A new study has placed Nairobi at the peak of the African continent as having most English proficient speakers.
According to the English Proficiency Index 2019 (EPI), residents of Nairobi were found to have the highest knowledge of spoken and written English at 61.94 per cent for any African city.
Out of the 100 countries that were ranked as well as regions, only Nairobi and Lagos (which scored 58.47 per cent) are in high aptitude level. 13 African countries took part in the survey.
Although Nairobi ranked the best as a city, Kenya itself came in second after South Africa globally at position 18 and six respectively.
In addition to ranking countries, the EPI also looked at the correlation between English proficiency and its impact on the economic competitiveness of a country including increased labour productivity as well as higher income. While there is no direct evidence that English proficiency drives the economy, there is indication that the acquisition of English skills supports economies’ quest to remain competitive, thus supporting the broader need for the language for economic growth.
The findings of the study indicate that as economies compete to remain afloat, increasing the linguistic competencies of its citizenry should remain a key area to invest in.
Kate Bell, a co-author of the survey noted: “We consistently find a correlation between ease of doing business and a country’s English proficiency.
Moreover, the study found that the more a country has a higher number of linguistic competent people, the higher the number of the country’s service exports. This translates to more revenue for the country thus contributing to the overall GDP.
Essential tool for commerce
Although still viewed as a colonial language, particularly in the British colonies, English is now a common language in many African nations especially among the youth.
From classrooms to boardrooms, English is becoming the working language of Africa, or is it?
As a continent, most Africans speak other languages but a large population also speaks English to conduct business and other personal affairs. For instance, the African Union recognizes English as one of the five major working languages including Kiswahili, Arabic, French and Portuguese as well as other languages where necessary.
Nevertheless, Kiswahili in East Africa remains the most common language promoted by governments as a symbol of national unity especially in Tanzania where Kiswahili is used to cultivate socialism and nationhood. At the East African level, last June, the African Union pledged to promote Kiswahili as a Language of Wider Communication in the whole of Africa.
At the 2019 Dar-es-Salaam event, the Head of UNESCO Office and Representative to the United Republic of Tanzania, Tirso Dos Santos hailed the partnership between AU and EAC in promoting Kiswahili as a “tool of communication relevant and necessary for educational, scientific and cultural development of Africa.”
Globally, English has become the universal form of communication for science. While, some countries still publish their research findings in their native tongue, the easier and faster way to share such findings with other scientists across the world is in English.
English as a ‘language’ of Science and Technology
From French to German, in the era of World War one and two, English continues to be used as the primary tool of communication among scientists since the United States became a global leader in research and technology. As such, and as the world pushes for more research and development in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), English has become the universal language of not only business but also science and technology.
The Kenyan government has put in place strategies to achieve the country’s long-term development blueprint–Vision 2030. The vision aims to transform the country into “a newly-industrialising, middle income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment”. One area that Kenya hopes to improve in order to achieve this goal is by delivering on STEM through projects listed on the Kenya Vision 2030 website:
- The establishment of an advanced research institute in Kenya which will provide for specialized training in various engineering and science fields (Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology).
- Repackage STEM in Education and Training:This will ensure promotion of experiential learning, innovation creativity and attraction to STEM related disciplines at all levels starting from Early Childhood to Primary and Secondary Education levels up to University.
- Integration of Science, Technology and Innovation in Education Management:The project will establish a Sector Wide Education and Training Management Information System linking all education related agencies in the public and private sectors.
- A National Critical Skills Development Strategy will be formulated and implemented in order to increase the number of researchers, scientists and engineers for the industry.
There is no doubt that science and innovation are key components of a strong African economy. Thus, expanding opportunities for young Africans to acquire STEM skills can and will not only create jobs, but also enhance the continent’s competitiveness.
While STEM is essential to development, language is the fuel to furthering every aspect of STEM across the globe. Without language,instilling such skills and communicating science findings would be difficult, if not impossible.
This is to say that promoting STEM should go hand in hand with languages– in this case– as many languages as possible. STEM should not be promoted at the expense of languages as scientists need to communicate their findings with the world in the best language(s) possible in order to bring the much needed change or awareness,be it in health or socio-cultural sphere.
In a 2016 article by The Africa Report dubbed “Should Africa prioritise maths and science education over arts?” key African leaders shared their views on the discourse.
According to Oley Dibba-Wadda, then Executive Secretary, Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEF), AfDB, STEM uptake in Africa needs more effective and efficient strategies that will “promote the production of high-end professionals required to manage our resources and add value to our products and services.”
She added: “We are importing “technical assistance expertise” whose interest may not necessarily serve the interest of the African continent.” She called on governments to increase the number of platforms to promote STEM, encourage more women into STEM education as well as provide incentives to enhance “brain gain”.
According to Louise van Rhyn, CEO and Founder of Symphonia for South Africa, “prioritising STEM education is very important, but it should definitely not be done at the expense of the arts.” She adds that arts education should not be viewed as conflicting with STEM subjects. Instead, it should be seen as complementary in the process of equipping the younger generation to be prepared for a challenging future.
In conclusion, the expansion of English, Kiswahili or any other linguistic competence,be it in Kenya, East Africa or across the world will translate into a better population, especially young people. If we are to remain competitive in these dynamic times, economies must promote not only STEM but also linguistic competence from the villages to every nook and cranny of African countries and indeed the rest of the world. By so doing, young people will better understand STEM subjects, while the arts and language will spur creativity, innovation as well as humanity into science fields for a better tomorrow.