The jury is still out on who between Ugandans and Kenyans speak better English, but that standards of written and spoken English have been drastically lowered needs no debate.
To validate this, one only needed to watch a recent debate involving university students from one of the local universities on live television. The inability to express themselves in coherent English was simply amazing.
For most of the undergraduates, forming and delivering questions to the panelists in organised English was a daunting task, which reflects poorly on the products of the country’s secondary schools, the background students receive in primary schools and the instruction they are receiving at the university level.
Experts argue that the student today is living in an environment of very disruptive cultural change. One of the major problems, according to an English teacher based in Nairobi, is the social media which has overwhelmed teenagers and young adults “Young people are always watching television or are constantly on social media and these mediums do not teach them much. They have ushered the death of the reading culture, and students tend to copy everything. Basically they do not think on their own; they just copy and paste.” The motivation for being an excellent English speaker, he added, was shaped by reading, but students do not read anymore.
In earlier days, people learnt to speak good English because it was mandatory and, more importantly, because learning and excelling in the language was associated with success. “If one learnt the language he had the chance of succeeding in the professions which was very important prior to and a few decades after independence. However, that connection has now been broken. In order for you to become materially successful today, it is not necessary to speak good English. In fact, evidence shows that the poorer you are in English, the more money you are bound to make,” asserted University of Nairobi lecturer Dr Muiru wa Ngugi.
Dr Ngugi gave the examples of musicians who today churn out ‘hit songs’ without a single comprehensive sentence, while in the past musicians made sensible music with complete sentences and verses that were related to day to day living. There are also the millionaire traders, most of who are school dropouts. “There is a devaluation of communication. We do not emphasize on grammatical competence, though we may have some communicative competence.”
Among the many observations made on the informal urban ‘secret’ communication code that is ‘Sheng’ by scholars is that it interferes with formal language learning in the classroom. According to Clara Momanyi, in her 2009 paper titled ‘The Effects of Sheng in Teaching of Kiswahili in Kenyan Schools’, students fail to make the boundaries between standard Kiswahili or even English. “It has also been noted that many students are more fluent with this restricted code.”
Momanyi notes that primary school pupils are able to write and speak very good Kiswahili but when they graduate in high schools, their communicative competence “is very low”. She avers that something goes wrong when the students go to high school, but even in universities where Kiswahili and English literature are offered, “the students continue to show incompetence”. The ‘Sheng’ code interferes with the performance of students to the extent where some end up constructing ungrammatical sentences even in national examinations. Examples abound. In fact, in 2011 after the results of Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations were announced, the then minister for education Sam Ongeri attributed the poor performance in Kiswahili and English to “Kenyans’ heavy use of a language called Sheng”.
However, then regional manager of Uwezo East Africa Sara Ruto claimed the problem was with the teachers who “use Kiswahili, English and their mother tongues at the same time” while instructing students.
There is of course the underlined education crisis that includes the constant teachers’ strikes, unsustainable teacher-student ratios, inadequate resources and the fact that the sector has not reviewed its curriculum for over two decades.
When the curriculum was last reviewed, it was not driven by a national vision and national values, according to Dr Ngugi. The role of languages in that dispensation was not outlined. “On the other hand, the status of teachers has been significantly devalued and while today the teacher could be the one speaking best English in the village or estate, he could be the poorest. So who wants to be like him? What has his good English done for him? If anything students want to run away from that example.”
Before independence and in the earlier years of independence, most learners came from very poor backgrounds and the only way to escape the poverty was by acquiring a good education, but today children have nothing to escape from. Many children today are given all the basics and much more by their parents and thus have nothing to escape from. In fact, according to University of Nairobi lecturer Edwin Nyutho, most students refer to themselves as PhDs (papa hunipa doo).
Media houses have always complained that new graduates including those from universities are at times less than half-baked. The Star asked the journalism lecturer to explain this. “There is the quality of students that we are getting from high schools and then there is the quality of instructions from the universities. Lecturers, who are focused on the academics, are not taken seriously. There are a big number of people coming into the academia with no passion for education or teaching, he said.”