13 January 2011

Kenya: Kiswahili Teaching the Problem, Not Sheng


Nairobi — While announcing last year's KCPE examination results, Education minister Sam Ongeri observed that performance in Kiswahili was dismal. This did not come as a surprise, as it has been the trend for a couple of years.

Many Kenyans received this news with anger and despondency, arguing that this should not happen because Kiswahili is our national language and also one of the two official languages.

Concerned by this sorry state of affairs, journalists went to the streets to collect public views on the subject, and most of those interviewed blamed it on "sheng".

This has been the reaction whenever poor results on the subject have been posted even at the secondary school level.

But this is a casual and pedestrian way of looking at a serious national issue. We should ask ourselves why performance in English is not affected by the use of Sheng. The problem must lie elsewhere.

To a large extent, what is wanting is the teaching approach and content delivery methods used by most teachers.

They harbour a misconception that the best way to master a language is to use extremely difficult vocabulary, some of which is not even standard Kiswahili.

In some cases, some words are borrowed from old Swahili dialects used in remote coastal towns.

This is reflected in pupils' compositions where you will find sayings, proverbs and difficult words used in a manner that leaves the reader at a loss.

Such a pupil may score very high marks as opposed to those who use everyday vocabulary to convey meaning in a coherent and fluent style.

This problem can partly be traced to teacher training colleges. Looking at the kind of compositions written by teacher trainees in their exams, you find that they compete to outdo each other in the (mis) use of difficult words and phrases, most of which are out of context.

There is not much emphasis on the use of language for communication purposes. Instead, language is used to bamboozle and mesmerise.

Such teachers are therefore not competent enough to handle the subject owing to their poor background and inadequate training.

The situation is aggravated by a poor curriculum. Pupils are taught complicated jargon, which is way above their level at a very early age. They therefore form a negative attitude towards the language.

Book authors and publishers also take the lion's share of the blame because they have contributed immensely in enforcing the negative attitude. They compete to outdo each other as to who writes the most complicated Kiswahili.

In particular, there is one textbook which has perfected this art all the way from Book 1 to Book 8. There is not much difference in the language used from one level of learning to the other.

Interestingly, the whole series is written by an author who is known to take pride in the use of high-sounding vocabulary to prove his mastery of the language.

Unfortunately, most teachers have made this book a "must read" for their pupils at all levels, which has led the pupils to form the same opinion as their teachers that the book is the last word in Kiswahili.

Supplementary teaching materials available from our publishers suffer the same malaise. Most story books and novels in Kiswahili are dull, while others call for the constant use of the dictionary owing to the numerous big sounding words, proverbs and sayings used.

To redeem the image of Kiswahili, the Department of Quality Assurance in the Ministry of Education must liaise with the Kenya Institute of Education to reorganise the syllabus. They should address the issues of content and method of delivery at all levels of learning.

Mr Ndung'u is a Masters student in Communication Studies at the University of Nairobi, and an author of books in Kiswahili.

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