WP162: Language, education, and citizenship in Africa


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Graph: Language, education, and citizenship in Africa
Working papers
Ericka A. Albaugh

African states are known for their linguistic diversity. Few have spread a single official language widely through their education systems. The preservation of many local languages seems a benefit in terms of minority rights, but some fear that fragmentation may inhibit national cohesion and democratic participation. This article examines language competence of individuals in 10 states in Africa, highlighting distinctions in types of education systems. It also assesses their attitudes about citizenship and democracy, using Afrobarometer survey data. It shows that immersion systems appear much more effective in spreading a standard language, but that national sentiment has very little to do with proficiency in this official language. It also reveals that citizens armed with literacy in local languages tend to be more participatory, more demanding of greater accountability in government, and more critical of authoritarian rule.

While virtually all states in Africa have chosen a European language as the official language of education, proficiency in these languages within states across the continent remains low. Certainly there is variation, but very few states have managed to spread a standard language through education. The benefit is that many local languages have been preserved; the question is what this means for citizenship and democracy.

This article will do three things: First, it will investigate proficiency in European languages across the continent and highlight the factors that make individuals more likely to speak these official languages. Second, it will ask how language proficiency and type of education may influence citizens’ national sentiments compared to their ethnic attachments. Finally, it will ask how these factors relate to individuals’ political participation and democratic attitudes.

Unsurprisingly, higher levels of education are associated with greater proficiency in European languages. Assessing different types of education, the study finds that individuals schooled in immersion vs. initial mother-tongue medium settings are more likely to learn European languages. And yet, proficiency in an official language has an ambivalent connection to individuals’ sentiments toward their ethnic group and nation. National sentiment is strong within mother-tongue systems as well as immersion systems. In mother-tongue settings, however, citizens maintain attachments to their ethnic identity while at the same time declaring loyalty to the nation, whereas citizens in immersion settings more readily drop the ethnic attachment. Finally, mother-tongue settings appear to provide some advantages when it comes to political participation and support for democracy. This may be due to networking opportunities in language associations as well as the confidence and creativity that students acquire in mother-tongue classrooms.