Hima Mossa Dioula, Halimatou (2017). 'THE LANGUAGE OF CAPABILITY: THE EFFECTS OF SCHOOLING IN LOCAL LANGUAGES ON CAPABILITIES EXPANSION' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.



Education as a process that greatly influences value formation may also construct various forms of marginality. The work of Unterhalter, Vaughan and Walker capture how the capability approach (CA) as developed by Sen and Nussbaum [1]–[4] offers possibilities for rethinking education as a space that recognises contextual epistemologies, histories and values [5]–[8]. This presentation explores the following question, “How does learning in local languages in early years of schooling affect students’ capabilities?” Using the concept of ‘evolving capabilities’ [9], [10], this paper argues that the introduction of local (African) languages as a medium of instruction in early years of schooling could improve learning outcomes and enhance capabilities.

Social interaction and arrangements are crucial to children’s capabilities expansion [11], [12]. In Niger, as in many African countries, the early years of schooling mark a sharp disruption from the initial sites of learning. Children go into a school, many view as ‘foreign’, to learn new concepts in a foreign language. In this case, they learn in French and go home to speak in Hausa, Zarma or other languages. The low adult literacy rate (19%) means that there is a rupture between what students learn in school and their ability to cement this learning in their own homes. Efforts in achieving Education for All (EFA) sometimes silence important perspectives not because the ‘right’ parties are not involved, but because “tensions arise from a system of education that is not rooted in context” [13]. Parents and students may therefore disengage with “formal” education to assert their rejection not of the idea of education itself, but of an educational system with severe inequalities related to quality, access, and gender [14], [15]. In Niger, 15% of boys and 10% of girls of secondary school age complete lower secondary; only 34% of poorest children of primary school-age are in school (vs. 81% in richer households) [16]. Most of these poorest households are in rural areas. If introducing mother-tongues could keep children in school longer with better outcomes, then it becomes a matter of social justice.

Preliminary findings show that introducing local languages in the early years of schooling could: a) create a dynamic flow of knowledge and information between students and their environment – hence diminishing the feeling of alienation and rupture; b) develop children’s ability to link learning, reading, and math to their daily experiences; c) enhance confidence and develop a culture of participation in class; d) contribute to better overall academic performance in secondary school; and e) allow teachers to better (de)construct contextual epistemologies, especially if they are inadequately proficient in French but proficient in local languages.

This research adopts a gendered mixed-methods approach consisting of a) interviews and focus group discussions; b) surveys with secondary school students; and c) retrospective analysis of selected cohorts’ progression from primary to secondary school. To further understand the dynamics of capabilities formation, the study tracks dropouts in these selected cohorts for in-depth interviews. Tracking a cohort’s progression is possible given the very low educational achievement rates and tight social networks in communities. The main sites of analysis (Dosso, Maradi, and Niamey) have housed the initial “écoles expérimentales” – experimental schools – which use national languages as a means of instruction in the first three years of primary school. This paper on the effects of local languages on building children’s capabilities is part of a larger research project that aims to uncover the determinants of secondary school completion.  






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[4]           M. Nussbaum, Creating capabilities: the human development approach. Belknap Press, 2011.

[5]           M. Walker and E. Unterhalter, “The Capability Approach: Its Potential for Work in Education,” in Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and Social Justice in Education, 2007, pp. 1–18.

[6]           R. P. Vaughan and M. Walker, “Capabilities, Values and Education Policy,” J. Hum. Dev. Capab., vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 495–512, Aug. 2012.

[7]           M. Walker, “Towards a capability‐based theory of social justice for education policy‐making,” J. Educ. Policy, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 163–185, Mar. 2006.

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[9]           M. Biggeri, J. Ballet, F. Comim, and Palgrave Connect (Online service), Children and the capability approach. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

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[11]        A. Sen, “Children and Human Rights,” Indian J. Hum. Dev., vol. 1, no. 2, 2007.

[12]        M. Biggeri, “Education Policy for Agency and Participation,” in Agency and Participation in Childhood and Youth: International Applications of the Capability Approach in Schools and Beyond, C. S. Hart, M. Biggeri, and B. Babic, Eds. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015.

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[14]        I. Amadou, Y. Tine, and A. Souley, “Le refus de l’école,” in Systèmes éducatifs et multilinguisme au Niger: Déscolarisation et formations alternatives, D. Barreteau and Ali Daouda, Eds. Niamey: ORSTOM, Université Abdou Moumouni, 1998, pp. 9–45.

[15]        O. Meunier, “École d’aujourd’hui et Savoirs Traditionnels (Niger, Reunion, Bresil),” Cah. Int. Sociol., vol. 125, pp. 307–329, 2008.

[16]        World Bank Data, “World Bank Group,” 2017.

[17]        A. Moumouni, Education in Africa, Praeger. New York: F. A.Praeger, 1968.


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