Clinton Robinson

Language is an important expression of people's own cultural identity and plays a key role in the field of literacy. What does this mean for literacy programmes, especially in countries with multilingual population groups? This paper (shortened version) will look at the shape of language issues as they arise in adult literacy work and will present some examples of how literacy acquisition is structured in a variety of multilingual environments in different regions of the world. While the author will refer necessarily to language policies in the school context, the focus is firmly on adult literacy and the language issues involved in pursuing the fourth EFA goal on increasing literacy rates. Clinton Robinson developed an interest in adult learning and literacy during ten years of NGO work in Cameroon, with a special focus on the use of African languages in development communication. More recently as an independent consultant, he has conducted studies and evaluations of a range of adult learning programmes in Africa and Asia. Currently he works as a member of UNESCO's Education for All (EFA) coordination team.

Languages and Literacies

The international community has long recognised that language issues are central to the organisation and delivery of education of all kinds. The countries of the world manifest varying degrees of linguistic diversity, a reality that has become ever more widespread with the increasing mobility of populations. International declarations have gone beyond merely recognising language issues and have called for serious attention to be given to designing educational, cultural and, more broadly, development policies which enable people to make maximum use of the language resources at their disposal. In practice, this has most frequently entailed a plea for the effective integration of both local and international languages in learning programmes, as documented in UNESCO's presentation of principles for education in a multilingual world (UNESCO 2003).

The Dakar FrameworkforAction in its expanded commentary includes "the importance of local languages for initial literacy" as one of the factors of effective and inclusive education and refers repeatedly to the special needs of ethnic and linguistic minorities. Language is also seen as a factor in developing relevant curriculum, in ensuring quality learning and in respecting cultural identities. In the EFA movement, therefore, the case is clearly made for adequate consideration to be given to language issues in realising the Dakar goals. However, these intentions may or may not be reflected in national policy statements and are even more rarely translated into effective multilingual strategies in education on the ground. Where policies regarding the use of languages in education are spelled out, the emphasis is always on the context of formal schooling, as a national system. While different parameters apply in making decisions about adult literacy work, it is nevertheless a further sign of the relative neglect of adult literacy at both policy and implementation levels that the questions of language use in literacy promotion are not systematically addressed.

I take a plural view of literacy - 'literacies', as indicated in the title of the paper. This concept, whose dimensions cannot be explored here, defines literacy as embedded in context and focuses on the different practices and uses of literacy. In consequence, literacy takes a different shape in different communities and individuals, and indeed a single individual may use a range of literacies. With regard to languages, the plural view of literacy is crucial, since language itself is a factor which distinguishes one literacy from another, along with other factors such as mode of acquisition, institutional uses of literacy, the purposes and modalities of literacy. The generic use of the singular term 'literacy' in this paper in no way detracts from this fundamentally plural view. The notion of 'literacies' is well developed by Street (1995, 2001), Barton and Hamilton (1998) and Collins and Blot (2003), among others.

1. Where Languages Matter for Literacy

Literacy needs are distributed unevenly across the world with South and West Asia accounting for more than half of the world's non-literate population. Taken with Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab region, this proportion rises to more than three-quarters (UNESCO 2004). In terms of languages, it is important to ask how far large literacy needs are related to levels of linguistic diversity and of language development. Language development refers to the current state of written development of a language - how far it is used in written form, what opportunities for literacy in the language exist and what kinds and amounts of text exist, in whatever form - printed, electronic, etc.

The language situations of countries with the highest literacy needs are very different. Taking the nine countries listed in the 2005 EFA Global Monitoring Report as accounting for the highest proportion of literacy needs, and the five countries with the lowest literacy rates, the numbers of languages are as follows:

Percentage of
world non-literate population
Adultliteracy rate
Number of languages
Nine countries = 70.3% of world non-literate population
Bangladesh 6.5
Five countries with lowest adult literacy rates
Benin 39,8
Burkina Faso

Sources: Grimes 2000; UNESCO 2004

These data indicate only at a very coarse level of analysis the relationship between literacy and linguistic diversity, showing merely that all these countries are linguistically diverse, but that this diversity varies greatly from one country to another. Nevertheless, even such basic facts may be ignored in discussions about literacy promotion, with language questions relegated to the level of implementation, rather than figuring in policy and planning fora.

In the above table, for instance, over 95% of the Brazilian population speak Portuguese, with the other languages of Brazil spoken by small and very small groups of indigenous peoples. Some of China's minorities number in the millions, although the Mandarin-speaking Han population represents 70% of the population. Much of the linguistic diversity of Indonesia is concentrated in three provinces - Irian Jaya (263 languages), Sulawesi (114), and Maluku (128). In Bangladesh, 98% of the population speaks Bangla, the national language. These observations do not minimise the importance of language diversity, but rather call for a more detailed analysis of each situation.

We should also guard against seeing the linguistic diversity of the five countries with the lowest literacy rates as a cause for their plight. Rather, the high linguistic diversity should be a reason for looking seriously at language as a material consideration in ensuring wider access to literacy and higher levels of acquisition and use. In other words, linguistic diversity should not be seen as an insuperable problem, but as a key factor in designing intervention in literacy and other areas of development. It is not unknown for linguistic diversity to be lauded as an important and valuable manifestation of cultural diversity, while being described in the same context as an impossible problem in terms of educational usage.

If data such as those in the above chart are to be of real use in understanding the situation with regard to literacy and languages then a range of other questions must be answered:

  • What proportion of the population can be considered linguistic minorities? This will identify how much of the population is potentially marginalised from literacy opportunities because of language. Literacy opportunities include the possibility not only of acquiring literacy, but also of using it in meaningful ways in society.
  • In how many languages are literacy opportunities available? What proportion of the population has access to literacy acquisition in their own language, the mother tongue?
  • What proportion of the population uses a major language in which literacy is available? Further, what proportion of those who access literacy through a major language are mother-tongue speakers of it, and what proportion use it as a second (or third...) language?

This kind of fine-grained analysis is rarely undertaken, and so data are hardly available to provide answers to these questions. While statistics are available for the population of minority linguistic groups, data on literacy rates within those groups are difficult to obtain, let alone a breakdown by the language of literacy. The fourteenth edition of the Ethnologue (Grimes 2000), a listing of the world's languages which aims to be complete, attempts to show literacy rates for a number of minority groups. Information is given in some cases on the literacy rate in their own mother tongue, together with the rate of literacy in a second language, such as an official or national language. The data are patchy and there is no indication how they were collected or whether further research will result in more accurate data or data for a wider range of populations. However, it is a research undertaking which is urgent and would shed considerable light on the real levels of access to and use of literacy among linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples.

Interestingly, the few data that the Ethnologue provides indicate that literacy rates in the mother tongue are equal to or, more commonly, lower than those in a second language. Data for both rates are given for very few languages, of which the following serve as examples from different regions of the world:


Literacy rate in own language
Literacy rate in second language
Amele, Papua New Guinea
Berom, Nigeria
East Makian, Indonesia (Maluku)
below 1%
Popoloca (San Juan Atzingo), Mexico
Saraiki, India
below 1%

Source: Grimes 2000

The first example, Amele, gives a strong indication that a fully bilingual approach to literacy acquisition has been implemented and has been, thus far, effective. This represents the kind of result which gives best opportunity to minority groups: mother tongue literacy for initial learning, cognitive development, self-expression and cultural self-confidence, and second language literacy for participation and voice in the wider society. The other examples could be interpreted in radically divergent ways:

  • The first interpretation, noting that second language literacy rates are so much higher, would claim that literacy in the second language is more effective, more feasible and more in demand than mother tongue literacy, with the implication that the latter is an unnecessary investment, and efforts should be made to reinforce the learning of the second language and the acquisition of literacy in it.
  • The second interpretation, also noting that second language literacy rates are higher, but still low, and observing that mother tongue literacy rates are very low indeed, would conclude that opportunities for mother tongue literacy are inadequate and that it is difficult therefore for widespread literacy to develop in the second language.

In order to assess which of these interpretations provides the best basis for further promotion of literacy, it would be necessary to carry out surveys of language use, bilingualism, the literate environment, and attitudes to language and literacy in the respective communities. It is precisely because such studies are hardly ever undertaken that inappropriate policies and ineffective strategies give rise to a succession of literacy initiatives which fail to take root or offer real opportunities of development.

According to Walter (forthcoming) the 4,500 linguistic communities of the world which have a population of less than 50,000 represent some 53.38 million people; these are the smallest linguistic groups of which several in the above table are examples. Walter comes to a similar conclusion about their prospects of access to literacy and education:

"From the perspective of literacy and education, this cluster of linguistic communities - some 53.38 million people - represents a compelling challenge. Realistically, apart from occasional exceptional efforts, most of these people will either be expected to achieve literacy in a second language or will be by-passed as "unreachable" given the cost of providing special programs for such small people groups. In either case, high levels of illiteracy will be the norm for such linguistic communities for the foreseeable future." (Walter, forthcoming: 19)

Walter's detailed analysis of literacy rates in relation to languages focuses on the status of the languages concerned. In very general terms, his work shows that lower literacy rates are not associated with linguistic diversity as such, but with the level of development of each language. Where a higher proportion of the population of a country speaks undeveloped languages (for instance, without an agreed

writing system) there are lower literacy levels. Walter is quick to point to anomalies and exceptions to this observation, emphasising that literacy rates depend on much more than language issues. These are one of a number of variables, which include policy issues and cultural questions. We now turn to these.

2. Language Policies and Literacy

As Ager (2001) points out, language policy formulation is most frequently examined at the level of the nation-state in respect of the way that governments structure the use of languages within their borders. This results in giving languages a certain status, for instance as a national language, an official language, a provincial language or some other category. Policies are designed so that languages will be recognised as having a certain prestige or reach, that they will be used in certain ways (for instance in government administration or education) and that they will be learnt by certain groups of people, often with the intention that the whole population acquires a particular language.

2.1 Policies in Multilingual Environments

Government policies in multilingual environments give differential status to languages, most often based on how extensively they are spoken. Thus in India, Hindi and English have national status, while fourteen other languages are given recognition at state level. This means that schooling is dispensed in those languages in the relevant areas, and that there is demand for literacy in them too. However, there are many more languages, including tribal languages. These are recognised as valid means of communication and learning and are given moral recognition, but no official support for their development or use in education. In terms of literacy acquisition, therefore, their use depends on local organisations and initiatives, as well as on community demand and support.

In countries with large numbers of smaller language groups, such as Cameroon (over 250 languages) and Papua New Guinea (about 850 languages), all languages are recognised but levels of support are very different. In Cameroon, the government's policy is that local languages can and should be used for initial schooling, but no attempt has yet been made to move towards implementation (there are some limited NGO initiatives), and the government's literacy efforts, minimal as they are, are conducted entirely in French or English, the official languages. It is only since the adoption of a new national constitution in 1995 that Cameroon has made official mention of its many 'national' (= indigenous) languages. Papua New Guinea evinces the boldest of any policy regarding language in education, with the possibility of using any of its many languages in primary schooling, given certain kinds of community support, for instance in the preparation of materials. Once again, this policy was developed for formal schooling specifically, not with adult literacy necessarily in mind.

Nigeria (505 languages) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (218 languages) are in a different situation again, with strong regional languages: Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo in Nigeria, and Lingala, Kiswa-hili, Kikongo and Ciluba in DRC. These are used, and promoted, as extensive lingua francas and are used in education, albeit somewhat patchily in DRC owing to collapsed systems (see also below 4.3). Other local languages may be used in education and literacy - policies allow for this - but in practice little or no support is given to such initiatives, which depend on community or NGO resources.

In practice, therefore, policies in multilingual situations tend to give status to a certain number of languages, but not all of them. Policies may specifically address the educational use of languages, as in PNG where there is still no explicit overall language policy. PNG is one of the few countries where the use of all languages is encouraged in education and it is certainly the most egregious example of policy-making, given the extremely high number of languages within its borders. Even where policies allow for the use of minority and smaller languages in education, such as in India, Nigeria or Cameroon, there is rarely any government support either in formal education or in literacy.

2.2 Colonial Overhang

The former colonial polices of France and Britain had distinctive kinds of influence on the use of African languages (Brock-Utne 2000). The British approach of indirect rule led to a much greater space for local languages and their use was part of the relationship between colonial administrators and local people - special allowances were given to colonial officials who learnt local languages. The use of languages in education nevertheless fluctuated considerably over the years, but the policy allowed for adult literacy work using both African languages and English. This has resulted, for example, in university departments and research institutes focusing on adult learning, where language questions have been of long-term concern (e.g. Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone).

The policies of French colonial authorities were quite different, with a concern to integrate colonial possessions into metropolitan governance structures and to promote French culture and language. French took a strong hold in the coastal West African states, so that, in many of them, it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that policies began to recognise African languages as valid vehicles of education. Government adult literacy programmes were overwhelmingly in French. In the Sahelian states, French was less well known, and so local languages had greater space, both in formal and non-formal learning; Senegal, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have, for instance, demonstrated high levels of innovation and experimentation in local language literacy (Brock-Utne 2000; Chaudenson and Renard 1999; Dombrowsky et al. 1993).

2.3 NGOs and Language Policies

A focus on government language policy obscures the fact that much adult literacy work is conducted by non-governmental organisations, from local community-based groupings, religious organisations, development associations, to international NGOs. In many multilingual countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Peru, NGOs carry out the bulk of adult literacy efforts, and for the most part adopt multilingual approaches, beginning with literacy instruction through the local language and moving to the learning of a language of wider communication. Experiences of national NGOs in Cameroon, Uganda and Ghana are presented in section 4 below, as well as the work of a regional NGO in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The contrasting approaches of two international NGOs are presented here: ActionAid and SIL International.

ActionAid is a network of affiliated NGOs which undertakes a wide range of development activities. Adult literacy has figured prominently in its work, and it developed the Reflect literacy method (Archer and Cottingham 1996a). Its basic approach is to put the learning process in the hands of learners themselves, avoiding the prior preparation of materials or the use of instructional primers. With a strong emphasis on a facilitated group process, learners discuss their knowledge of health, economic, social and other aspects of their community's life, representing the output in charts and diagrams, often drawn on the ground. The literacy component consists of identifying key words, each learner writing them in their own books and collectively on charts, the idea being to create learning materials as they go along. Initial studies showed good learning outcomes as well as heightened community mobilisation (Archer and Cottingham 1996b). Thefleflecf method calls for free discussion among learners, and this occurs in the mother tongue. It is therefore this language which is used for initial literacy. In the Ugandan experience, the languages used were not written in the first instance and the Reflect process contributed to their development and to their possible use in formal education. This grassroots approach contrasts with governmental approaches and the top-down national literacy campaigns of the past. In language terms it builds on the way communities actually use languages and patterns learning accordingly. However, where the languages used are in an early form of written development, the question of developing the literate environment and producing ongoing materials remains to be answered.1

SIL International is an NGO which has initiated literacy and language development projects in hundreds of minority and indigenous groups around the world, based on a religious motivation of translating the Christian scriptures. In literacy, partnerships with government, other NGOs and communities have led to literacy programmes in languages hitherto unwritten (SIL 2003). Typically, the development of a language in written form, based on linguistic studies, is followed by the preparation of literacy primers in collaboration with local knowledge-makers/story-tellers/writers. These books are often the first to be produced in the language concerned, and little else may be available as people start acquiring literacy. Since many of the language groups where SIL projects take place are small, there is always a need for literacy in other languages; such instruction may be offered by the project itself or through other agencies. SIL's approach gives pride of place to the local language and emphasises its development in written form. As a linguistic, research-based exercise it is effective in enabling literacy and a literate environment to develop in languages otherwise neglected; however, it is less effective in integrating the resulting literacy use into the daily lives and concerns of individuals and communities. Although writing and the production of materials are in focus from the start, there is inadequate investment in identifying and reinforcing domains of literacy use. Such a heavy emphasis on the mother tongue, however necessary in situations of massive neglect, risks obscuring the absolute necessity of multilingual approaches to literacy for such groups.

2.4 A Language Policy for Literacy?

In terms of policy-making, these NGO experiences, together with those in section 4, contrast greatly with government approaches. While the NGOs would not perhaps claim to be making policy, the reach and impact of both the international NGOs referred to above results in de facto policies on the ground, with influence on what governments find feasible and desirable. Further, a fundamental question with regard to language policies and literacy must be asked: how far do official language policies matter for the promotion of literacy acquisition among adults? There are several elements of response:

  • Governments rarely articulate or promote any explicit policy with respect to the choice/use of languages in adult literacy work specifically, even if there are policies on language in education or in national life generally;
  • Official language policies affect demand for literacy in certain languages, as people wish to take part and have voice in national society through, for example, the official language; this demand does not, however, necessarily reduce demand for literacy in the local language - both demands must be addressed;
  • Where language policies favour the use of local languages and a multilingual approach in formal schooling, it is easier to adopt similar approaches in adult literacy, strengthening ties between school and community, and between formal and non-formal learning;
  • There is a recognition, most frequently tacit, that adults should be able to influence the choice of language in which they acquire literacy; this means that even in countries where policies strongly promote an official or national language, there is the possibility for adults to acquire literacy in their own languages as well, if they wish and have the means to do so;
  • There are situations where language policy outlaws the development or educational use of minority languages in any way, thus obliging such groups to learn another language for literacy purposes.

Kosonen's study (2005) of language policies and situations in education in east and southeast Asia is one of the few that presents data on language use in both formal and non-formal education - non-formal education includes both adult learning and primary level equivalency programmes. His survey of eleven countries shows that eight of them use local languages, thus a multilingual approach, in adult education - this is the same number as use local languages in the formal system, at least to some extent. He also notes that adult education is conducted principally by non-governmental bodies in five of the eight countries. This speaks for a strong correlation between government policies regarding formal schooling and the grassroots activities of NGOs and communities, in terms of approaches to selecting the languages of learning.

3. Languages, Literacy and Culture

Approaches to literacy in developing countries are overwhelmingly instrumental - the focus is on how literacy and its acquisition will enable people to achieve improvements in their lives, defined in terms of socio-economic progress and better personal and family health. These sorts of aims underlie the functional approach to literacy. In this perspective, language is also considered from an instrumental point of view: which language(s) will best enable people to access literacy and the knowledge, skills and behaviours leading to positive change? These approaches and perspectives are fundamental to development and to a rationale for the value of literacy within it. They also emphasise the key communicative role of language and, depending on how fine-grained the analysis of context is, give due consideration to the complexities of choosing languages for literacy.

A focus on the functional value of literacy, with a corresponding emphasis on the communicative role of language, risks ignoring two key aspects: the cultural value of literacy and the symbolic function of language. Language has long been part of nation building, particularly in situations of high diversity where the promotion of a single language has been seen as a key symbolic means of national unity (Mansour 1993). However, such use of language as a symbol in the national political sphere can conflict with the affirmation of local, especially minority identities. In this respect, the language of literacy can exercise an important cultural function.

Literacy among the linguistic and cultural minorities of Myanmar has been promoted by various agencies, both in the national language, Burmese, as well as in the minority languages themselves, the latter entirely through non-governmental initiatives. Literacy among these groups is lower than among the Burmese-speaking population and there are very few materials available in the local languages. A survey in 2004 of the development and use of rural development information materials in local languages among the minorities showed that the newly produced development guides would certainly fulfil their functional role of generating new ideas, discussion and initiative within local communities. However, adults in these groups also consistently mentioned the cultural importance of having literature in their own language - the report states:

"The production process and use of guides have considerably raised people's perceptions of the value of their own culture and language, and lifted expectations of how they fit into the process of local development. This impact cannot be overstated for communities which have long laboured under the illusion that their language and culture are second-rate and incapable of shaping the modern world." (Tearfund 2004:27)

The link between the language of literacy and cultural identity is particularly important for minorities who are, or feel themselves to be, outside the social mainstream and who are constantly obliged to operate on someone else's linguistic terms. Language is one of the most obvious markers of cultural identity and frequently becomes the symbol and rallying cry of embattled cultural minorities. In many countries, it is the mainstream populations or elites assimilated to the mainstream who make decisions on language use in literacy and education. Although they may be sensitive to instrumental arguments regarding the use of minority languages for development purposes, it is rare that they will appreciate - much less act on - the symbolic and cultural value of literacy in the local language. There is in fact a disconnect in policy-making at this juncture, since linguistic diversity may well be lauded as part of the cultural heritage, but little or no effort made to draw out the implications for education or development (Robinson 1996). This is all the more inauspicious as the cultural basis for development is increasingly viewed as crucial in empowering communities to initiate and sustain positive change (cf Eade 2002; WCCD1995).

4. Language Strategies in Literacy

4.1 Uganda - Decentralised Decisions on Language

The adult literacy rate in Uganda is 68.9% (male 78.8, female 59.2 - UNESCO 2004). The Ugandan government estimates that there are 6.9 million adults without literacy skills. There are wide regional disparities, with literacy rates as low as 47% in northern regions, and as high as 77% in central districts. More than 40 languages are spoken (Grimes 2000), and English is the official language. The largest language group, speaking Luganda, accounts for less than 20% of the total population. Efforts to address adult literacy must therefore take seriously the question of which language(s) people should use for literacy purposes, both in initial acquisition and in ongoing application.

Since 1992, Uganda's policy on the use of languages in education has been that local languages should be used for initial literacy, both for children (at least the first four years of primary school, and up to seven) and for adults. For schooling, six languages were chosen at national level, but districts had the freedom to develop and use others. They were to set up District Language Boards, though it is doubtful whether any actually exist. Schooling also aims at competence in English, and demand from adults for literacy in English is strong. However this does not mean that literacy is necessarily offered through English in the first instance.

In many multilingual situations in Africa, planners often present language choices as either-or alternatives: either literacy in the local language or in the official language. The educational argument for using first the language which the learner knows best is frequently lost. This is not the case in Uganda, even though reference to language use is minimal in the government's published literacy policy (National Adult Literacy Strategic Investment Plan 2002), with a recommendation that literacy providers should "develop simple reading materials in English and local languages" (p.17). Decentralised government initiatives, often with NGO cooperation and input, focus on initial literacy instruction through the language of the learner, with progression to English once basic literacy competence has been achieved (EAI 2003). This separates the two quite distinct learning objectives: acquiring literacy, and learning a foreign language. The national literacy plan has not yet been implemented in a systematic way, but this may, paradoxically, have resulted in more appropriate, localised approaches to the use of Uganda's languages in literacy learning.

4.2 Bhutan - Language as a National Rallying Point

Bhutan, a small, landlocked country of 700,000 inhabitants wedged between the giants of China and India, demonstrates a vigorous pride in its distinct cultural heritage and national traditions. As it has sought to interact to a greater extent with the outside world over the last decades, education has been a key plank of its development policy. Since 1993 the government has run an adult literacy programme under its Non-formal Education Department to reach those who are unschooled or under-schooled; it has offered literacy instruction in Dzongkha, the national language, which is written in a Devanagari-derived script. The medium of instruction in the formal school system is English, with an emphasis also on a high level of literacy and other language skills in Dzongkha, which is promoted as part of national identity and culture.

Bhutan is, however, linguistically diverse with over 20 different languages (Namgyel 2003). Dzongkha is the only Bhutanese language which is used in written form and supported with government resources, being seen as a factor of national unity and a key marker of national identity. Non-formal learning programmes are currently all conducted in Dzongkha. The other languages of Bhutan are used in oral form, and some are closely related to Dzongkha - being from the same language family - while others are quite different. These languages are the daily means of communication for the groups speaking them, and not all have yet learnt Dzongkha. In 2003 the Bhutanese government estimated the adult literacy rate to be about 54% (Bhutan Ministry of Health and Education 2003), and noted that the "difficult mountain terrain, limited communication links and a dispersed pattern of settlement" were some of the reasons for lack of access to education. Given that these same, rather inaccessible communities also speak languages other than the national medium of instruction, the linguistic issue merits further analysis.

These different languages are part of the rich cultural diversity of Bhutan, and their development in written form may at some point take place-there is no restriction on such activities, although communities are not currently promoting their languages in this way. Nevertheless, for the purposes both of effective learning and cultural expression, the possibility of using these community languages in some more structured way in the future should not be ruled out, as part of the multilingual practices which already exist and which include Dzongkha and English, and as further development of Bhutan's cultural heritage.

4.3 Democratic Republic of Congo - a Multilingual Approach

In the north-west of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a local NGO, Sukisa Boyinga (Conquer ignorance), built on adult literacy work which began in the 1980s (Gfeller 1997). Centred around the town of Gemena, the majority of the population speaks Ngbaka, numbering over 2 million speakers. Other languages, such as Ng-bandi and Mbandja, are also spoken in the area. DRC has a total of over 200 languages, of which four serve as regional lingua francas:

Lingala, Kikongo, Kiswahili and Ciluba. In the Gemena region Lingala is the language used for communication between different language groups; in addition, French, the official language, is used for administrative and government purposes. From the start, Sukisa Boyinga launched literacy activities based on the mother tongue, Ngbaka, but gave attention to the full range of languages which people use in their daily lives. Thus the programme also introduced literacy in Lingala and French, through the medium of the learners' first language.

The initial aims of the programme were basic literacy in Ngbaka and Lingala, with an introduction to oral French. This was structured in three levels:

Level 1: initial literacy and numeracy training in the local language. At this stage knowledge is applied to everyday life by reading a health book after the basic skills have been taught.

Level 2: basic complementary training to reinforce level 1, and a first introduction to literacy in Lingala. A reader of local folk stories is also used.

Level 3: applied local language literacy; topics include animal husbandry, agriculture and elementary book-keeping; more advanced training in Lingala; initial oral French, with an emphasis on its use in practical everyday situations; further arithmetic.

These literacy, numeracy and language-learning goals were later expanded, at learners' insistence, to a full adult education programme which would offer the equivalent of primary schooling. The gradual deterioration and eventual collapse of the government schooling system meant that very few adults had completed primary school - in the mid-1990s about 90% of adults in this region did not have a primary school leaving certificate (Robinson and Gfeller 1997). The Sukisa Boyinga programme therefore offered the only opportunity for structured learning in the region. A further three levels were added to the programme, using Ngbaka as the medium of instruction and increasing skills in the other two languages:

Level 4: further Lingala reading; French grammar;geography from a local perspective; further arithmetic.

Level 5: further Lingala reading; further French training; history from a local perspective; further arithmetic.

Level 6: French training to cover the remaining areas of the DRC national primary school curriculum; political systems of the world; creative writing.

By 2000, a total of 46,400 adults were enrolled in this programme, with over 2,500 trained facilitators. In addition, the first three levels of the programme were adapted for children's schooling, with 6,000 children attending 50 primary schools and 12 community schools (SIL2001).

Apart from the fact that this initiative filled a gap left by the collapse over many years of the regular school system, the extent and the effectiveness of this programme have a clear linguistic dimension. In this region of DRC, people habitually need to use, and do in fact use, three languages: their own for all purposes of daily communication among their own families and villages, a regional language for wider contact and travelling further afield, and the official language for contact with the government. In practice, the local language is the most widely used, Lingala is known and used to varying degrees depending on individual needs and circumstances, while French, the official language, is known and used by only a few. Desire to learn French is, however, high. Thus the design of the literacy and adult education programme is patterned after the way people actually use languages, and a three-language approach is in no way difficult or burdensome as an educational strategy as far as the learners are concerned. On the contrary, the approach is entirely natural and obvious as it builds both on existing linguistic knowledge and on the demand to access new language resources - literacy in Ngbaka, enhancing oral Lingala and adding literacy in it, and oral and written French. It is also noteworthy that the language of instruction and interaction in the programme is Ngbaka throughout. This means that even when material is presented through other languages (for instance, by means of a development manual in French), it is explained and discussed through the language which learners know best and - more importantly - in which they will apply new knowledge to their daily lives. Undertaken in the most inauspicious circumstances of deprivation and conflict, this programme provides a model of a fully integrated multilingual approach to literacy and adult learning.

4.4 Ghana - Community-based Language Strategies

Ghana's policy on the use of languages in education has shifted back and forth over the years, sometimes emphasising the role of Ghanaian languages in initial learning, sometimes stressing the need for all to learn English, the official language. Ghanaians speak over 60 local languages, of which fifteen have official status as languages to be used in education, both formal schooling and adult literacy. Local communities, NGOs and others are free to use any Ghanaian language in development programmes, including adult literacy. One such project, undertaken by a local NGO, took a bilingual approach in some 22 different language communities, offering initial literacy in the local language of each group, with subsequent learning of English; local-language literacy was focused on functional uses such as micro-credit and income generation, women's empowerment, and the exercise of human rights. Only six of the 22 languages were among the fifteen accorded official status, and all 22 had established writing systems only within the last 30 years. Reporting on learners' own assessment of the benefits and impact of literacy acquisition, the project evaluation drew up the following list of responses (SIL UK 2004):

  • write their own language/mother tongue
  • write our children's names
  • identify my children's hospital and weighing cards
  • use immunisation clinics, attend ante-natal and post-natal clinics, practise exclusive breast-feeding (on which there is a recent title)
  • administer prescriptions properly to children
  • follow children's progress in school and read their reports and letters from school
  • help children with their homework
  • access to information from elsewhere
  • literates become part of a larger global world
  • understand government policies and citizens' rights
  • know about laws of Ghana, more informed on rights and responsibilities
  • understand family planning programme
  • awareness of HIV/AIDS and STDs
  • proper application of fertiliser and chemicals to crops
  • write stories and history
  • write songs in own language
  • preserve rich cultural heritage
  • write newspapers
  • read a sign board and save embarrassment of doing the wrong thing when travelling
  • read numbers of vehicles
  • I will be able to read the Bible for myself
  • the Bible is read in the mother tongue in church
  • write letters to relatives and friends
  • writing a letter without asking a schoolboy or teacher to write it
  • maintenance of privacy since I will not have to ask someone else to read my letters to me
  • read letters from my husband's girlfriends and confront him
  • see and read husband's pay slip, so he cannot claim not to have been paid
  • challenge husband's relatives when he dies so that widows are not cheated out of husband's property or their own
  • use and calculate money
  • transact business and become innovative
  • family budgeting
  • read prices, bills, receipts and market trading tickets and avoid being cheated
  • keep proper records, e.g. trading details: names of debtors, amounts, balance, profit/loss
  • gives possibility of obtaining a loan and keep written records of payments, and of opening a savings account
  • promotes interaction in the wider society and with other communities
  • helps in learning other languages
  • possibility of learning English
  • through adding English language and literacy, participate in discussions where only English is used

This list is fascinating for the high level of importance given to the interaction between literacy and language, both the role of the local language and access to English. The reason at the head of the list - "write their own language/mother tongue" - was a very frequent response, and seems at first sight to be a superficial and almost circular comment, adding little to what we already know about literacy. However, it is a most significant remark in a context where the local language was unwritten until a few years ago and where schooling and other forms of learning systematically scorned its use, until very recently. A principal value of literacy and motivation for taking part in literacy groups is the possibility to use one's own language in written form and for learning purposes, thus putting to one side the barrier of having to learn and adopt someone else's language and, to a certain extent, someone else's culture and ways of thinking. This response may be taken as an expression of many different emotions, ranging from relief to pride, from cultural self-assertion to joy in learning.

Lest anyone should conclude from these observations that the literacy programme fostered ethno-linguistic exclusivity, the last two listed reactions should also be noted. The vast majority of learners wished also to learn English - thus communities expressed their desire both to use their own language and to learn English, as the language of wider communication, of broader opportunities and (in the national context) of political power. These views coincide with those of many, in Africa and elsewhere, who daily use a number of languages - a multilingual approach to learning is the only appropriate way forward.

There are interesting consequences for the local implementation of language policies in schooling from this project. As the government shifts its position on the languages of schooling from time to time, based on political criteria, another dynamic is at work at the grassroots. In some communities, parents who have participated in adult literacy in their own language have pressured the school to organise local-language literacy classes for their children, as part of the regular timetable or in addition to it, making schooling a bilingual process. In many cases the trained facilitators working with adults also teach the children, since the regular teachers may or may not have the skills for mother tongue instruction. Thus the use of languages in adult literacy acquisition has had an influence on children's schooling; parents wish their children to enjoy the functional and cultural benefits of multilingual literacy - local language + official language - once they have experienced them themselves.

4.5 Cameroon - Mobilising Communities

Cameroon has been described as one of the '"linguistic shatter zones" of the world, with over 250 distinct languages and a population of about 15 million. Grouped in three major linguistic families - Bantu, Adamawa and Chadic - the largest language community numbers less than 20% of the total population (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000), with the implication that some communities are very small, numbering perhaps 2000 speakers. In addition, Cameroon has the further complexity of using two official languages, French and English, a legacy of its divided colonial history.

Since independence in 1960, the debate has raged about how to use or integrate Cameroon's languages into national life, in particular as part of education. Without tracing here the vagaries of Cameroon's language policy and use over the years (cf Robinson 1996), suffice it to say that it was only in the 1990s that official pronouncements and legal provisions opened the way for the use of Cameroonian languages in formal education. Although still not fully generalised, a well-tested model of bilingual education is now in place in over 300 primary schools, serving more than 340,000 pupils. The system, known as PROPELCA,2 enables children to start their education in their own language and then learn one of the official languages, transitioning to use the latter as a medium of instruction by the fourth year of primary education. These developments raised the profile of using Cameroonian languages for adult learning also.

In fact, local languages had always been used for adult literacy, although not by the government, which only ran programmes in the official languages. However, local and international NGOs, churches and missions worked with individual communities to develop their languages for use in literacy. The question, however, arose as to how such work could be planned on a broader basis and made available to the many language communities of the country. What kind of programme could cater to the multilingual literacy needs of so many different languages and groups? In Cameroon the answer to these questions, as far as adult literacy is concerned, has been to devolve responsibility to the communities themselves. Thus language committees came into being at community level to stimulate and supervise literacy activities. These receive support from the National Association of Cameroon Language Committees (NACALCO), a national NGO which offers training in all aspects of adult literacy and some funding for the production of materials. Currently 76 language committees are affiliated to NACALCO. In addition, NACALCO staff provide training for teachers in PROPELCA schools. In addition to selecting teachers and organising adult literacy classes, local language committees are expected to:

  • Produce a newsletter, at least one per year
  • Provide training to literacy facilitators and refresher courses
  • Stimulate local authors and publish materials
  • Provide follow-up and supervision/assessment of progress in literacy centres

A key part of the philosophy of this approach is linking adult literacy with the local environment. Where PROPELCA schools operate, links between formal and non-formal learning are possible, bringing adult and child learners together. Language committees forge links and develop cooperative writing/publishing projects with NGOs in development areas. Writing competitions are organised for the promotion and celebration of local knowledge and culture. Along with these activities go classes offering transition to literacy in one of the official languages.

Like many NGO initiatives, NACALCO has focused on promotion of adult literacy on the ground, with little documentation or dissemination of its experience or lessons learned. Its approach of devolving responsibility in a zone of high linguistic diversity has clear connections with questions of decentralisation and local management. It also offers insights on how the local context can be fully respected and used in education while at the same time moving beyond the merely local towards a national, scaled-up approach. In the light of these connections with crucial EFA questions, it is unfortunate, even surprising, that since Dakar funding for this initiative has become less available, with one of its significant projects - enabling 20,000 adults to acquire literacy each year - coming to an end in 2003 (NACALCO 2005).

5. Issues Arising

A number of more general issues arise out of these case studies, and these are highlighted here. Each issue is the subject of research in its own right; however, their dimensions are sketched here briefly to indicate how fundamental and far-reaching language questions are in the pursuit of adult literacy.

Languages and adult learning: Why is the language issue of importance specifically in adult learning and literacy? It is axiomatic in adult education that adults bring considerable experience and life knowledge into a learning experience and that any learning process should both recognise and build on this. In terms of language resources, adults bring a knowledge of their own language and the culture it carries, as well as possibly knowledge of other languages. While this knowledge may not yet extend to the written use of any of these languages, their oral command makes literacy learning a matter of adding new ways of using their linguistic resources. The question of learning new languages is different and is dealt with below. Since adult literacy programmes are frequently best structured as part of a wider learning process (new knowledge, skills, behaviours, etc.), using the existing knowledge of adults is key to relevant learning - this knowledge is transmitted through certain languages in each context, and so these languages must be part of the learning process.

Status of languages: Such is the prejudice of certain elites and groups that in some situations a language is defined as a language because it is written, condemning unwritten languages to an inferior status - often not as languages, but as dialects. Colonial authorities in francophone Africa (itself a telling phrase!) dubbed African languages patois, while in the Arab region, only modern standard Arabic has any status. The everyday Arabic varieties, quite different from the standard variety, remain unwritten and are considered deformations of the real language. Concern to make language a symbol of national unity leads the Bhutanese population to see other languages as inferior or as mere dialects, although they are in fact languages in their own right. In terms of literacy acquisition and the definition of what being "literate" means, it may therefore be that only one kind of literacy is recognised as such, in a particular language - literacies in other languages may not be considered worthy of the name.

Orality and literacy: In the past much was made of distinctions between oral and literate societies, in relation to their structure and development. Detailed studies of the many literacies found in different societies, as well as of communication practices, generally have shown that there is in fact a continuum of oral and literate practices (see Collins and Blot 2003). Both orality and literacy are strategies of communication which are deployed in various ways and to varying degrees in particular contexts; thus they stand in symbiotic relationship to each other, not in contrast or opposition. These insights also do away with the notion that some languages are inherently more suited to literacy or to certain kinds of thought than others - it is only a question of language development and language planning, not of the nature of languages.

Literate environment: the concept of the literate environment is a useful way to bring together all aspects of literacy: acquisition, use, materials, practices, media, institutions, purposes and languages. As the various case studies above show, multilingual literacies are frequently promoted by NGOs with little active government support. Where people acquire literacy in minority languages, the literate environment is often quite weak in that language with the result that there is little scope for use and little material in that language. A lack of concern for the whole environment in which literacy is acquired and used can thus undermine literacy efforts and offer learners little chance of using literacy to improve their life. Even in monolingual areas where literacy is in the language of the majority and where literate environments are relatively strong and dynamic, it may be that deficiencies of teaching result in the lack of useable literacy skills; this emerges as a brake on development so that people are not fully able to take up learning opportunities in other skill areas. This was evidenced in an adult distance learning programme in Mongolia and has echoes in Bangladesh. The lack of analysis of the literate environment and the neglect of a particular aspect of it, including language, is yet another factor in reducing development opportunities, or providing opportunities that cannot in fact be taken up.

Languages and the acquisition of literacy: The language question in the acquisition of literacy is complex and involves the purposes and practices of literacy, the pedagogies and materials of learning, the institutional frameworks and the sociolinguistic context. I look here at only two issues: bilingualism and language learning. There persists a myth in some quarters that acquiring literacy in one language reduces the chances of acquiring it satisfactorily in another: thus to acquire mother tongue literacy may be seen as a brake on acquiring literacy in a more widely used language. A further myth, less widely held today, sees bilingualism as subtractive - learning another language reduces capacity in the one already known. In fact, the opposite is the case: bilingualism is additive, and this applies to 'biliteracy' also, as some term it (cf Hornberger 2003). As the DRC study above demonstrated, the use of three languages in adult literacy was entirely natural, in terms of the way people use languages, and appropriate in terms of the broader socio-political context. Provision and organisation of multilingual literacy acquisition is seen as expensive and complicated only by those who do not experience the daily reality of operating in a number of languages - it is the norm for most people in the world.

The second issue is the confusion between literacy acquisition and language learning. In multilingual settings, for example in the Ugandan case above, the demand for literacy may focus on acquiring literacy in the language of power, English or French in Africa for instance. However, the learning processes to acquire literacy are different from those involved in learning a second language. Thus these two processes should be handled separately. Again, as the Ugandan example shows, it is better to acquire literacy first in a language the learner already knows well - their own mother tongue - before embarking on learning another language. In this way, the business of learning the second language does not have to deal simultaneously with literacy acquisition. Where literacy is only offered in languages that people do not know or know only a little, the outcome can be that neither good language skills nor good literacy competence is achieved.

Languages and materials: A complaint of learners in literacy programmes is often that there is nothing to read, or nothing of interest to read, once they have completed a literacy course. In contexts of a mainstream language, this may be due to unaffordable print materials, lack of availability, poor distribution, or institutional control of what people should read. In minority language contexts, it is frequently due to the paucity of materials - there simply is very little to read in the minority language. This evinces once again a neglect of the overall literate environment. It also points up the need to stress writing as much as reading; every community has potential authors, and a literacy programme should aim to dispense writers' training as an integral part of literacy acquisition. Whether in a mainstream or minority language context, literacy use will only be sustained where the literate environment is dynamic and constantly restocked. Most literacy programmes in the context of development focus on functional materials, forgetting that part of the motivation for using literacy is learning what is going on locally and elsewhere, as well as reading for leisure and amusement. This calls for an emphasis on ephemeral literature, alongside more functional and durable materials.

Languages and the governance and management of literacy work: It is increasingly recognised that literacy programmes should be organised locally, with full recognition of the local context; this implies attention to how programmes can be managed locally and what kind of governance structures would be most suitable. In multilingual settings, the need for local management and input is compelling, given the need to connect with the surrounding sociolinguistic environment and to introduce local knowledge and culture. Working with knowledge-makers and guardians of tradition will only happen when responsibility for the content of learning lies with the local community. The language committees of Cameroon illustrate how these aspects of literacy programming can be brought together and what kind of support they need. It should be said too that management of this kind is best carried out in the local language, further fostering links between learning and the wider socio-cultural development of the community. In fact, the language issue raises much wider questions for decentralisation processes in multilingual and multicultural contexts: how can social development be conceived, managed and sustained locally with local consultation and input and with full consideration of cultural realities? Communication in the languages of the people is a sine qua non which is routinely ignored.

6. The Multilingual Imperative

To conclude, it should be clear that policy formulation should follow the needs and patterns of language use among communities, with particular attention to the way that minorities structure their use of the language resources available to them. This means articulating and implementing multilingual policies in a thoroughgoing way. Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) is a committed proponent of multilingual approaches to education and of the need to give attention to the languages of minorities and she points out that

"a single language of literacy succeeds only in countries which have a very large majority speaking that language either as their native tongue, or as a really well known lingua franca." (p.598)

Most countries - and certainly most developing countries - are highly multilingual. To look at the obverse of the coin, lack of a clear multilingual policy with respect to education results in the following negative impacts (the list is not exhaustive):

  • where only a mainstream or official language is the medium of learning:
    • increased marginalisation from education for those already suffering disadvantage; in other words, the language barrier often multiplies the effect of other factors, such as populations who are female, poor, remote, rural, minority, indigenous, culturally or religiously distinct;
    • lack of respect for diversity and strong messages of inferiority to those speaking non-mainstream languages;
    • use of languages that learners do not know, with resulting low-quality learning and teaching, and limited learner-facilitator interaction - see the lessons of the 2005 EFA Global Monitoring Report on quality (UNESCO 2004);
    • few learning materials in local languages, with the perpetuation of a weak literate environment and lack of opportunity for self-expression and learning through the mother tongue;
      o neglect of local knowledge, literature (oral or written), accessible principally through local languages;
  • where only a local language is the medium of learning:
    •  back of access to wider sources of knowledge and information, including electronic media;
    • barriers to participation in broader social and political life;
    • possible 'ghettoization' of a minority-language population;
    • reduced intercultural contact and learning;
    • increased possibilities of exploitation by unscrupulous brokers and mediators with the wider society (e.g. economic intermediaries).

Clearly only a policy which provides for the use in learning of the languages people use in daily communication will avoid these negative consequences.

Even where there may be agreement in principle, objections to multilingual policies are often articulated, both by governments and by local communities; four of the more frequent objections are assessed here:

  • There are too many languages: this presupposes a view that language diversity is a problem to be solved, rather than an asset to be used, that the perspective is that of the national official, member of the elite, and not that of the local communities with their daily communication patterns, and that some language communities are more important than others. As mentioned earlier, Papua New Guinea shows the way in one of the most diverse linguistic environments and in its gradual community-based implementation of a multilingual policy.
  • It is too expensive to use local languages in learning programmes: this is rarely based on an actual assessment of what it would cost, and it entirely neglects to assess the cost of failed and irrelevant educational schemes, dropouts, and low quality.
  • Using local languages fosters social and political division: in fact the opposite is the case - where local languages and identities are neglected or repressed, resentment and opposition to ruling groups emerges; examples abound.
  • Parents prefer to avoid the local language for their children, or for themselves, so that they can better learn the official or national language: this kind of attitude needs further exploration in order to discover what it is based on. It is well known that knowledge of a major language is not necessarily enhanced by having it as a medium of instruction. Multilingual approaches must be shown to be feasible and to work - nobody wants to buy into something they have never seen or perhaps do not believe possible.

A multilingual policy will have the following key features, implemented in ways suited to local context:

  • Studies of the linguistic and sociolinguistic situation will be the basis for understanding which languages should be used in learning; these studies will include data on the attitudes of communities towards the languages which they use;
  • Consultations with local communities to establish links between literacy providers and local institutions will lead to input into learning and to local governance and management of programmes;
  • Local authoring and production of material must be the basis for sustainable development of the literate environment, and for the incorporation of local knowledge as learning content;
  • Specific issues of linguistic structure and language use must be considered in designing the learning of second (and third...) languages, so that the adding of languages in oral and written form is available to the largest number of people, with fewest hurdles to jump. In other words, learning additional languages must take into account the existing language patterns and competences of learners, building on what they know;
  • Central government will provide a framework, guidelines and funding for local initiative, not a fixed or standardised programme of literacy or basic education under central control.

These issues and concerns are far-reaching - this is no surprise in view of the central ity of language: it is both the essential means of communication (the lifeblood of learning and social development), and a key marker of identity. Unless multilingual policies are designed and implemented in multilingual situations, it should be no surprise if communication fails and languages become rallying points for increasingly strident cries for the assertion of a distinct identity.



1 The Reflect methodology has since evolved into a more general approach to communication in the context of societal power relations, where literacy may be one strategy of development (Archer and Newman 2003).

2 Projet de Recherche Operationnelle pour I'Enseignement des Langues au Cameroun.


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