When you’re nine years old, new school assignments of any kind can be groan-inducing. This is as true for kids in rural Uganda as it is in suburban U.S.A.

Justine Kagoya, a primary four student in Uganda whose school has shifted its emphasis to local language learning, is quoted in an article in The Observer as being concerned over the difficulty she may face when she shifts to English-based learning later in life (in Uganda, English is the language of commerce).

Of course, not all students feel that way -- Nicholas Odeke, a student at the Kirinya Church of Uganda primary school, is quoted in that same article as saying, “Some of the English words are hard... teaching us in our local languages will help us understand more” -- but it’s easy to see where Justine is coming from.

What she may not realize is that mastery of more than one language helps her overall cognitive ability, but that a strong foundation of reading and learning in her mother tongue will actually improve her ability to learn English, and will contribute to her chances of long term educational success.

Justine is benefitting from the USAID-funded School Health and Reading Program run by RTI International in Uganda, a program that brought SIL LEAD on as a subcontractor from 2012 to 2017.


SIL LEAD’s role in the project was to support learning materials development for twelve languages, for grades one to four. This included the creation of student books and guidebooks for their teachers, in the languages of Acholi, Ateso, Leblango, Lugbarati, Luganda, Lugwere, Lhukonzo, Lumasaaba, Lusoga, Nkarimojong, Runyankore/Rukiga, and Runyoro/Rutooro.

In addition, we also assisted with orthography review, revision and standardization, and teacher training.

While learning in her local language may make Justine groan, it’s an essential step in improving her life and the lives of her fellow students, as well as preserving the rich cultural heritage embedded in her mother tongue. SIL LEAD is privileged to get to play a small, albeit indirect, role in improving Justine’s life and the lives of countless other girls and boys like her.

AuthorJosh Barkey