“We should not raise our kids to learn half English half Kiswahili”, remarked Special Seats MP Rev Getrude Rwakatare, during a debate on the Tanzanian budget allocation. Whilst the Tanzanian government is often praised for its successful promotion of a single indigenous language as the official national language, the struggle for dominance between English and Swahili has been a long running feature of Tanzanian politics and society. Although the debate regarding the language of instruction in Tanzanian schools has been ongoing since independence, with the Uwezo Report finding that the majority of primary school leavers are unable to read a story in both English and Swahili, the issue has once again gained momentum.
Rise of Swahili
Prior to independence, language policy was an important feature of colonial rule. Tanzania’s transition from a German colony to a British protectorate following World War I signalled the beginning of concerted efforts to vigorously promote English, often at the expense of Swahili. During this period Swahili remained as the language of instruction for the initial five years of primary school, yet English became the language of instruction for the final three years of primary school and throughout secondary school. Due to the fact that only a limited amount of the Tanzanian population was given a secondary school education, only a small portion were afforded the opportunity to learn English.
Come independence, President Nyerere made a concerted effort to enhance the importance of Swahili across Tanzanian society. On a governmental level, in 1962 Nyerere became the first person to address the Tanzanian parliament in Swahili. The use of Swahili within parliament was then solidified in 1967 when the Second Vice President announced that Swahili was to become the official language within government offices. As the use of Swahili became formalised at a governmental level, it was simultaneously being advanced within the education system.
As a component of the country’s transition towards socialism, the use of Swahili was expanded to become the language of instruction at all levels of primary school. This was a particular part of Nyerere’s plan for the introduction of an Education for Self-Reliance, which advocated a universal primary education system that would assist the majority of the population in finding rural employment. During this period English was retained as a taught subject after the third year of primary school. Swahili’s increased prestige compelled the National Kiswahili Council and the Institute of Kiswahili Research to make significant progress into standardising Swahili terminologies to be used within technological and academic circles.
The use of differing languages within the education system further raises the barrier between those who have a post-primary education, and those who do not. Although statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) state that between 2005-2009, 83% of Tanzanian children completed primary school, only a small portion go on to complete secondary school. In a country where secondary education is not free, and the average gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is US$1,400, the current system precludes many students from becoming fluent in English and so allows elitism to continue. This has similarities to the colonial era, where competence of the colonial language was afforded to some but not all. For those who are able to gain a post-primary education, however, knowledge of English removes many barriers to employment and thereby makes English knowledge a valuable tool.
Quality of Education
For the small percentage of children that progress onto post-primary education, however, the transition from Swahili to English as the medium of instruction significantly diminishes the quality of Tanzania’s education system. Although after the third year of primary school children are introduced to four hours a week of English education classes, the transition to English as a medium of instruction is clearly detrimental to both the students ability to learn, and in many cases the teacher's ability to teach. The current lack of native English speakers as teachers has been documented as a hindrance to English language teaching. Former Secretary General of the East African Community Juma Mwapachu reflected on his own years as a student when "We had very good teachers during our time, some of whom were drawn from other Commonwealth countries. I think time has come that we have such teachers again." Inadequacies in English language teaching are often unable to be rectified by the time students reach university, as according to assistant lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam’s Department of Foreign Languages Faraja Kristomus, "English language is still a major challenge to many of our students because of their background at lower levels of school."
In a highly competitive job market, the lack of English competency, even amongst Tanzania’s university graduates, is a barrier to employment. Evarist Mwitumba from the Tanzanian newspaper This Day, has remarked that he is often faced with this challenge. "When you recruit students from the School of Journalism, for example, you find that most of the graduates have low written English proficiency, even though their pass marks are high." As Tanzanian students fall behind others in East Africa, the lack of English proficiency will continue to be a barrier to employment and economic development.
The ongoing situation in Tanzania whereby primary education is conducted in Swahili and secondary and tertiary in English is both divisive and detrimental. Due to the small proportion of students who continue with post-primary education very few students are able to master English. The ability to speak English has therefore become associated with class, resulting in those unable to gain a post-primary education being further subjugated to lifetimes of unskilled labour. Of those who are able to gain a post-primary education, however, the shifting of language of instruction, significantly undermines both the students’ ability to learn, and in many cases, the quality of teaching.