Anthony Okech

The workshop “Exploring Multilingual Community Literacies” was held in September 2001 in Kampala, Uganda. The workshop was jointly organized by the Research Centre on Multilingualism of the University of Hamburg (Germany) and the Institute of Languages of Makerere University (Uganda) The objective was to explore the many different ways in which literacy is used and valued in the various linguistic communities. We reprint here the discussion papers by Anthony Okech and Godfrey Sentumbwe. Anthony Okech, a long-standing partner of our Institute and a senior member of the Institute of Adult Continuing Education of Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, reports on the experience of the “multilingual literacy” approach in Uganda. Godrey Sentumbwe, Programme Manager of LABE (Literacy and Basic Adult Education) in Kampala, examines the question whether in a country such as Uganda with very many ethnic groups, literacy should be taught in the mother tongue or the local language, or in the official national language, English. Both papers have appeared in the proceedings of “Exploring Multilingual Community Literacies. Workshop at the Ugandan German Cultural Society, Kampala, September 2001”, ed. Christine Glanz and Okot Benge by kind permission of the Research Centre on Multilingualism, University of Hamburg. The project is supported by the German Research Society (DFG).

Multilingual Literacies as a Resource

1. Policy Framework

Uganda’s officially stated policy on language in education recognises and provides for multilingual literacy. In the 1992 White Paper on Education, which provided the policy that still guides most of educational development and activities in Uganda, the Government provided as follows:

  • In rural areas the medium of instruction during the first four years of primary school education would be the relevant local language (not “mother-tongue” as recommended by the Commission from whose report the policy was drawn – this will be commented on later in the paper).


  • The rest of formal education was to be carried out in English as the medium of instruction (in urban areas English would be used from the start of primary education).


  • Kiswahili and English were to be taught as compulsory languages throughout primary and secondary education, with growing emphasis on Kiswahili at the later stages.


  • The area language was to be taught as a subject in both rural and urban areas: it would be examinable but not compulsory at Primary Leaving Examination (PLE).


  • From Senior 1 (first year of Secondary School) students were to be encouraged to take another foreign language and, optionally, one major Ugandan language.


  • Choice of language in basic literacy programmes for adults would be the responsibility of the local authorities.

The multilingual strategy encouraged in Uganda’s education system recognizes what is today regarded as a basic right: to learn literacy in one’s first language. Psychologists and experts in the teaching of reading and writing argue that pupils acquire literacy much better and more permanently when they start in their first language and then transfer to another language, than when they try to learn it directly in a second language. The multilingual strategy therefore promotes better learning.

Although the approach recommended according to the policy quoted above is not practically possible in a number of cases even in the rural areas because of the highly mixed populations, the fact that it is provided for and made possible is very important. The extent to which practical strategies have actually been put in place to translate the policy into reality will be examined in the next section of the paper.

The policy on language in education reflects Uganda’s strategy of creating unity in diversity, in this case linguistic diversity. Governments in Uganda have at various stages tried to bring about the adoption of a national language for the promotion of greater unity among Ugandans. The language that has been recurrently promoted for this purpose has been Kiswahili, to facilitate communication not only at the national level but also at the inter-territorial level, since Kiswahili is spoken in much of Eastern and Central Africa. The policy quoted above has also put special emphasis on learning Kiswahili throughout the primary and secondary school with the intention, as stated in the White Paper, of promoting the adoption of Kiswahili as a national language.

This effort to promote Kiswahili, like the others before it, has not received much practical support. The multilingual approach seems to be more favoured. In this situation, multilingual individuals are an important resource. They are a bridge, through speech or writing, between those who do not share the same language.

2. Current State of Multilingual Literacy in Uganda

The majority of Ugandans are at least bilingual, and many are multilingual in three and more languages. Comprehensive up-to-date figures are not readily available, but statistics from a sample used for the 1999 evaluation of the Functional Adult Literacy Programme in Uganda may give some indication. The sample of 938 programme participants from 8 districts representing all regions of Uganda was composed of adults, about 80% of them women, who had either not gone to school at all (27%) or completed only a few years of schooling (36% completed four, 23% completed five) (Okech et al. 1999). Yet an amazing 86% of them spoke at least one other language apart from their own. There were surprising statistics like 47% from Arua District and 54% in Soroti District claiming to speak some Luganda, which not only belongs to another language family, but is also geographically removed from the two districts. Practically none of the sample reported being able to speak English.

In view of the above situation, where people can transfer their literacy from one language to another, there should be a high level of at least bilingual literacy in Uganda. This seems to happen to quite a great extent, although the transferability seems to be easier among some languages than among others. For example, there are considerable percentages of people in many districts of Uganda who speak Luganda but find it very difficult to read and even more difficult to write. Among the schooled population, there is the additional problem of many who find it difficult to read and write their own first language.

The evaluation just referred to found that the first four years in most rural schools are de facto taught in the local language, rather than in English. English is just taught as a subject, using the local language. However, the fact of teaching in the local language is not really in response to the policy contained in the 1992 White Paper. It is rather because the teachers and pupils find it difficult to use as a medium of instruction a language which the pupils do not use outside class and which they have not yet learnt. Both the teachers and the pupils were given an open choice as to which language should be used in administering a literacy and numeracy test to pupils in the fourth year of primary school and both groups chose the local languages, in all the eight districts. This was even the case in town areas.

While the medium of instruction in the first four years is the local language, most of the local languages do not have any text-books, other reading books or other learning and teaching materials. Partly because of the lack of books and other materials in the local languages and partly because of the rather poor quality of the education offered, due to various reasons, the pupils do not achieve a significant level of literacy during those first four years. The test administered during that evaluation revealed that, after three and a half years of schooling, the pupils had not achieved a level of literacy any better than adults who had never been to school but had attended only nine months of adult literacy programmes, for two to three hours a day, two or three times a week.

After the fourth year in Primary School, the emphasis starts shifting to English, the language in which the Primary Leaving Examinations are held. With the rather inadequate amount of literacy acquired by Primary Four level, the shift to English greatly reduces the proficiency of literacy in the first language. The result is the rather low level of local language literacy among the more schooled population and their tendency to prefer to write in English. Many of them find it difficult even to read their first languages. This situation is reinforced by the fact that, currently, the better-performing schools are those which start with English as a medium of instruction right from the beginning of primary education.

In adult literacy programmes, the medium of instruction is the local language of the area where the programme is taking place. As already mentioned, the evaluation carried out in 1999 found that adults who have completed one cycle of basic literacy education compare favourably with Primary Four pupils. One possible explanation may be their concentration on the use of their mother tongue at this initial stage (for most of them). They are not therefore distracted by the interference of another language with a rather different type of orthography. However, the insufficiency of being literate in one’s first language only has made many of the adult literacy programme participants call for literacy in English after some basic literacy in their local language.

3. Multilingual Literacies and National Unity

Communication at national level in Uganda, both horizontal and vertical, involves multilingual literacy. English is the official language of Uganda and most official documents, whether from the Government or other organisations, are in English. Many of these documents must reach those who do not speak, read or write English. They have therefore to be translated into the languages which the people speak. The ability to do this is therefore an important resource.

Because of the rather low level of local language literacy proficiency, much of the translation is often from literacy to oracy. Instead of taking the trouble to translate in writing from English to the local language, in many cases the literate bilingual reads the text in English and speaks out in the local language. This has of course its limitations, but it is already an important bridge. However, the Government and other organisations have increasingly adopted the practice of translating key documents into selected local languages. The number of languages into which the documents are translated depends on how necessary the authors feel it is for the document to reach the people in their own languages.

There is also a growing practice of producing some documents in bilingual versions, in a few cases in even more than two languages. This enables those with multilingual literacy to access the document in their own language while being able to compare it with the original, usually English, version. Such individuals can also help those with only monolingual literacy to make the comparison.

Multilingual literacy in local languages facilitates what could be referred to as horizontal communication among different language speakers in Uganda. This is practised to some extent, although it is limited by what has already been referred to as the low level of local language literacy.

4. Multilingual Literacies and the Mother Tongue

As mentioned at the beginning, the Education Review Commission, from whose report the 1992 White Paper on Education was drawn, had recommended that the medium of instruction in the first four years of primary schooling should be in the mother tongue. The Government changed this to “relevant local language”. This was in recognition of the fact that the population of Uganda is highly mixed, not only in the urban, but also in the rural areas. Some villages in rural areas could have people of five or even more different mother tongues. In practice it is therefore not always possible to respect the right to learn literacyin one’s mother tongue, especially when it is to be used as a medium of instruction.

The practical implementation of the multilingual approach in Uganda’s formal education system has, in addition, not seriously respected the principle of beginning literacy in the mother tongue. In the formal education system, during the colonial days, and for some years after independence, six languages were given predominance over others and used as the medium of instruction during the first years of primary schooling. They were given the title of “vernacular” and there was even a grade of teachers called “vernacular teachers” who were trained to teach in one of those six languages.

What this practice did not recognise was that some of these vernaculars were truly foreign to those made to learn literacy in them. This was, for example the case in a District like Bukedi (now Tororo, Pallisa and Busia), where Luganda was the vernacular and yet the district was home to three language families: Bantu, Eastern Nilotic and Western Nilotic. It was partly because many Ugandans felt that they were already learning literacy in a foreign language anyway that at a certain stage there was the move to start learning in English right from the beginning of the Primary School.

5. Multilingualism and Access to Information

One important aspect of multilingual literacy is that it should promote access to information which is available in various languages. In Uganda, written information is accessible mainly in English and, to some extent, in Luganda, less in the other major languages of Uganda. As a result of this, multilingual literacy in the local languages of Uganda does not open the way to much access to information. It is this reality that prompts participants in adult literacy programmes to demand literacy in English as soon as they have acquired some literacy in their local languages.

The 1999 evaluation of the Functional Adult Literacy Programme, which has already been referred to, found that many of those who had acquired the basic level of literacy in their local language practised very little reading because they had practically nothing to read in their local language. It would seem that, unless there is a dramatic change in the literary scene in Uganda, the only multilingual literacy that opens access to information in Uganda will for some time include English or Luganda, and to a lesser extent one of the other “major” languages: Runyoro-Rutooro, Runyankore-Rukiga, Luo (Lango and Acholi) and Ateso.

6. Cost and Cost-Effectiveness

One main constraint often cited in the promotion of multilingual literacy in Uganda is that of the cost of preparing and producing text-books and other teaching and learning as well as reading materials in so many languages (over 30 in Uganda). The Functional Adult Literacy Programme run by the Government has been able to produce up to four titles in about twenty languages for the basic literacy and follow-up reader activities. This has been done using a very small budget, but has also reached only a very small percentage of those who need the programme. Even though so few have been reached, this is a sign that something can be done, with a somewhat bigger budget to prepare and produce basic learning and teaching materials in all the languages of Uganda.

The Government has usually given the lack of resources as a reason for not being able to cover all the local languages in the formal education system and has instead been handling the issue through projects that tend to focus on the same “major languages”. Currently there is a project being worked upon which will cover more languages, but still not all the languages. The aim is, however, to cover all the local languages eventually.

The bigger challenge will come when one looks beyond the learning stage to the use of the literacy skills. Access to information and literature in many of the languages may not increase much when one considers the dynamics of market forces. Publishers have so far shown very little interest in publishing in some of the smaller languages because they know the market is very small. Not only are the speakers of these languages few but they are also generally very poor. Their priority expenditure out of their little income will therefore most likely not be on books and other reading materials but rather on the basics for survival. However, there will always be many situations and events where local language and multilingual literacy will come in useful. It is therefore worth the effort.


Government of Uganda (1992), White Paper on the Education Policy Review Commission Report entitled “Education for National Integration and Development”, Kampala, Government of Uganda

Okech, Anthony, Roy Carr-Hill, Anne Katahoire, Teresa Kakooza, Alice Ndidde (1999), Report of Evaluation of the Functional Adult Literacy Programme in Uganda 1999, Kampala, Government of Uganda.

Okech, Anthony, Roy Carr-Hill, Anne Katahoire, Teresa Kakooza, Alice Ndidde (2001), Adult Literacy Programs in Uganda. Washington: The World Bank

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