Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront
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Multilingualism in Kenya: Focus on language use and its implications

Alice Wanjiru Wachira (Ludwig Maximilians-Universität München)


1. Overview

This paper focuses on the influence of speakers' multilingual status on language use in Kenya and seeks to show its socio-cultural implications, its effect on the mastery of languages and on the linguistic cognitive aspect of the individual. As demonstrated by several researchers, even in monolingual societies there exist varieties of the language that are tied to various social factors. Hence one can distinguish, for example, between the kind of language used in formal and informal situations, between strangers on the one hand and close friends on the other, as well as language used to attain certain goals. In multilingual societies, these facts become more evident since code switching occurs across several languages - some of which are oral. Code switching is sometimes compelled by the level of mastery of the languages in question. This touches on the competence in the languages, and in the case where the mastery of these languages is very good, certain cognitive implications are evident - some of which will be considered in greater detail in this paper.


2. Introduction

One of the consequences of colonialism is the emergence of bilingual and multilingual societies - being the result of the acquisition of colonial language(s) by colonised peoples. African countries, for example, are today referred to as Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone, depending on the language acquired through colonialism. This is in addition to the native languages that existed in these countries before colonial intrusion.

In Kenya we find, in addition to the various ethnic languages, the general use of Kiswahili, a Bantu language, which also serves as the national language. The average Kenyan therefore has knowledge of at least three languages, namely English, which is used as the official language, Kiswahili , the national lingua franca, and a native Kenyan language - often acquired as mother tongue and which differs between the various ethnic groups. English is used in schools and other institutions of learning as well as in government institutions and some households. The most commonly spoken language is Kiswahili, which is the language of communication almost everywhere between people from different linguistic communities - at home and in public institutions. The various ethnic languages correspond to the geographical location of the ethnic groups. In smaller towns, the language of the particular ethnic group represented there is generally used as the main language of communication. Since major towns are places of convergence for people from different ethnic groups, one easily finds a mixed use of all these languages, resulting in language-mixing. Language choice in such a multilingual context is determined by purpose of usage.


3. Bilingualism, multilingualism and language use

In Kenya, as in many other African countries, we find people of different ethnic backgrounds who have different cultures and speak different languages as their mother tongue. By virtue of this fact alone, Kenya is, according to Appel and Mysken, a bilingual country. To them, bilingualism occurs "when in a given society two or more languages are spoken" (Appel and Mysken 1987: 1). They go on to point out that all societies are therefore bilingual, with differences found only in the degree of bilingualism. This means that, societies with two languages spoken by different groups of people could be differentiated from those in which the two languages are spoken by all of their members - these are cases of individual and societal bilingualism. The focus in this paper is however, not the societal, but rather the individual bilingualism whereby the individual has knowledge of two or more languages. This is based on Haugen's (1956: 9) definition of a bilingual, whom he also refers to a bilinguist, as "one who knows two languages, [... or] also the one who knows more than two [languages] variously known as a pluralingual, a multilingual, or a polyglot". So, bilinguals and multilinguals as this definition indicates are basically the same, i.e. those who can use more than one language. Weinreich (1953: 5) limits bilingualism to "the practice of alternatively using two languages" by people he calls "bilinguals". But for the purpose of this study, the term ‘multilingualism' is preferred because it represents the Kenyan situation more accurately. In essence, most Kenyans can speak more than two languages.


4. Individual bilingualism and issues of proficiency

Concerning individual bilingualism the question normally arises: to what extent must a speaker have command of two languages in order to be labelled a bilingual? Must a true bilingual be proficient in productive (speaking, writing) as well as receptive tasks (reading, listening) in both languages? According to Bloomfield (1933: 56), a bilingual is someone who possesses "native-like control of two or more languages". While it is difficult to clearly establish if individuals can properly demonstrate native-like competence in two or more languages many researchers prefer to grade the languages in a bilingual's repertoire: language A being the bilingual's first active language, and language B the second (Gumperz 1975). To Macnamara (1969) a bilingual is one who has some second-language in some of the four four language skills (speaking, listening, writing or reading), in addition to his first language skills. The main obstacle in a clear-cut definition arises from the difficulty to find a general standard or norm for measuring proficiency. As a solution, Appel and Mysken (1987: 3) propose that "The very fact that bilinguals use various languages in different circumstances suggests that it is their overall linguistic competence that should be compared to that of monolinguals." The use of many languages by individuals and societies leads to many linguistic outcomes. One of such outcomes is the emergence of social and regional varieties. Languages are actually not homogeneous forms but rather heterogeneous entities that represent the sociocultural environments in which they are used. In relation to the existence of many varieties of the same language within a society, Nabrings (1981:19) says:

Die Frage zu stellen, was denn die Ursache für die Existenz von sprachlichen Varietäten, von verschiedenen 'Sprachen' in einer Sprache ist, heißt zugleich, nach dem Verhältnis von 'Sprache und Gesellschaft' zu fragen. Tatsächlich läßt schon ein flüchtiger Blick auf die Struktur und Entwicklung der Sprachgemeinschaft deutlich werden, wie sehr die Anzahl und die jeweilige Ausprägung der Varietäten von den spezifischen sozialen Voraussetzungen abhängig sind.

To ask the question, what are the reasons for the existence of different language varieties within a language, means asking at the same time for the relation between ‘language and society'. Indeed, a fleeting glance at the structure and development of the linguistic community clearly shows the great extent to which the number and the individual expression of the particular varieties are dependent on specific social characteristics. (My translation)

Hence, for Nabrings, language varieties are a reflection of the relationship between language and society, given that in every linguistic community there are different groups whose boundaries are defined linguistically. Particular varieties are therefore used for particular communicative needs and particular forms of interaction. One can therefore distinguish groups and/or ways of speaking which are situation specific and which more or less stand out as ‘subsystems' of a language. However, the groups and situations for which particular varieties of a language develop depend on the special particularities of the society. As a result, the differences within a language are to be understood as the result of and an expression of the social structure of the society. Gumperz (1975: 81) summarises this through an analogy to grammatical knowledge thus:

Just as grammatical knowledge enables the speaker to distinguish potentially meaningful sentences from nonsentences, knowledge of the social values associated with the activities, social categories, and social relationships implied in the message, i.e., its interpretation in a particular context.


5. Multilingualism and language functions in Kenya

The prevailing situation of multilingualism in Kenya basically consits of the use of English (the official language), Kiswahili (the national language) and a mother tongue (an indigenous Kenyan language). The national and the official languages serve as unifying mediums of communication in the country since they are understood by a broad cross-section of the people. Kiswahili is the general lingua franca spoken by all irrespective of educational or regional background, while English is the official language, normally used as medium of instruction in institutions of learning. Beside these two languages, there are a score of native indigenous languages that are normally acquired as mother tongues. The immediate result of this pattern of language acquisition is therefore that the average Kenyan is multilingual, i.e. having knowledge of three languages. Some people however speak even more than three languages depending on their demographic and economic requirements. Language functions are sometimes dependent on region and purpose of usage, and as shown below, have varying impacts on those involved.

In the rural areas, the respective indigenous languages are spoken in most social interactions except perhaps when interlocutors speak different indigenous languages or belong to different ethnic groups. This could, for example, be the case with teachers, civil servants or employees of firms, or even business people who for professional reasons are settled in such rural areas. The language often preferred, in this case, for communication with the local inhabitants is Kiswahili. Nevertheless, in most rural areas, children in classes one to three are actually taught how to read and write their indigenous language. In several schools the indigenous languages serves as the main language of instruction. Instruction in these languages, however, stops in class four (and above), where educational focus is moved to Kiswahili and English. English takes on the role of the main language of instruction.

In the main towns, the use of the indigenous languages is mostly restricted to the households, within family circles and with close neighbours of the same ethnic background. In many families, however, children often use Kiswahili amongst themselves and the vernacular with their parents or elderly neighbours of the same ethnic group. In some households, however, English is spoken. These are more or less well-to-do families or teachers' families where the parents encourage the children to speak English in a bid to improve their academic performance.

From an overall perspective, Kiswahili is the most widely used language in Kenya. Having been promoted by the state to serve as lingua franca, it gradually grew to be the language through which the different ethnic groups commune and one that reflects the common man. It is also taught as a subject in school. Due to the convergence of people from different ethnic backgrounds in towns, Kiswahili has become the main language of communication. Hence most people in the towns learn Kiswahili from childhood and can already express themselves in it by the time they get to school. Being a Bantu language, Kiswahili is not so difficult to learn for most people since the majority of Kenyans are Bantu and so use Bantu languages predominantly of the same structure as Kiswahili.

The level of command in these languages depends mainly on the extent to which they are used by the individual speaker, with the mother tongue in most cases being the one in which he has the greatest proficiency. Weinreich (1953) suggests that the dominance of a language (i.e. the status or strength of an individual's two or more languages) may be affected by many factors - one of them being usefulness and opportunity for communication. Other factors he mentions are age and order of acquisition, degree of emotional involvement, social function as well as literary and cultural value. These factors are also important in the patterns of communication and choice of language in Kenya.


6. Language use and its implications

Of interest in contexts of language contact and multilingualism are various phenomena of language mixing. In the case of Kenya, speakers in the process of communication make use of at least three languages: mainly Kiswahili, English, and the vernacular. The fact that these languages are acquired in childhood however makes proficiency in them for many speakers fairly equal. The questions then would be, what makes a speaker to speak one language in a certain context and another in a different context? and why does he or she mix these languages in the course of speaking?. These questions, though pertinent to all situations of multilingualism, reveal the extent to which communication is based on context, and how competence in communication is not exclusively a matter of rules of the language but more, one of paralinguistic elements.


7. Code switching

The phenomenon of code switching is not entirely unique to bilinguals, for even within the same language monolinguals switch between different styles for different purposes and in different situations. The only difference as Swain (1972:4) points out is: "In the case of the ‘bilingual' individual, it is argued that the codes used and the switches made are simply made more obvious to the listener than in the case of the ‘monolingual' individual". To Swain (1972:3), therefore, code switching involves the use of "any linguistic system used for interpersonal communication [...]". This means that, languages, dialects, and varieties of dialects or languages, are thus involved in cases of code switching. So when a speaker substitutes one language for another, or one dialect for another, or one variety of a dialect for another, he or she is indeed involved in code switching. (see Swain 1972: 3f.). What therefore, are the main reasons for switching? Robins (1971: 48) submits that speech habits are controlled by situations of communication and the role a speaker is expected to play in such situations:

Each individual's speech habits vary according to the different situations he is in and the different roles he is playing at any time in society. One readily distinguishes the different types of speech used by the same person in intimate family circles, among strangers and with persons of different social positions, in official, professional and learned discourse, and so on, though with intermediate borderlines between each; and in writing, the composition of a family letter is very different from that of a technical article [...].

Although Robins (1971) observations are based on speakers' styles, they actually apply also to the alternations speakers make between languages, dialects or varieties. Since speech communities are governed by communication rules that stipulate how and what to say in particular contexts (see Hymes 1971 and Fishman 1972), speakers often find themselves with no choice but to choose the language or style that best suits the context. So particular situations may therefore require codes or styles that suggest respect, friendliness, anger, rejection, secrecy, danger and so on. In the context of bilingual societies, researchers have observed that people switch between languages according to topic and situation in much the same way as monolinguals switch between styles. (see Fishman et al. 1971, Hornby 1977, Pride 1971). In a similar regard, Pride (1971) distinguishes between bilingualism and biculturalism. According to him, the use of two languages reflects interaction with, and knowledge of, distinct cultures and hence many of the effects commonly associated with bilingualism may actually be the result of such concomitant biculturalism.

Code switching could be motivated by the desire to preserve group ideals and secrets. This is especially because the "cultural norms and values of a group are transmitted by its language. Group feelings are emphasized by using the group's own language, and members of the outgroup are excluded from its internal transactions" (Appel and Mysken 1987:12). Language is, therefore, not only an instrument for the communication of messages, but actually one that carries with it social meanings and connotations. As Appel and Mysken (1987: 12) further say, language is an exponent of group identity since, "[e]verything that differentiates a group from another group constitutes the group's identity." It is therefore not surprising that members of the Kenyan multilingual community code-switch. Several types of code switching patterns can be identified among Kenyans.

7.1 Kiswahili-English code switching

The first type of code switching involves Kiswahili and English. This generally occurs when the national language Kiswahili is the main language of communication. Kiswahili is the most dominantly spoken language in informal social situations by members of different ethnic backgrounds, among friends, with neighbours, and strangers in the streets. The code switching however normally comes about in conversations between people who know each other pretty well and who are able to move forth and back between Kiswahili and English without any problem and sometimes without consciousness of the switch. Since Kiswahili is the dominant language in use, English words and expressions are often integrated in the course of the conversation, as in 1. and 2. below.

    1. Hawa watoto wanafanya nini hapa na wako supposed kukuwa shuleni?
      *These children they are doing what here and they are supposed to be in school?
      What are these children doing here and they are supposed to be in school?
    2. Hakuna siku rais hukuja punctually kwa meetings.
      * There is no day president normally comes punctually to meetings.
      The president never comes punctually to meetings.

It does not have to do with the fact that the speakers do not know the corresponding Kiswahili words and expressions that are substituted with the English ones, but rather with the fact that, the English expression fits the context more appropriately. I would also see this in the light of Gary Dell's (1991) argument in his connectionist model of language production whereby in the process of speech production, there are several linguistic structures that compete with each other in the mind to find expression and that the one which is most activated is the one that ends up being actually used in the speaker's utterance (see Dell and O'Seaghdha 1991). So since the English words are used very often in formal contexts in which the use of English is prevalent, they easily or automatically come to mind and are quickly adopted in the process of speech production.

7.2 English-Kiswahili code switching

The second form of code switching also involves English and Kiswahili but occurs when the main language in use is English. Since English is the official language, it is mainly spoken in the institutions of learning and other formal sectors. The code switching in this case often involves whole phrases, sentences and even several sentences. In the course of speaking in English, speakers use longer Kiswahili phrases than they would use English phrases in Kiswahili, for example:

  1. The visitors came so unexpectedly, na hatukujua tufanye nini.
    *and did not we know we do what.
    that we didn't know what to do.
  2. Njeri ni mkubwa sasa. You don't have to accompany her to school.
    Njeri is big now. You don't have to accompany her to school.

I would attribute the code switching in this case to the explanation given by West (1929: 38) that has to do with expression of sentiments. He points out that the words of different languages may mean the same, but they cannot feel the same. The feeling of helplessness expressed in 3) is such that the speaker can only feel he has communicated it by using that language which breaks the barrier of all formalities - in this case Kiswahili. The cultural aspect that goes along with Kiswahili is that visitors have to be received in a certain special way. Using Kiswahili to express the situation the speaker finds him or herself in gets the listener to ‘feel' or ‘experience' the helplessness and breaks the distance in communication that could have been created if it were expressed in English. It thus also gives the connotation of sharing the same identity and hence a deeper understanding of the situation.

7.3 Indigenous language-English-Kiswahili code switching

The third type of code switching identified among Kenyans includes the vernacular and occurs between speakers from the same ethnic group. As shown above with English, the code switching here often involves whole expressions, sentences and groups of sentences to the extent that the discourse could very well be ½ English, ¼ Vernacular and ¼ Kiswahili. Sentences 5) and 6) bear these traces.

  1. Mareshiriagia ati tutiui uria mareka, and we had already heard their plans. Hawawezi kutudanganya.
    *They were thinking that we do not know how they are doing, and we had already heard their plans. They cannot cheat us.
    They thought that we didn't know what they were doing, yet we had already heard their plans.
    They cannot cheat us.
  2. Riu tugwika atia? Why don't you just go and find out what is wrong, halafu ukuje utuambie.
    *Now we will do what? Why don't you just go and find out what is wrong, then you come you tell us.
    Now what do we do? Why don't you just go and find out what is wrong and then come and tell us?

Several factors determine the language used at any particular point of the discourse. For instance, the use of the indigenous language could be used in order to emphasise the common identity shared by the interlocutor, since as Appel and Mysken (1987:11) believe, "the cultural norms and values of a group are transmitted by its language." Some aspects of discourse could really be intended to make a message sink home. This, amongst peoples with the same ethnic background would no doubt be achieved by taking recourse to the mother tongue. And with issues of formal status, the switch would definitely be towards the official language, English.


8. Multilingualism and cognition

As far as the effect of multilingualism on the individual is concerned, recent investigations have shown that bilingualism has positive effects on intelligence. This is in contrast to the pessimistic view of the 1920s and 1930s, which saw it as detrimental to the cognitive apparatus of the speaker. The investigations made later "indicate that bilingual children, relative to monolingual controls, show definite advantages on measures of ‘cognitive flexibility,' ‘creativity,' or ‘divergent thought.'" (Lambert 1977: 16). However, René and Mysken (1987) wonder whether two languages are mentally or psychologically discrete as far as the mental lexicon is concerned, or whether the bilingual operates on the basis of one unified mental lexicon. They further question whether a special mental faculty develops which enables the bilingual to process the languages without mixing them. With respect to these questions they conclude that, "generally, bilinguals keep their languages separate in language processing, i.e. in speaking and understanding." Although this sounds possible, researchers are not unanimous on how the brain handles language. Two main views have been expressed. In the first, represented by the "extended system hypothesis", upholds that the two languages in a bilingual's repertoire form one system and the elements of the two languages are supported by the same neural mechanisms. The proponents of he second view, i.e. the "dual system hypothesis", hold that the two languages are located in the same area, but that each is supported by a different neural mechanism. According to this second view, the two languages are separately represented in the human brain. Paradis (1981) proposes some kind of compromise hypothesis, which establishes that the languages are stored in a single extended system, but the elements of each language form separate subsystems within the larger system. Paradis (1979: 421) maintains that bilinguals "possess one and only one set of mental representations but organise them in different ways depending on whether they verbalise a thought in L1 or in L2". This means therefore that bilinguals or multilinguals have one semantic memory or conceptual system, which is connected to two lexical stores, which can be activated at will. How these lexical stores interact is not exactly clear but as Weinreich (1953) explains, a seemingly well-coordinated process of lexical selection takes place in the brain before and during speech.

Weinreich's (1953) typology distinguishes between three types of bilingualism: coordinate, compound and subordinate bilingualism. For coordinate bilinguals, Weinreich claims, equivalent words in the two languages have slightly different meanings or refer to different concepts. They actually function as two words in the bilingual's repertory. For compound bilinguals the two (equivalent) forms have an identical meaning. They merge the two languages at the conceptual level. In the case of the subordinate type of bilingualism, one language is dominant and the words in the non-dominant language are interpreted through the words of the dominant language. The subordinate bilingual normally learnt the second language with the help of the first or dominant language. The Kenyan multilinguals could be plotted on the scale of this typology, since the time of acquisition of each of three major languages determines the place each occupies in the repertory. This scale however, is not as determinant to code switching as the message, the context of communication, the purpose of the switch and the other factors discussed above. Nevertheless, most of the multilinguals could be rated as compound bilinguals since basically they grow up initially with two languages: the indigenous mother tongue learnt at home and Kiswahili learnt from the neighbourhood with friends and relations. English, the official language, however comes later in school, and could at some point, though limited, be interpreted as the second language in the subordinate type of bilingualism mentioned above.


9. Conclusion

It is clear from the above that multilingual Kenya, with a large number of languages, faces no sociolinguistic disputes resulting from the use of these languages. The question is, does the process of mixing described above interfere in communication, to the extent of blurring intelligibility? This presumably does not happen, but there are complaints about the falling standards of Kiswahili and English. The continual use of English expressions when speaking Kiswahili has had several linguistic consequences on the speakers' proficiency in the language. The predominance of Kiswahili as the most commonly used language also has similar proficiency effects on English. Although these effects have generally been castigated as negative to the languages, they do, however, reflect the linguistic outcomes of language contact. I would therefore like to see Kenyan multilingualism, and language planning policies designed to shape it, as generally seeing multilingualism as having many positive effects, but would call for conscious efforts to learn all the languages in question well. It would also be worthwhile to encourage not only young children, but also adults to, whenever possible, learn other languages in addition to their mother tongues, so as to be part of the broader spectrum of communication.

© Alice Wanjiru Wachira (Ludwig Maximilians-Universität München)


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3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront

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Alice Wanjiru Wachira (Ludwig Maximilians-Universität München): Multilingualism in Kenya: Focus on language use and its implications. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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