In early 2016, Christian, an eight-year-old in first grade, was struggling to understand his teacher. He was speaking French, a language Christian didn’t use at home. Like most of his peers, he only spoke Kiswahili, a language used throughout the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
“Last year, I could not participate actively in the class activities as I did not understand my teacher’s instructions,” explained Christian. “As we speak Kiswahili at home, it was very difficult for me to learn everything in French, a language that was totally new to me.”
In many countries throughout Africa, a student’s first language — otherwise known as their mother tongue — is often not the official language of instruction. In the DRC, most citizens have grown up speaking one or more of the local languages, such as Lingala, Kikongo, Ciluba, or Kiswahili. However, after gaining independence in 1960, the country instituted French as the official language of instruction. Teachers were trained to teach and speak French in the classroom, and were often discouraged from instructing in local languages. Many times, necessary teaching materials in mother-tongue languages did not even exist. Compounding all of these issues is the fact that many teachers themselves learned French as a second language, making it harder to teach students.
Today, between the language students know and the one teachers use in the classroom, many students have difficulty keeping up with the day-to-day lessons. This rift can cause students to fail early on and potentially drop out of school.
To address this issue, the ACCELERE! project, funded by USAID and the U.K. Department for International Development, is working with students, teachers, school administrators, government partners, and community members to improve the quality of and access to primary education. ACCELERE! supports the DRC National Education Strategy to promote reading instruction in the most common local languages.