USAID Education Data activity: Understanding the complexity of language of instruction in Zambia


Zambia is a multiethnic and multilingual society. It is home to over 70 dialects. The Government of the Republic of Zambia (GRZ), through the Education Act of 2011 and subsequent Primary Literacy Programme (PLP) has designated seven languages of instructions (LoIs) to be used in schools in the country, including Chitonga, Cinyanja, Icibemba, Kiikaonde, Lunda, Luvale and Kikaonde. The LoIs are used to teach across all subjects from pre-school to Grade 4. English is introduced as a subject in Grade 2 to help learners develop oral reading skills. From Grade 5 onwards, English is used as an LoI and local languages are taught as mandatory subjects through the end of lower secondary school or Grade 9. Below is a summary of the provinces and the LoIs.

Figure 1: Distribution of local languages of instruction across the provinces in Zambia

As part of the five-year USAID Education Data (EDA) activity, DevTech conducted a language mapping exercise. The purpose of the exercise was to ascertain whether the predominant LoI aligned to the Ministry of Education (MoE) designated LoI(s) assigned to each of the ten provinces of Zambia. Findings from the study are intended to provide the MoE with the opportunity to better understand implementation of the language policy in schools so as to ensure that the majority of children are educated in their mother tongue, supporting improved learning outcomes. Additionally, as part of the language mapping exercise, the EDA team sought to verify the accuracy of education data included in the GRZ’s Education Management Information System (EMIS), such as codes, location of the school, LoI used, etc., and update entries containing inaccurate information.

Phase one of the language mapping exercise was undertaken in 2018 in the USAID Let’s Read project intervention provinces of Muchinga, Eastern, Western, North-Western, and Southern. Phase two of the language mapping exercise was conducted in 2020 and focused on the five non-Let’s Read provinces of Luapula, Lusaka, Central, Northern and Copperbelt. Data collected during the 2020 language mapping was verified in 2021 using a multi-step, mixed-methods approach involving desk review and quantitative and qualitative field data collection and verification at headquarter (MoE Directorate of Information and Planning), provincial, district and school levels. This article focuses on the language mapping exercise conducted in 2020 and verified in 2021.


The three major findings from the 2021 Language Mapping Exercise include:

  1. Schools in Luapula, Lusaka, Central, Northern and Copperbelt provinces pre-dominantly use the MoE designated LoIs, an indication that the schools observe the MoE policy guidance on the use of LoI. However, the study also revealed that in addition to the designated LoIs there are approximately 15 other major languages, not currently designated as LoIs.
  2. There was a reduction of 58 schools between 2020, when the project conducted the mapping exercise, and 2021, when the verification was conducted. All the schools that closed were community-based schools, that is, community initiated schools that are largely resourced and managed by the community. After consultations with the MoE, EDA verified that the schools closed due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on school resources, including human capital. Most of these schools were in rural areas, where schools are far apart. The implication of this is that some learners will have to travel long distances to find a school, while others may be forced to end their formal education.
  3. The study identified inconsistencies in information related to the school EMIS numbers. These inconsistencies were present at the MoE Headquarter EMIS databases but did not affect district-level databases.


While not widespread across the five provinces under study, the use of non-designated LoIs has the potential to impact the teaching and learning process at affected schools given that teaching and learning materials are printed in the seven LoIs. Furthermore, schools using a non-designated LoI may not be providing instruction in learners’ mother tongue, potentially negatively affecting learning outcomes. Indeed, LoIs are designated because these languages are supposed to be the learners’ mother tongue and language of play, thereby facilitating the learning process. Though it is not always the case that the designated LoI is the language of play for all learners, in principle, the majority of children in the provinces are familiar with the designated LoI. This is important for learning as scientific evidence supports the use of mother tongue in teaching and learning. This is further supported by the fact that all Zambia local languages are part of the Bantu family and bantu languages are transparent in nature, which makes them easier for children to learn to read.

The closure of 58 schools raises concerns for the learners and communities that no longer have access to these schools. Have students continued going to school? If so, how far do they have to travel to get to school? If they must travel long distances, this in turn raises safety concerns, particularly for younger and more vulnerable learners. The MoE needs to implement interventions that will ensure that learners impacted by the closure of schools actualize their right to education and a fulfilled childhood.

The inconsistencies with the MoE database, highlights gaps in the system that MoE is using to track school information. An EMIS number is a unique identifier of a school. Therefore, any duplication, error, or omission of the EMIS number has implications for the status of a school, i.e., it is either non-existent, duplicated or contains the same EMIS number as another school. Schools with EMIS errors are not recognized by the MoE and are labelled as “unknown”, the consequence of which is that the school will not receive any support from the MoE. The MoE system of tracking and updating EMIS numbers needs to be reviewed and updated.

Conclusion and recommendations

This language mapping study confirms that schools in the five provinces are by and large implementing the designated LoIs. In areas where schools are not utilizing the designated LoI, there is need to conduct further investigations to understand why this is the case and to determine the impact on learning. The study’s finding that relates to the closure of schools is worrisome. Further investigations are required to determine the extent of school closures in the provinces not included in this study and to better understand the implications of closures for learners and the surrounding communities. Lastly, the Language Mapping Exercise has made clear that upgrades should be made to the system used by the MoE to track and update school information.

The 2021 Language Mapping Exercise was undertaken by DevTech as part of the USAID Education Data activity (EDA). In addition to supporting USAID with education assessment, data management, and research and evaluation services, EDA aims to strengthen the capacity of the Examinations Council of Zambia (ECZ) and the Ministry of Education (MoE) to track and collect data to improve learning outcomes in Zambia. The main task under EDA is to measure the change in reading skills for Grade 2 learners in the USAID Let’s Read Activity schools in Eastern, Muchinga, North-Western, Southern and Western provinces.


DevTech Systems Inc., (2021). Language Mapping Exercise Report. USAID Education Data activity:

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