Language: A Matter of National Identity

Published October 27, 2011

Published by Reuters Africa, 26 October 2011

South Sudan said on Wednesday its schools will start teaching English, phasing out Arabic that had been used as a tool to spread Islamic law and Arab heritage by former civil war foe Khartoum.

The mainly Muslim north imposed Islamic law and Arabic on the south, which seceded in July to become the world’s newest nation, and where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs.

The language move is symbolic of the nation’s vision of closer integration with African neighbours, said Samson Wattara, an associate professor in political science at Juba University.

“The switch will not be automatic and will probably be problematic but South Sudanese want to look southwards,” Wattara told Reuters.

“This is a departure from the arabisation doctrine which was consistently opposed by different rebellions,” he said.

South Sudan’s government passed a bill making English mandatory for teaching in primary and secondary schools, Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters.

“Under the Khartoum government subjects were universally taught in Arabic. We will teach our national languages at pre-school and for the rest, the instructions in mathematics or science will all be in English,” he said.

South Sudan has dozens of local languages and dialects, but the most commonly spoken languages are English and Arabic.

Benjamin said the country is training 7,000 new teachers to help launch the new syllabus, to give students easier access to universities in east Africa. Secondary school students will continue to sit exams in Arabic for the next three years.

South Sudan’s independence vote, agreed under a 2005 peace deal, ended decades of civil war with the north over religion, oil, ethnicity and ideology.

North and South Sudan yet have to settle a range of disputes such as sharing oil revenues and other assets and find a solution for the disputed border region of Abyei. (Reporting by Hereward Holland; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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