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Colours of the Alphabet – a documentary film by Alastair Cole

In a world where nearly 40% of the population lack access to education in their own language, COLOURS OF THE ALPHABET asks: Does the future have to be in English?

Following three primary school children in their first year of state education, Alastair Cole’s feature film debut is an inspiring, bittersweet story about how communication, national identity and language are critical to the development of our children - with multi-coloured subtitles to reflect the multilingual reality of the classroom.

  • The Film

    Alastair Cole’s feature debut is a beautiful, inspiring and bittersweet story about language and childhood in Africa.

    Steward, Elizabeth and M’barak are three first time school pupils in rural Zambia who struggle to make sense of an educational system where the language they speak at home is different from the language used in the classroom.

    Moments of perplexed incomprehension, both comedic and tragic ensue, as the children slowly come to terms with the fact that their tongue is no longer their own.

    At a time when nearly 40% of the world’s population lack access to education in their own language, Colours of the Alphabet offers an intimate and moving insight into a global phenomenon from the unique perspective of three innocent children.

    Director Statement

    by Alastair Cole

    “It has been an incredible adventure making my first feature length documentary, especially living for 12 months in Zambia and getting to know the wonderful children in the film.

    Their struggle to learn was both surprisingly universal and absurdly anachronistic. Not learning in their mother-tongue represents a huge obstacle for the vast majority of them, as it does for millions of others around the world.

    I hope our film will help people understand the importance of mother-tongue education and remind people of the shared ambitions of parents across the world for their children.”

    Producer Statement

    by Nick Higgins

    “Colours of the Alphabet takes audiences on a journey to an Africa rarely seen on the big or small screen, where the Zambian parents have exactly the same ambitions as British parents, but where their children innocently struggle to make sense of an education system that forces them to learn through English.

    It’s estimated this is an issue that affects 2.3 billion people across the world – and while there are laughs along the way, Alastair’s film brilliantly explores the real issues this causes children in learning about the world around them.

    We think the film will highlight a serious global problem, and we relish the prospect of using it to bring about a real, tangible change to the lives of the children who feature in it.”


    Colours of the Alphabet was developed with support from Creative Scotland’s lottery fund, the INTERDOC and the European Documentary Network's Twelve for the Future development programmes, and Berlinale Talents.

    Filmed over 12 months in the village of Lwimba near Lusaka in Zambia, it was produced by Lansdowne Productions and Tongue Tied Films and was supported by the following organisations:

    The University of the West of Scotland
    UWS Creative Media Academy
    Edinburgh Napier University
    The University of Edinburgh

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  • commented 2017-02-08 23:12:20 +0000
    I loved this film. For once just the story without extra commentary (judgement). I was surprised to hear that English language had united many tribes. It’s one of the first times I heard something positive about the prevalence of English over local languages. Losing the treasure of 72 (was it?) languages in Zambia would be wrong – but how to document all these languages and create dictionaries and educational materials? How do you choose which of the local languages is the most important? So much to think about…
  • commented 2016-12-14 13:43:12 +0000
    I’ve heard good responses to the film. But I live far away from the UK. How can I watch the film? When it become available for the rest of the world, if it is not available yet?
  • commented 2016-06-03 19:29:07 +0100
    Greatly enjoyed the screening of the film in Aberdeen last Sunday and the Q&A with Alastair. From the perspective of someone who has over recent years been regularly visiting and working in Zambia (on VSO placements), the film gave a vivid depiction of life in a Zambian village, the challenges of education and the amazing positivity of Zambians. Whilst Zambia’s complex linguistic diversity needs protection and support I thought the film perhaps underplayed the importance of English as the national language in building ‘One Nation – One Zambia’ and the maintenance of peaceful co-existence between tribes (and languages) over the last 50 years (and hopefully beyond the 11 August elections!) Politics and language are intertwined in complex ways! I hope that the film is able to reach larger audiences, in the UK and Africa. Will it be available on DVD or through an internet link?