The sound of the bell at St. Austin’s Academy goes like a clarion call.

The busy movements of the students in the change- over catches my attention as I pick up my teaching resources for the next lesson of Language. In an interesting coincidence, the sound of the bell takes me down memory lane of three decades ago.

“That’s the new-comer speaking vernacular, the new-comer, that one,speaking vernacular. Serve her with the disc!” the voices resonated in unison, fingers pointing at me. I wondered what I had done to warrant the attention. I had simply spoken to a girl standing next to me and asked her if she was a member of my new class only for her to yell at the top of her voice that she had encountered one of those who were speaking the forbidden language attracting a multitude towards me! 

I was confused. The chanting grew louder and sounded like the crime being called out was nothing short of a capital offense.

It was my first day of primary school in a new school and I had not stayed two hours in the vicinity yet the environment was already unwelcoming. Unlike the rural kindergarten, next to my home where classroom instruction and play was communicated in the local dialect, the new school was located in a teachers’ training college in a cosmopolitan area hence English and Kiswahili languages were the norm. 60% of the pupil- population comprised children of the tutors, the nurses and clinical officers from the local health centre and those of traders from the shopping centre. The remaining 40% were from the local community and my siblings and I were part of.

My younger sister who had been in the school from kindergarten had walked through the chanting and jeering to whisper into my ears, “People speak English and Kiswahili here”.  Languages I had to master really quickly and I had no other choice.

Besides the language differentiation, I was faced with a culture shock in the new school.

The school uniform was completed with a tie and shoes worn with grey- striped socks. To top it all off, the pupils changed into P. E kits during the Physical Education lessons. I was going to miss the quick-fix in my former school. Whenever, we needed to play catch-the-ball, famously ‘Katii’, a girl required ease; therefore, I learned from my peers to tuck the dress into the sides of my undergarment -something that always landed me in trouble when my mother spotted me because she was a teacher at the school!

The first school assembly was utterly shocking for me. The neat files of learners listening attentively to the headteacher  mesmerized me. Mr. Odhiambo ( we called him O.O) was addressing the school in English and seemed to be giving a humorous speech. If one turned towards the East, the rays of the sun were peering through the trees to illuminate the hearty laughter of the young souls. The pupils were laughing their ribs out especially the upper primary classes but I could not get the jokes. Language barrier is no joke! I laughed subtly, simply motivated by the infectious laughter of the audience. 

Would we term my experience ‘baptism by fire’? I had to learn the languages very first without any option. Both English and Kiswahili.

I practiced all the integral skills and in two years in the school, I had found my place. I will not forget the audible-reading drills of my story book in front of the mirror whenever I found an opportunity at home. The teachers knew whom they could count on for public speaking and poetry recitals. My creative writing would be sampled out for ‘ Best Writer’ award.  Eight years down the line, I had set my record as an accomplished writer and speaker in both English and Kiswahili at elementary level. Amidst the growing popularity, nobody had a clue of the depths of the painful journey that had shaped the girl who represented the school in verse speaking competitions in both primary and secondary school from the zonal  to the national level.

It is humbling to reflect upon my experiences of childhood and it grounds me at this point of my life as a teacher and head of the Linguistics Department at SAA. It defines my approach each day and I’m compassionate towards my students. I reflect upon the challenges and the effects of language-barrier and it evokes conscious concern for my learners. I consider carefully every learner with their unique backgrounds. Some speak English as a Second Language hence every teacher needs to pace their lessons with a careful consideration of each learner as well as class diversity.

St. Austin’s Academy attracts learners from across the globe and in the institution, they find a haven to learn and live. Some of the students are admitted into the school with no background knowledge of the English Language.

Despite that , they navigate through the learning of English which is the language of instruction courtesy of the accommodating culture in the environment. It is impressive to evaluate the growth and the transformation of the learners as they break the barriers of language.

The school offers a conducive platform for learning of English both naturalistic as well as formally. It is incredible when a student listens, speaks, reads, writes and masters the grammar of English eventually contrary to their entry behavior. SAA is able to shape and sharpen the skills of language not only in English but also in the Modern Foreign Languages that include: Swahili and French and it is autographed in excellence.

Live long SAA!

Article done by Head of Linguistics: Ms Josephine Barno

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