Revitalization, preservation and development of ethnic languages is being recognised today, even by the African governments. The author, through this article, presents an overview of the development of language policies in Kenya and Uganda since independence. It is also argued that these policies have not had much impact on the use of Ateso, an Eastern Nilotic language spoken by the Iteso in both Kenya and Uganda.

English and Kiswahili are the official languages in the aforementioned countries. The majority of people in Uganda’s urban areas use English or Luganda as a lingua franca whereas in rural areas, English is scarcely understood and, despite Kiswahili being used by a number of people, its usage is limited. In Kenya, English comes in only as a third language (after the first language and Kiswahili) in the rural settings, while in urban areas it may be used as a second language.

Socio-political factors including migration and intermarriages have spread the non-Iteso groups in areas that were historically inhabited by Iteso only. The consequent emergence of a multilingual generation has left very few monolingual Ateso speakers. Young Ateso speakers generally speakers grow up bilingually or multilingually, with Ateso and either English, Kiswahili or Luganda being present at home. Borrowings and mixed language patterns are therefore the outcomes.

What is also note-worthy is that some parents consciously make a decision to give up their traditional lifestyle, including language, in order to emphasize a modern identity[1]. English and Kiswahili also take a dominant position as compared to Ateso in literacy, social media platforms and public settings which has culminated in marginalizing Ateso and other non-dominant languages.

Evaluating language policies in Kenya and Uganda

The use of Ateso is not prohibited by the governments of the countries. However, the schools have continued to actively supress the use of this language[2]. Government policies in the recent past are, in fact, in favour of multilingual mother tongue education with the aim to re-introduce the first-languages in the primary level of the education system. Despite the changes in government policies in both countries that encourage the use of L1 in the first years of primary schooling, clear guidelines on the implementation of the same are lacking. The lack of intergeneration transmissions could lead to a lead to a gradual decrease in the number of eventually Ateso speakers. The following section further evaluates the language policies in Kenya and Uganda individually.

Language policy and practice in Kenya

The colonial language policy in Kenya awarded the official language status to English. English was adopted as the official language to be used in all formal sectors. Kiswahili served as the country’s national language. Following the recommendations of commissions after 1963, there were several changes. Though Kiswahili and other African languages were to be given emphasis in the education system at different levels after the Ominde and Gachathi commission, they still continued to receive inferior status compared to English[3]. The Mackay Commission in 1981 recommended that Kiswahili becomes a compulsory and examinable language in both primary and secondary education. The same was also put in practise in Kenya’s school curriculum. Despite this, English maintained its top status as the main language of instruction in schools.

Kenya has seen a linguistic shift due to the persistent marginalization of many African languages. Being a minority population in the country, the Iteso do not have numerical power nor resources to exert their language. This has further resulted in them being excluded in the allocation of resources to develop and promote their language. There is perhaps thus a tendency among the speakers of smaller languages to shift to Kiswahili and English.

Kenya’s Constitution does set forth that the state shall develop, promote and protect the diversity of languages of the people of Kenya. It also recognises 42 languages spoken in Kenya (besides English and Kiswahili). It is yet to be assessed as to whether this constitutional requirement has improved the status of the African languages spoken in Kenya.

Language policy and practice in Uganda

Uganda recognises English as the official language. After the addition of Kiswahili as the second official language in 2005, the policy had changed formally to a mixed one. According to NakayizaAlthough Swahili has been accorded this [official; DB] status [in Uganda; DB], its official use is still highly symbolic, especially as a result of the formation of the East African Community in which Uganda is a member.”

The Government White Paper[4] had recommended first language instruction up to primary 4 in the rural areas and English for primary schools in urban areas. The choice of English for the whole cycle of primary schools in urban areas was due to multiplicity of languages in this setting[5]. Kiswahili was to be taught mandatorily in schools in both urban and rural areas. Ateso was proposed to be a medium of instruction in the first four years of primary education in the areas occupied by Iteso even with the lack of textbooks in the language.

However, Luganda and English continue to be the dominant languages in Uganda. Colonisation and the aspects of global interaction and mobility perpetuate the dominance of English. The prominence of English, Kiswahili and Luganda in formal education and even in media has overshadowed the African languages spoken in the country. Most citizens consider English and Luganda as ‘prestigious’ and strive to bring their children up in these languages at the expense of their own. Surveys conducted by Obondo[6]and Piper[7] suggest that the young generation is gradually shifting to English and other dominant African languages.

The fear of ethnic rivalry, as argued by scholars, makes it difficult to use African languages as a medium of instruction in schools at the national level. Insufficient resources have hampered the implementation of first-language based education. Inadequate financial and intellectual support from governments has further hindered efforts directed at developing African languages. This has left languages such as Ateso to suffer from neglect within the government’s operational language policy framework.

Encouraging multilingualism in government sectors whenever possible is taken as a settlement. Multilingualism does not create differences but rather facilitates integration on multi-lingual and multi-cultural basis in line with principles of democracy, tolerance and cultural co-existence[8].


The language policies in both Kenya and Uganda, as seen above, have had close to no impact on the use of Ateso in schools and other formal sectors. The policies continue to favour English following the logic of pre-colonial practices of assimilation and exclusion. It is important to also note that the survival of Ateso and other minority languages in these countries is not entirely dependent on legislation but on the speakers who value their language and their culture.

The conception of English as a language of science and technology prompts people to see it as one that propels one to higher social status. Ease of mobility in and beyond the East African region is also a factor to encourage the use of this language. A more convenient means of promoting the African languages is to encourage multilingualism where English, Kiswahili and Luganda are used side by side with other African languages. African language speakers in general and Ateso speakers, in particular, should be accorded the opportunity to learn and develop their language resources through operationalized language policies and financial support from their respective governments.

[1] Juliet Tembe, & Bonny Norton, Promoting local languages in Ugandan primary schools: The community as stakeholders, The Canadian Modern Language Review, 33-60, (2016).

[2] Kagure Gacheche, Challenges in implementing a mother tongue-based language-ineducation policy: Policy and practice in Kenya, 4 POLIS Journal, (2010).

[3] Agnes W. Kibui, Language policy in Kenya and the new constitution for vision 2030, 4(5) International Journal of Educational Science and Research, 89-98 (2014).

[4] Government of Uganda, The Government White Paper on Education, Entebbe: Ministry of Education & Sports, (1992).

[5] Rebecca Florence Kirunda, Language in education in Uganda: The policy, the actors and the practices. A case of the Urban District of Kampala, 4(5), Indian Journal of Research,190-193 (2015).

[6] Obondo M.A., Bilingual Education in Africa: An Overview, 5, Encyclopaedia of Language and Education (1997).

[7] Benjamin Piper, Uganda Early Grade Reading Assessment Findings Report: Literacy Acquisition and Mother Tongue, International and Makerere University Institute for Social Research, (2010).

[8] Kwesi Kwaa Prah, Multilingualism in urban Africa: bane or blessing, 5(2) Journal of multilingual discourses, 169-182 (2010).

This article is authored by Dr David Barasa who is currently a Lecturer at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. This was first posted on FEL XX Conference on Language Colonization and Endangerment: Long-term Effects, Echoes and Reaction. The publication is available here.

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