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Uganda Rewrites Language Rules With Spelling Bee

FILE - Students sing during morning assembly at Kyamusansala Primary School in Masaka, Uganda, March 24, 2009.
FILE - Students sing during morning assembly at Kyamusansala Primary School in Masaka, Uganda, March 24, 2009.

Language in Uganda is being revamped to remove inconsistencies and add rules. One way in which language experts are deploying these changes is through the country's first local-language spelling bee.

Contests were held around this country this week, with children being quizzed in eight major languages, including Acholi, Rotoro, Lusoga and Runyoro. The contest in Luganda, the country's major language, was held in Kampala.

The competition is part of a language initiative, taken up by the Ministry of Education, that aims to teach children around Uganda their local languages first, before they are taught English. It also aims to cement and regulate these languages with clear, concise grammar rules.

Children from Gomba, Masaka and Kampala districts met in the capital, where they competed for the championship title. The winner was Judith Namutembi, 10, from Kamulegu Primary in Masaka.

Loren Evens, who manages education programs for UNICEF, helped come up with the idea for a local-language spelling bee. He said experts are helping the language evolve while improving education.

“It’s never been formalized," Evens said. "It’s always just been some linguist in the past [who] went, ‘Oh, that’s what this sounds like,’ and wrote it down in the characters of their native language, and that’s all it’s ever been.

"And so they finally got groups of people together that are kind of authorities on the language that can go, ‘OK, the 15 ways we see this word spelled, this is the one that’s going to be right.’

"And in some groups ... they are so intense into it and the way they’ve done it, it makes so much sense that in good schools, some of the ones I’ve visited, the pupils there are reading and writing at a higher level, higher than students in the United States.”

The programs were created in part with UNICEF, the Peace Corps and language boards throughout Uganda. Annette Mpuga, who works for the Reading Association of Uganda, said her local language would benefit from the Luganda Local Language Board's revision of the rules.

Luganda, she said, "is most spoken in the central region in Uganda. ... It is easily spoken but very difficult to write ... because the formation of the words in that language is not the formation in English."

Creators of these programs are hoping that spelling bees will give people a vested interest in their own languages and promote a competitive edge in children. They are counting on this combination to fuel interest in literacy across Uganda.