Language Education Policy Studies
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Language Education Policies in Kenya

Kenya has 68 listed languages and one is extinct (Lewis et al, 2013). English and Kiswahili serve as the country’s official languages. The language education policy of Kenya finds its basis in the colonial period.

During the scramble and partition for Africa, Kenya became a colony of the British Empire. The Christian missionaries and administrators influenced language policy during the colonial period.  Both parties promoted mother tongue maintenance for disparate reasons. The former believed that the spread of the gospel would adequately occur through the mother tongue while the latter sought to deter English acquisition by the natives lest they become Europeanized, a situation which would affect the menial labor production (Nabea, 2009). 

The pioneer missionaries to introduce colonial education decided that Kiswahili, and English would function as languages of education. Mother tongues served as the medium of instruction in the first three classes, Kiswahili in the middle class and English ensued in the remaining levels of learning. However, the colonialists sought to review the LEP in the 1920s for the educated Kenyans that preferred white collar jobs over blue collar jobs, and review the notion of the subject-master relationship where language could be a form of insubordination (Mazrui, 1998). Hence, English acquisition had to be controlled to ensure limited enrollment to secondary or university education. However, the impediment of English language acquisition spurred the Kenyans to learn it since it provided the means to white collar jobs (Nabea, 2009).

In 1924, the Phelps-Stokes commission advocated for the elimination of Kiswahili in curriculum except in areas where it served as a mother tongue. Binn’s and Drogheda Commission in 1952 recommended simultaneous teaching of English and the mother tongue in the lower primary grades. Mazrui & Mazrui (1998) assert that the Kiswahili elimination was a strategy to stem its growth thus depriving Kenyans of a Lingua Franca from which they would unite.

After independence in 1963, the English language was declared the official language. The Ominde Commission adopted English as the main medium of instruction with mother tongue teaching at the first three grades remained a subject of instruction.  Kiswahili remained the language of instruction for the adult education and substituted mother tongue education in urban schools. In 1981, the Mackay Commission declared Swahili a compulsory subject in both primary and secondary schools which resulted in the production of more Kiswahili books. Mother tongue education was also recommended for the lower grades (Nabea, 2009).

Some of the contemporary Kenyan scholars regard the English language education policy as hegemonic and a threat to multilingualism. For instance, Ngugi (1978) debunks policies that ascribe prestige to English over the local language. He asserts that the acquisition of English promotes alienation due to the ideologies ascribed to local and foreign languages.


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Lewis, M.P., Simons, G.F., & Fennig, C.D. (Eds.) (2013). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Seventeenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL

Mazrui, A.A. & Mazrui, A.M (1996). “A tale of two Englishes: The imperial language in the post-colonial Kenya and Uganda. In: Fishman, J. Conrad, A. & Lopez, A.L. (eds.) Post Imperial English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 271-302

Mazrui, A.A. & Mazrui, A.M. (1995). Swahili State and Society. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.

Nabea, W. (2009). Language Policy in Kenya: Negotiation with Hegemony. The Journal of Pan African Studies 3 (1)

Ngugi, T. (1986). Decolonising the Mind. Nairobi: Heinemann. Post-colonial Kenya and Uganda. In: Fishman, J. Conrad, A. & Lopez, A.L. (eds.) Post Imperial



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Kyalo, C. (2018). Language Education Policies in Kenya. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved at: (insert link) 

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