The Politics of Language as a Medium of Delivery in Education

Even if education is made free and compulsory, where it is delivered in an unfamiliar language, it is not possible to achieve universal primary and secondary education,

The Politics of Language as a Medium of Delivery in Education
@Marc E, Wycliffesa
Lazarus Miti's picture


Professor of Communication & Applied Language Studies at the University of Venda

June 14th, 2017

Education is crucial in the world’s efforts to realise the aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is thus imperative for every country to provide inclusive and equitable education for its citizens.This entails not only that there be adequate schools, relevant curriculums, appropriate and sufficient learning and teaching materials, as well as properly trained teachers, but the language of instruction should also be inclusive. This article discusses factors that impact adversely on the achievement of inclusive and equitable quality education in Southern Africa. These factors include the use of unfamiliar languages in the delivery of education; sexist language use in schools; and cultural beliefs that reinforce the marginalisation of females and of differently-abled persons. The article further recommends measures to be taken to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for every child, regardless of their socio-economic status or gender. The final section briefly describes the role of international languages in Africa.

Language policies in Education

In Africa, language policies for education are based on official languages inherited from former colonial masters. These official languages in Southern Africa are English in the Anglophone countries, French in the Francophone Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Portuguese in the Lusophone countries Angola and Mozambique. Moreover, even in South Africa, where the constitution states that there are 11 official (and equal) languages Government of South Africa, 1996, p. 4), in practice, English and Afrikaans remain the dominant official languages. The language of instruction in African countries mirrors the official language policy. Thus, English, French or Portuguese are mostly used in the delivery of education, depending on the country’s colonial history. The use of colonial languages for instruction disadvantages children from families who do not speak these languages. This is particularly challenging in the formative grades of schooling. The choice of the language of instruction in Southern Africa varies from country to country but generally favours the use of colonial languages. This is baffling because it has been empirically established that children learn best when they are taught in their mother tongue, or at least in a familiar language. Studies on the merits of mother-tongue education date back to 1953 when UNESCO specialists on the use of vernacular languages in education emphasised its importance as follows:

"It is axiomatic that the best medium for teaching a child is his mother tongue. Psychologically, it is the system of meaningful signs that in his mind works automatically for expression and understanding. Sociologically, it is a means of identification among the members of the community to which he belongs. Educationally, he learns more quickly through it than through an unfamiliar linguistic medium" (UNESCO, 1953, p. 11).

African countries that have attempted to implement mother-tongue education have not demonstrated full commitment as they have confined it to the first three or four years of primary school. This is contrary to UNESCO’s (2003, p. 31) recommendation that mother-tongue instruction “should be extended to as late in education as possible.” Southern African countries that have introduced mother-tongue education in the first three, four or five years of schooling include Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In Namibia, some national languages are to be used as languages of instruction from pre-primary to Grade Five (Namibia Ministry of Education, 2014). At the beginning of 2014, Zambia decided to implement a 2013 recommendation for the use of selected indigenous languages for instruction from Grade One to Four(Zambia Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training, and Early Education, 2013). Previously, English was the sole language of instruction from Grade One to the tertiary level in Zambia. In Mozambique, 16 local languages have been used for instruction up to Standard Three since 2003 (UNICEF, 2016). With respect to Zimbabwe, “the closest document on which one can make inferences on language policy is the Zimbabwe Education Act of 1987, Chapter 55” (Khumalo, 2003, p. 175). Zimbabwe’s Education Act (1987) states that Ndebele, Shona or English may be used as a medium of instruction during the first three years of primary school, depending on which language is more commonly spoken and understood by the pupils, while English shall be the medium of instruction from the fourth grade (Khumalo, 2003). Language-of-education policies in other countries are less encouraging. For example, in 2013, the Malawian Government abandoned a draft policy which would have made local languages the medium of instruction during the first four years of primary school. Instead, the Education Act of 2012 was adopted, which stipulates English as the medium of instruction in schools and colleges (Government of Malawi, 2012). In Botswana, Setswana, the national language, has been used only in Standard One since the early 2000s. From Standard Two, Englishis the only language of instruction (Botswana Government, 1994). The use of English as the medium of delivery in education causes children from homes where English is not commonly spoken to experience challenges, not only when they start school, but throughout their education career. They have difficulty grasping the subject matter because new knowledge is provided in an unfamiliar medium. The situation for the girl-child is more challenging for she faces gender discrimination in addition to linguistic marginalisation.

Language use in schools and the plight of the girl-child

The girl-child faces many hurdles in her pursuit of education. Firstly, like her male counterparts, she isfaced with an unfamiliar language of instruction. Secondly, she has to put up with adverse forms of language used by her teachers and schoolmates within and outside the classroom.
Thirdly, she is demeaned by the language and illustrations used in study materials. Above all, the marginalisation of girls is reinforced by sexist proverbs and idioms in some of the literature. Language used by teachers and peers which perpetuates the marginalisation of the girl-child is found in both colonial and local languages. With regard to English, sexist language appears in small aspects such as the use of pronouns where the masculine gender is used to refer to both males and females. Illustrations of this can be drawn from the 1953 UNESCO statement cited in the previous section. Examples where sexist items are found are reproduced and the keywords italicised below.

  • the best medium for teaching a child is his mother tongue;
  • the system of meaningful signs that in his mind works automatically;
  • the community to which he belongs;
  • he learns more quickly through it (UNESCO, 1953, p. 11).

The above examples create the impression that education is not meant for girls but for boys alone. Sexist language used by teachers is particularly harmful to the girl-child as she listens to the teachers every school day. Moreover, learners are expected to take their teachers’ pronouncements seriously as they are assumed to be knowledgeable and beyond reproach. Some speakers and writers use phrases such as “he or she”, “him or her”, and “his or hers”. These expressions are sexist as, in each case, the masculine pronoun is mentioned first, even where it is not alphabetical. For example, “him or her” would better read “her or him” because, alphabetically, the letter “e” comes before “i”. However, even this style is sexist because it places one gender before the other. The sexist use of pronouns arises from the archaic use of the word “man” to refer to a “person” or “human being.” The solution lies in restricting the word “man” to refer to “male person”, and never to both “man” and “woman”, while using the third-person plural pronouns “they/them/their” as gender-neutral singular pronouns, in addition to their regular use. Sexist language is also found in school textbooks in the form of illustrations showing women doing domestic chores such as washing clothes, fetching water from the well, pounding grain, and cooking. In contrast, men are shown reading newspapers, driving buses, or doing tasks that assumingly require physical strength. Other gender stereotypes include the portrayal of boys as “being good at science subjects and taking up related professions, while girls are portrayed as adopting more traditional roles” (Nkhoma, 2011, p. 62). Curriculum developers must ensure that study materials are gender sensitive.

Culture, language and gender

The sexist use of pronouns is also prevalent in other Indo-European languages. In contrast, pronouns in Bantu languages are gender neutral. For example, the pronoun given in each of the following languages refers to “her” or “him”: yena (in all Nguni and Sotho/Tswana languages); ene (in Venda); iye (in Nyanja); and yeve (in Nsenga). However, sexist use of pronouns exists in some Bantu languages where they signal power relations.

For example, in Nsenga, the equivalent of the singular pronoun “you” is wewo, while the plural “you” ismwewo. Unlike English, the Nsenga plural “you” (mwewo) can be used in addressing one person as a form of respect or reverence. Thus, a boyaddresses his father as mwewo (plural “you”) to show respect, while a father addresses his son as wewo (singular “you”) as a sign of authority. Similarly, any child addresses any adult as mwewo, whereas any adult addresses any child as wewo. Traditionally, this is extended to husbands and wives. Like a child, a woman is traditionally expected to address her husband as mwewo in respect, whereas a man is expectedto address his wife as wewo to signify his authority over her. Another example is from Lozi, a language spoken in Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. This language distinguishes between the pronouns wena (singular “you”) and mina (plural “you”), where mina signifies respect (Lubinda, 2014, p. 256). It is sexist for a husband to address his wife as wena, while a wife is expected to address her husband as mina. Such cultural practices must be discontinued. Couples teaching in the same school could directly be reinforcing this sexist use of pronouns if the female teacher addresses her husband with a pronoun signifying her reverence, while the male teacher addresses his wife with a pronoun signifying his authority. The ideal is for husbands and wives to use pronouns which signify mutual respect.Besides sexist language use, girls’ education is also adversely affected by the use of proverbs, idioms and folktales which perpetuate their marginalisation by training them to be submissive and subservient to men and boys. As Nkhoma (2011) proposes, governments must work with custodians of culture to ensure that customs and traditions that are detrimental to girls’ education are abolished.

Language, gender and disability

We have noted above that children who do not know English, French or Portuguese are disadvantaged when they start school. Furthermore, girls are more disadvantaged than boys as they experience two forms of discrimination. The situation is more severe for the girl-child who is differently-abled, for example, in the case of a girl who is deaf. The challenge for such a child is not just that she does not know English, but that she does not know any spoken language since her only means of communication is Sign Language (if she has been taught Sign Language). Moreover, not many teachers know Sign Language. As Chindimba (2011, p. 99) puts it, “girls with disabilities are likely to find access to education more limited than girls in general, and in turn their opportunities for employment.” Even when they get a place in school, the quality of education deaf girls receive is relatively poor due to the communication barrier between them and their teachers, as Chindimba and Hara argue later in this issue. What further frustrates the deaf girl-child is the language used in referring to her. In many African languages, the word for a deaf person takes a prefix used in words that refer to non-humans such as ci- in Nyanja, isi- in Zulu, and xi- in Tsonga. Derogative terms must be replaced with ones that the Deaf themselves prefer. Furthermore, teachers must be taught Sign Language and should be trained to use it in teaching the Deaf.The Deaf are not the only differently-abled persons disadvantaged by education systems in Southern Africa. Equally marginalised groups include the visually challenged, the physically challenged, and persons with albinism. Special reference is made to the Deaf in this article only because their situation has direct relevance to language use which is the main theme of the present discussion. What is common for all differently-abled persons is that women and girls face more challenges than their male counterparts.

The development of indigenous African languages

One of the reasons given by those who are against the use of indigenous African languages in the delivery of education is that the languages are not developed enough. Although this is currently true, the fact is that African languages are developable, and it is the responsibility of governments to ensure that their languages are developed. Stages in the development of African languages include the following:

  • Standardisation and harmonisation of orthographies;
  • Production of grammatical descriptions of African languages;
  • Production of monolingual dictionaries in African languages; and
  • Development of specialised terminology in African languages for various professions.

These activities are already being undertaken by research centres such as the Cape Town-based Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), the Centre for the Promotion of Literacy in sub-Saharan Africa(CAPOLSA) based in the Department of Psychology at the University of Zambia, and by other universities such as the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Malawi and the University of Zimbabwe. Besides producing original texts in African languages, indigenous knowledge which exists only in oral forms should be written down and published. In the course of recording this indigenous knowledge,aspects that are harmful to women and girls should be dropped altogether. Once written down, indigenous knowledge found in one African language should be translated into other African languages. In this manner, Africans from different linguistic groups will share knowledge.They will also become aware of similarities in their beliefs which will, in turn, lead to greater inter-ethnic and international cooperation.

The role of European languages

It is often argued that Africans should study European languages, such as English and French, because they are international languages used in commerce, governance and international relations. Although this is true, it does not mean that these languages should be used in the delivery of education. English and other European languages should be taught properly as subjects from as early as the first or second grade but need not be languages of instruction for learners with other home languages. English and the so-called modern languages have roles to play which the indigenous African languages do not fulfil yet. However, these colonial languages cannot totally replace African languages because African indigenous knowledge is conceived in and conveyed through the indigenous languages. Furthermore, what are today international languages may not be international forever. As the economies and international power of more countries grow, Africa will have to teach the languages of the emerging world powers. Already, a number of African countries have started teaching Chinese in their universities. It would not make pedagogical sense for Africa to introduce Chinese as a language of instruction in schools in addition to English, French or Portuguese.


Article 26 of the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, in part, that “Everyone has the right to education” and that “Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages” (UN, 1949). This right to education is enshrined in the bill of rights of many African countries. However, even if education is made free and compulsory, where it is delivered in an unfamiliar language, it is not possible to achieve universal primary and secondary education, let alone affordable vocational training and access to higher education envisaged in SDG 4 because those for whom the language of delivery is unfamiliar will not receive good quality education and are likely to drop out. This article has shown that, while all those children for whom the language of instruction is unfamiliar face challenges in education, girl-children are more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. Furthermore, girls who are differently-abled, such as the Deaf and those with albinism, face more hurdles. The author recommends that the mother tongue or the most familiar language should be used in the delivery of education, at least in the formative years of education. It is further recommended that indigenous African languages be developed for them to function not only as languages of instruction, but also for development in general.


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About the author(s)

Lazarus Miti is currently Adjunct Professor of Communication and Applied Language Studies at the University of Venda. He holds a PhD in General Linguistics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has taught linguistics at the Universities of Zambia, Swaziland
and Venda. Prof. Miti also served as Language Rights Fellow at the OSISA in Johannesburg from 2005 to 2013 and as Deputy Director of the Cape Town-based Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS) from 2013 to 2016. He is the author of four books on linguistics, five novels, several chapters in linguistics publications, and seven interdisciplinary monographs written in Nsenga, a Bantu language spoken in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. Prof. Miti’s research interests are in historical and comparative linguistics, phonology, language rights, and the description of African languages.


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