East African English

Kenya and Uganda can reasonably be called “English-speaking” countries.  Although most of their people do not speak English as their “mother” tongue, they do learn at least some English from a very young age, they often have at least some of their schooling through the medium of English, and they frequently have to use English to communicate with their fellow citizens. On the other hand, the English spoken in these East African countries is not quite the same as that of traditional English-speaking countries like Britain, Ireland and the USA. There are differences of pronunciation (for example, most East Africans pronounce the vowel /ɜ:/ in words like firm and heard as /a:/, so that the words sound no different from farm and hard); of vocabulary (they have words like jubilating for celebrating and overspeeding for speeding); and of grammar (e.g. basing on instead of based on). The question that arises in view of this is whether East African English should be given the same status as the traditional Englishes.

In fact, linguistic differences are no great criterion for establishing the status of a language variety. All varieties of English have some differences of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar compared to other varieties. Here are some examples:













East African

 “them” instead of “those” (I know them guys)       


BE + “after –ing” instead of HAVE + “–ed” (I’m after finishing my dinner)


Past simple tense instead of present perfect (I already did it)


“in case” instead of “if” (In case it rains we will get wet)

 “down” instead of “to” (go down the pub) 


 “heighth” instead of “height”



“sidewalk” instead of “pavement”; “elevator” instead of “lift”


“pick” instead of “pick up”

Special Features of Different English Types


It might be thought that every one of the special features shown in this table must be wrong because it is not logical or not obedient to rules found in English grammar books. The truth, though, is that books do not decide correctness, language users do.  A truly correct feature is one that everybody uses, regardless of what books or logic say. The various English features listed in Table 1, including the East African ones, are correct because they are said by everybody (or nearly everybody) in their region. The fact that different things are correct in different Englishes is quite normal: single languages are continually breaking up into groups of languages, and regional variation is just the first stage in this natural and inevitable process.

Nevertheless, there is a difference of some kind between East African English and the more traditional sorts. It has to do with the fact that it is not the mother tongue of most of its speakers (even though it is of some). This means that it is learned as a second or foreign language, and is vulnerable to imports from the mother tongue. Its true status can perhaps be described using a classification of Englishes that has been proposed by the Indian linguist Kachru.   Countries like England, Ireland, the USA, Australia and Canada, where English is a mother tongue, can be seen as the centre or core of three concentric circles. They can thus be called “inner circle” users of English. In the “outer circle” there are countries like France, Congo or China, where English is learned mainly for communicating with people from other countries. East Africa, on the other hand, is a “middle-circle” area, along with such areas as South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, India, and perhaps Scandinavia.


Which English is it Best to Study?

The real nature of English raises questions about the study of English in East African universities: should all Englishes be known, or just some?  If some, which?  Is British English better than American English?  Why not concentrate on just East African English? The following answers seem the most logical.

1. Students should not avoid using East African English in East Africa.  When this variety of English is used in its “home” territory, there is no reason to avoid it on grounds of correctness, and there is every reason to use it for efficient communication: it is the English that everyone else speaks and hence is likely to be understood the most easily. With this in mind, an English teacher must even be prepared to inform students about East African usages that may not be known to them.

2. University students also need to learn how to avoid using East African English. This is because they are potential professionals likely to have to communicate with English speakers outside East Africa. If they continue to speak abroad in an East African way, they will risk being not understood, or misunderstood. In effect, East African university students must be able to speak and understand more than one English. This is not impossible – even in Britain and the USA many people use different Englishes (regional/national; formal/informal) according to different situations, like whether they are at home with their family or at work.

3.  Fortunately, it is possible to survive abroad with only one other form of English: Standard English.  All English speakers are likely to understand Standard English, even if they do not speak it.  Therefore, it is Standard English that East African university students should attempt to acquire alongside their East African English.


What is Standard English?

This type of English does not “belong” to any particular group of speakers, although it is closer to British and American English than to some other Englishes. Originally it was the kind of English spoken by educated people in the South-East of England. However, it is not the same today as even that particular form of English because South-East English English has changed over the centuries, in ways that affect all languages, while Standard English has changed much less.

Standard English is found mostly in written form. Its most formal subdivisions are academic and legal English, while a less formal one is found in newspapers, and the least formal kind is the language that many novelists use when they compose the “direct” speech of their characters. Recent research has shown that real spoken English outside novels is surprisingly different from the “spoken” English that writers compose. Standard English is practically the same in both the UK and the USA, although there are a few words and spellings that are different.

When Standard English changes, it usually does so by adopting new expressions from the UK or USA. However, with globalization other Englishes (and even other languages than English) are increasingly having an influence on it. Thus, if East African students approach Standard English with a positive attitude, whilst continuing to use East African English where appropriate, their command of both varieties might in the future help to bring a little African flavour into this international linguistic arena.

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