Student Mother Tongue Usage, Preference, and Attitudes in Bungoma County, Kenya.

AuthorWasike, Aggrey


This paper presents and discusses the results of a survey of Mihuu secondary school students' linguistic backgrounds, language use patterns, proficiency in major languages in their repertoire and environment, self-assessment of effectiveness of use of English as language of instruction, and general language preferences. One of the key findings of the survey is that most students are confident about their proficiency in Kiswahili and English. This being the case, they mostly use Kiswahili to communicate with their friends; they have no problem understanding lessons that are presented in English (which is the mandated language of instruction); and they chose Kiswahili and English as their preferred languages over their mother tongues.

This survey arose out of my wish to find out if students' opinions on language of instruction and self-assessment of their linguistic abilities align with the popular desire by African linguists, language policy scholars and educators to replace English (and other European languages) with indigenous African languages as language of instruction.

Preference of indigenous African languages by African linguists, language scholars and educators is grounded in research and UNESCO's mother tongue principal. As noted in Mutasa (2006) and Chumbow (2005), UNESCO's mother tongue education principle was adopted 1953. This principle states that the use of the child's 'mother tongue' as a medium of instruction in the school system has significant advantages over the use of an exoglossic or foreign language, where 'mother tongue' is defined as 'the language in which the child first learns to express his ideas about himself and the world in which he lives' (UNESCO 1953, as quoted in Chumbow 2005:170).

Afolayan's (1976) Six Year Primary Project also provide support for the desirability of using indigenous African languages as languages of instruction. This six-year primary project found that students who received instruction in Yoruba language and learned English as a subject performed better in examinations at the end of the project. Not only that, students in the project performed better in English exams and had higher proficiency levels in English than students who received instruction in English starting from first grade.

Because of the UNESCO mother tongue education principle and success of experiments and projects such as the Six Year Primary Project, many language policy experts and educators support use of a student's mother tongue or first language for instruction in elementary and even in secondary school. I am an ardent supporter of this policy proposal.

It is an attractive policy proposal, but there is need for caution especially for secondary schools. The fact that the 'English for instruction' policy has been in operation since the late 1950s in many Anglophone African countries such as Kenya, makes it imperative to understand students' attitudes towards English and other languages, their proficiency levels in English and other languages, and their thinking about use of English as the language of instruction. This is very important--first, because it can provide us with evidence needed to support replacing English with African languages as language of instruction (if it is found that students implicate English in learning difficulties and would prefer use of African languages instead). And secondly, because implementation of policy would greatly benefit from a clear understanding of students' (and their parents') language attitudes. As Mutasa (2006) rightly observes, it is very important to understand perception and language attitudes before implementation of a language policy. Without this understanding, successful policy implementation would be very difficult if not impossible.

Students' language of instruction preferences might not be the best and reliable factor to consider in policy formulation, but it is worth knowing and understanding what students' thoughts are. It might be possible to incorporate some of their thinking into new updated and improved language policies. But even if this were not possible, what students say can provide pointers to what needs to be done for example to improve attitudes towards languages in their repertoire and their thinking about English and their own languages.

It is unfortunate that in the existing literature, there is a scarcity of work that provide data about students' perception and self-assessment of linguistic abilities, language use patterns, language of instruction preferences and attitudes. This study set out to contribute to filling this gap.

The paper is organized as follows. Section 1 is the introduction, section 2 is the description of the survey and location of the survey, section 3 presents data and brief commentary, section 4 is the discussion and section 5 is the conclusion.

The Survey

The research survey presented and discussed in this paper was carried out from June 2016 to August 2016 at Mihuu Secondary School. Mihuu is a boys and girls (mixed) secondary school in Bungoma East, Bungoma County, Western Kenya. It is about three kilometers to the East of Webuye town. It is a rural school and people who live around the school are predominantly farmers. They grow sugarcane, maize, beans, bananas, vegetables etc. and they also raise livestock (mostly cows) and poultry. They are predominantly Tachoni, but there is a sizeable population of Bukusu as well. Both the Tachoni and Bukusu are sub-groups of Luhya and their languages (Lutachoni and Lubukusu) are mutually intelligible.

Mihuu Secondary School has an approximate population of 320 students spread out evenly in four grades: Form one, Form two, Form three and Form four, with each grade having two streams (a boys' stream and a girls' stream). To illustrate, Form one has two streams: the boys stream and the girls stream. The Form one boys stream has approximately forty students, and the Form one girls stream also has approximately forty students. Form two, Form three and Form four are organized in the same way.

Some students at the Mihuu Secondary School are borders while others are day scholars. The borders live in dormitories at school while day scholars commute to their homes every school day.

Because of time constraints (mainly due students' busy scheduling), we were only able to survey two streams: Form two girls' stream (thirty three students) and Form four boys' stream (forty students). A self-administered questionnaire was used.

To understand the participants' linguistic background, we asked them to tell us what their mother tongue is (by writing it in the provided space on the questionnaire).

The Form two students in the survey named the following as their mother tongue:

Tachoni (Lutachoni): 4/33 (12.12%) Bukusu (Lubukusu): 13/33 (39.39%) Swahili (Kiswahili): 3/33 (9.09%) Maragoli (Logooli): 1/33 (3.03%) Luo (Dholuo): 2/33 (6.06%) Kabras (Lukabrasi): 1/33 (3.03%) Marama (Lumarama): 1/33 (3.03%) Teso (Ateso): 2/33 (6.06%) Luyia: 2/33 (6.06%) No answer: 4/33 (12.12%) The Form four students in the survey named the following as their mother tongue:

Bukusu (Lubukusu): 14/40 (35%) Kinyala (Lunyala): 1/40 (2.5%) Tachoni (Lutachoni): 19/40 (47.5%) Kabras (Lukabrasi): 2/40 (5%) Luo (Dholuo): 2/40 (5%) Swahili (Kiswahili): 1/40 (2.5%) Kinyala (Lunyala): 1/40 (2.5%) Thus the most common mother tongue is Lubukusu for Form two students and Lutachoni for Form four students. This is not surprising, considering the fact that communities surrounding the school are predominantly Tachoni, though the Bukusu are also well represented.

In the survey, we were interested in knowing which languages the students spoke at home and at school, and whether they understood lessons that are presented in English (since English is the language of instruction). We were also interested in finding out what their language preferences are and whether they think using Kiswahili and mother tongue would make learning easier.

We gave students a self-administered questionnaire consisting of questions interrogating these issues and asked them to answer the questions as accurately as possible.

Data and Commentary

The following are responses to questions that students...

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