A drop in students’ proficiency in English Kiswahili in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations has brought into focus the growing use of ‘sheng’ by students, teachers, corporates and politicians as well as the media.
The 2011 results released this week indicate the overall candidate’s performance in two of the main languages used in the country and in the East Africa region dropped in 2011 compared to 2010, with the Minister of Education, Sam Ongeri blaming it on increased usage of the slang based language throughout the country.
“Our suspicion is that adulteration of our Kiswahili and even English where even very senior members of our society including top politicians have turned to ‘sheng’ to endear themselves to the youth,” said Professor Ongeri while releasing the examination results.
In the English language exam, students scored an average of 47.1 per cent in 2011 compared to 49.12 per cent the previous year with the highest drop being among female students.
Performance also deteriorated in the English composition paper where candidates scored an average of 42.45 per cent compared to 42.7 per cent in 2010, a uniform drop between male and female students.
The Kiswahili language exam witnessed a drop in performance of 11.3 percentage points to 41.46 per cent compared to 52.76 per cent the previous year but performance improved in the Kiswahili composition paper where students scored an average of 54.68 per cent this year compared to 50.3 per cent last year.
The sheng language is a mixture of Kiswahili and English with different variants that include different vernacular languages depending on a particular region of the country. It is very popular among the younger generation who make up the bulk of students in the country.
Its use has also picked up among younger teachers, who use it to communicate with their peers and who are now using it to communicate with their students. Kenyan politicians seeking different positions in the coming elections have created advertisements targeted at the youth, who account for more than a quarter of the country’s population.
Large corporates including commercial banks, supermarket chains and telecommunication companies have also been running advertisements for their products in ‘sheng’ while a growing number of radio stations are using the language to connect with youthful audiences.
“While this has short-term gains in terms of popularity, it seems to translate in a drop in the quality of our children’s performance in both Kiswahili and English. I therefore urge everyone to take note of this damaging effect and do something about it,” said Prof. Ongeri.
The Minister of Education said that the Southern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) results, which track literacy and numeracy performance in 15 African countries, show that the Kenya’s numeracy ranking was higher than its literacy performance.
He said that Kenyan students were ranked second in numeracy behind Mauritius and fifth behind Tanzania, Seychelles, Mauritius and Swaziland in literacy, raising concerns over the quality of Kiswahili and English in the country.
“The low ranking in literacy behind four countries including Tanzania is a matter of concern to me and my ministry,” said Prof. Ongeri.
Stephen Njoroge, chairman of the National Schools Association and Principal of Moi Forces Academy said that even though language is dynamic and keeps changing, speaking of proficient Kiswahili and English should be encouraged in classrooms and at home.
He said that students need to understand that they must do well in the two subjects so as to easily fit into any working environment.
“You have to pass in English and Kiswahili and you will not use sheng in interviews…for your own survival you need to speak good English and Kiswahili,” he said.
Appearing to defend the use of slang in ads, Sammy Onyango, chief executive of Deloitte East Africa said.
“The advertising language is a language that appeals to people. If as a firm you have a product that you want to sell, you would want to do something that appeals to the audience”.