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Education in Africa: speaking the same language?

I would be interested to know Calestous Juma's thoughts on how far the reinvention of African universities might go (See We need to reinvent the African university).

Several years ago I ventured some ideas concerning rural academies that would use the dominant (African) languages in their areas as the primary languages of instruction and research. The idea was very much in line with Juma's mention of new universities' role in community development.

The idea is not to replace the existing universities nor to create a competing and separate system, but to recognise that the best way of seizing opportunities and meeting needs is by using the main languages of African populations.

Universities or other learning institutions limited to working in English, French or Portuguese — no matter how well structured — cannot avoid being a step removed from the life of the communities, which is often expressed in other languages.

The multilingualism of Africa is often cited as a reason not to do anything so ambitious in its indigenous tongues, but if Africa and its friends are to do anything bold and innovative for education on the continent, they will have to meet this multilingual reality constructively.

There are practical benefits when people learn and create in the language most familiar to them (and these do not preclude also working in languages of wider communication). For instance, there is a greater potential integration of indigenous knowledge.

The advent of information technologies arguably offers new ways of using African languages, and also of ensuring that communities are not isolated because of having to work in their native languages.

Such an approach to reinventing higher education needs to be evaluated in the diverse contexts across the continent, but in Africa as elsewhere, the benefits to individuals, communities, local economies and cultures are likely to outweigh the costs, especially when the languages involved have many speakers.