The Platform

Somali refugees attend classes at a UNICEF supported primary school. (Mulugeta Ayene/UNICEF Ethiopia)

Why should the lecturer begin the introduction in English and then switch back to the Somali translation? It only confuses the student who frantically tries to write the linguistic translation, and the hall becomes a discussion about translation rather than the course concepts. There are more than 40 universities in Somalia, and the main programs such as Medicine, Engineering, Computer Science, Business Administration, and Social Sciences teach in English as it is the leading scientific language in the world.

Most Somali students have poor English language skills, ranging from basic to intermediate. This sets them up for difficulties in their exams because they don’t comprehend the content as it should be. They must memorize the text as if they were poems and puzzles to succeed. And this obstacle extends even when pursuing a Master’s degree. Maryam Abdullah, a third-year student of Social Sciences, tells me, “The school education itself contributed to the problem. There was no special interest in English except grammar, so the university level is more confusing.”

“In addition to the factors of educational upbringing, what makes matters worse is the absence of specialized language centers that students can resort to, as in some countries,” says Mohamed Abukar, a third-year student of Public Health at Puntland State University.

We do not yet understand how the academic system works. It is based on scientific method and rationalism, rather than memorization and indoctrination. We mean the scientific method as “a sequence of actions that constitute a strategy to achieve one or more research goals” and rationalism by rational inference and justification.

We don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the role language plays in knowledge construction. Students cannot achieve their educational goals if they do not understand the medium of instruction.

Who bears this responsibility? Successive corrupted governments, parents who want their children to enter the workforce, students who only want a certificate or degree, and universities that only respond to market pressures. Everyone bears responsibility, and it cannot be traced back to purely external factors. Rather, the problem is rooted in us, and is a product of the psyche of the reckless Somali who is always on the move and who does not care about adopting Spanish or Chinese as the language of the newly developed curriculum.

What is the solution? I think that we are all looking toward the future, but we also have to prioritize learning the English language in the education system, both educationally and culturally for our students from high schools to higher education, and even bring foreign teachers from African countries with English proficiency.

“Universities need to impose foundation programs to develop English skills before students start studying, and to train teachers for that,” lecturer Ahmed Abdullah at Puntland State University asserts. Finally, there is no other option for the success of the educational system than to be honest with ourselves and not waste our very little resources.

Ibrahim Sultan is a progressive Somali journalist, writer, and advocate for social justice. He is the Founder of the Somali Progressive Initiative.