, M. 2005. The Endangerment of Language Diversity: Responsibilities for Speech Communities and Linguists.  Al-Maghrib al-Ifrecpa: 6: 63-80.

Chtatou, M. 1994.Language Policy in Morocco. Morocco: Occasional Papers  1:43-62.

Clason, E. and Baksi, M. 1979. Kurdistan Om Fortryek Och Befrielse kamp, Stockholm: Arbetarkultur.

Cheshire, J. 2005. Sociolinguistics and mother-tongue education. In Ammon, U., Dittmar, N., Mattheier, K., and Trudgill, P. (eds.): Sociolinguistics: an introductory handbook of the science of language and society. 2nd edition. Pp. 2341-2350. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Dutcher, N. 2003. Promise and perils of mother tongue education. Ms.

—————. 2004. Expanding Educational Opportunity in Linguistically Diverse Societies.Revised edition. Washington, DC,: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Romaine, S, 1995. Bilingualism (sec. ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

Siegell, J. 1999. Creoles and minority dialects in education: An overview. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 20 (6): 508-31.

Skutnabb-kangas, T. 1984. Bilingualism or not: The Education of Minorities. Clevdon, Avon: Multi-lingual Matters.

UNESCO, 1968. The use of vernacular language in education: the report of the UNESCO meeting of specialists, 1951. In: Fishman, Joshua A. (ed.): Readings in the Sociology of Language. Pp. 688-716. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.

UNESCO, 2000. The Dakar Framework  for Action, Education for All:Meeting our Collective Commitmenst,adopted by the World Education Forum, Dakar, Sénégal, 26-28 April 2000.

UNESCO, 2003. Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages: Language Vitality and Endangerment.  Document submitted on UNESCO Programme “Safeguarding of Endangered Languages,” Paris, 10-12 March 2003.

UNESCO, 2005.First Language First: community based literacy programmes for minority for minority language contexts in Asia. Available online at: (

[1] Mother tongue is the language that one learns from parents and relatives. A baby starts becoming familiar with mother tongue while in the womb. After birth, when crying if a mother special language is used, the baby will stop crying and start listening. As time progresses, a child learns mother tongue by hearing the words again and again and gradually starts using them. Using its mother tongue a baby expresses its feelings to those around it.

[2]Paper read at the conference on “Globalization and Mother Tongues in Africa,” held at the Faculty of Letters and Humanities of Mohamed V University-Agdal, in Rabat on 19-20 June 2009.

[3] Cf. UNESCO 2000. Para. 7.

[4] Cf. Dutcher, 2003:1

[5] Ibid.

[6] Paper read at the conference on “Globalization and Mother Tongues in Africa,” held at the Faculty of Letters and Humanities at Mohammed V University-Agdal, in Rabat on 19-20 June 2009.


[8] “Mother Tongues across Borders:  the Case of Eastern African Region,” paper read at the conference on: “Globalization and Mother Tongues in Africa, held at the Faculty of Letters and Humanities at Mohammed V University-Agdal, in Rabat on 19-20 June 2009.

[9] Cf. UNESCO 2003: 2

[10] Cf. UNESCO (1968) « The use of vernacular language in Education: the report of the UNESCO meeting of specialists in 1951.


[12] Ibid.


[14] In his speech, during the ceremony of the creation of the Royal institute of the Amazigh culture in Ajdir, the king Mohammed VI set up the limits of this institution that he would oversee himself to avoid any cultural or political problems, whatsoever :

« La promotion de l’amazighe est une responsabilité nationale, car aucune culture nationale ne peut renier ses racines historiques. Elle se doit, en outre, de s’ouvrir et de récuser tout cloisonnement, afin qu’elle puisse réaliser le développement indispensable à la pérennité et au progrès de toute civilisation.

Ainsi, en s’acquittant de ses missions de sauvegarde, de promotion et de renforcement de la place de la culture amazighe dans l’espace éducatif, socioculturel et médiatique national, l’Institut Royal de la culture amazighe lui donnera une nouvelle impulsion en tant que richesse nationale et source de fierté pour tous les Marocains. »

[15] Cf.


[17] Cf.é/140/makepdf

[18] Cf.  Chtatou, 1994. Language policy in Morocco and the sticky linguistic situation of this country.

[19] Cf.



[22]Cf. UNESCO 2005

Published in Morocco World News on 13 June 2013


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