Education and national languages in Burkina Faso

As a former French colony, Burkina Faso has an education system that shares a lot of similarities with all former Francophone colonies. The assimilation colonial policy encouraged negligence in the use of national languages which were generally branded as ‘inferior stuff’. Speaking one’s mother tongue could attract severe and often traumatizing punishments like being flogged, carrying on one’s neck a slate bearing this line ‘I will not speak my native language anymore in school’ and many other repressions that really made the average Francophone citizen a ‘disoriented person’, in relation to his or her native language. As a result, in Francophone Africa, one very often meets educated citizens who do not speak their mother tongues, very few programmes on television or radio stations use African languages, and some parents can be found taking pride in saying: “my children cannot speak our native language,” while pretending to lament the fact that their children do not speak their native languages. It is heartwarming to realize that Burkina Faso is taking steps to revalorize national languages by putting them at the core of the education system. Being literate now means having the ability to read, write and speak fluently a language.

First meetings of enormous importance

The last census states that 41.2 percent of adult Burkinabè literate – being literate meaning, “the ability to read and write with understanding a short simple statement about one’s everyday life”. I have no doubt that the language being used as a yardstick here is French, although lip service is paid to the importance of national languages. French is also the language of instruction and the official language; formal education means all subjects are taught in French and informal education means that teaching is done in national languages.  The creation of a ministry in charge of national education, literacy and the promotion of national languages is a laudable gesture by the Burkinabè authorities. On 31 March 2021, that ministry organized consultations and workshops on the importance of national languages, and the attribution of an inclusive and participative role to national languages, which will no more be dormant or moribund but rather powerful contributors to a wholistic, nation-centered and progressive education system. In order to achieve that goal, religious leaders, members of Parliament, traditional chiefs, technical and financial institutions and experts in linguistics were tasked with proposing efficient methods and strategies that can lead to a revivification of national languages.

After local and national concertations, that task force brainstormed and produced a national language policy that is supposed to inject more vigour into the education system, re-invent it in such a way that education in Burkina becomes efficient enough to face the challenges of today’s global context and its requirements. This resonates with a statement made by the eminent Burkinabè historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo, “the configuration of the education system of a country has the power to turn all aspects of life in that country into a vicious or virtuous cycle”. There is no doubt that schools produce future generations that bear all the characteristics of the education system they went through.

Previous policies that succeeded or failed

Previous measures and decisions had been adopted, with the aim of attributing a better direction to education in Burkina. In July 2007, a law was adopted, with the aim of “training young Burkinabè into responsible citizens, who produce and create, establishing a school system that ensures a holistic and harmonious development of people”. Several policies were put in place to ensure that education meets the needs and demands of citizens and the nation in general. ‘Alphabétisation Commando’ and ‘Alphabétisation Bantaare’ were policies adopted by the revolutionary government of Thomas Sankara. Their aims were to teach functional reading and writing and also calculation in national languages to people within 50 days so that the new literate is capable of applying and linking the acquired skills to the daily realities of their life. These two strategies were based on the literacy policy of the Cuban Revolution that inspired Thomas Sankara considerably. These two policies increased the literacy rate in Burkina and made education more endogenous.

Bringing national languages on board

National languages are not given any predominance or consideration in the administrative milieu – offices, as well as schools. Fortunately, that tendency is being reversed. In 2020/21, 276 bilingual primary schools and three multilingual high schools had been put in place. What some education and language experts find to be disturbing is that out of the 60 national languages that are spoken in Burkina, only 10 are used in formal bilingual education and 25 are included in the school curriculum in general. National languages do not have sufficient presence and importance in education because there are few trained instructors, and those who teach are too frequently moved from one area to another. There are no adequate didactic materials on local languages, and sadly enough, the culture and art of localities are not taken into consideration by the education system. There is, therefore, no way local languages can be insisted on, in the classroom. The Burkinabè Secretariat for the Promotion of National Languages in Education insists that national languages be granted priority because of their pedagogical strength and ability to preserve, protect and enrich national culture. If that happens, then Moore, Jula and Fulfulde which are already being taught in certain schools can be used in the administrative sector, so that important documents like birth and marriage certificates, national identification cards and passports can be made in national languages.

The implementation of this development of national languages is a must if Francophone countries like Burkina Faso want to achieve development, a flourishing and rich culture, and gain respect in this globalized geopolitical context. French is certainly as important as all other western languages but a look at a country like Rwanda, which has severed its ties with the French language and nationalized their native Kinyarwanda and English language after the genocide, is faring well. One is tempted to say that there is a strong link between the choice of language(s), language policy and development.

Moussa Traoré is a senior lecturer at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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