The language debate – and why it matters for schoolkids

“No English, no service”. That’s what Tanzanians are told on day one of secondary school. All subjects are taught through English, and pupils can only ask questions in English. This is an abrupt change for kids, whose entire education until now has been given in Kiswahili, Tanzania’s only official language.

Isaac, a shy 14 year-old, started secondary school in Dar es Salaam this year. It’s difficult, he tells me. He’s struggling with his French homework – today’s task, conjugating verbs, though his understanding of what he’s supposed to do is poor, and his translations into English are full of basic mistakes.

I at first assumed that teaching through Kiswahili for what’s effectively the bulk of people’s education (only 36% of the population continue school after primary level) was holding the country back, in the region and globally. After all, in neighbouring Rwanda and Kenya, the under-tens are already learning through English. Teachers in Uganda are earning, as one columnist rather bitterly put it, “a quiet income from the children of the Tanzanian elite, who choose to send their children to Uganda to learn English”. Meanwhile, the educated here struggle to write correctly.

Putting more resources into English-language education seems the obvious answer. But letting students learn in Kiswahili, all the way up to higher education, might actually be more beneficial. Research has shown that education delivered through a second language leads to high dropout rates and poor performance. It encourages rote learning and inhibits interactive teaching approaches, not least because teachers themselves lack confidence in their own English ability. As a result, there have been calls to give students the chance to learn through their first language. Haki Elimu,the NGO that created the video above, is one of those advocating for such a change in education policy.

In any case, there are serious shortcomings in the system as a whole – that go far beyond language. A 2011 study of primary school kids – those still learning through Kiswahili – found “heartbreaking” results in terms of actual learning: only three in 10 Grade 3 primary pupils could read a basic Kiswahili story; half the kids completing primary school could not read at Grade 2 level. The same study was done in Kenya: there, results for reading in Kiswahili were actually better than in Tanzania, even though Tanzanians generally speak the language better, and foreigners are advised to come here to learn the language at its most “pure”.

Primary school in Kinondoni, Dar es Salaam

Clearly, huge investment is needed, even while Tanzania congratulates itself on recent progress, for example vastly increasing enrolment rates. But where does this leave the language debate? Maybe it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other. I’m often impressed by how many languages Africans speak. Michel, originally from Niger, speaks four African languages; a Burundian colleague (who never went to university) speaks six languages including French and English. In countries where numerous local languages – not to mention official and national languages – co-exist, people are used to switching. So rather than a sudden switch to all-English at age 13 or 14, multilingual education at all levels might be more beneficial. The key to improving performance, say some experts, including in English, is in “encouraging children to talk and write in their first language – the language in which they think”.

Of course, it may not be that simple. Language has always been fiercely political: look at francophone Rwanda, where the Anglophone elite has just made English the language of instruction. In Tanzania’s case, post-independence leader Nyerere promoted Kiswahili to unite the speakers of approximately one hundred languages, and thus build the nation.

And yet English is still the language of all high-level, official communication. That African languages are not “sophisticated” enough may be untrue; yet my colleagues use English, not Kiswahili to discuss technical issues or to write annual reports. There’s no point in translating that flyer, said one colleague, because we just don’t have the words in Kiswahili. You’d end up “inventing words” or describing it in such a convoluted way that “Kiswahili speakers would barely understand it anyway”. In a similar tendency, researchers have found that kids tend to reject the idea of Kiswahili-language education even though they struggle to learn; they prefer to continue in English, and parents agree.

For kids like Isaac, schoolwork may be tough, but the American hip-hop he plays loudly in the background while he sweats over today’s verbs reflects the ever-powerful draw of English. Despite Nyerere’s best intentions, still seems to be the language of aspiration to many.

Should that be the case? And if not, is changing the language in which schoolkids learn the answer?

Bookshop in Dar. The vast majority of literature circulating in Africa is in colonial languages

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2 thoughts on “The language debate – and why it matters for schoolkids

  1. Emily ;) says:

    I read all of it, truly insightful! And often comic 🙂 Although bombarded with information from the internet, I still wondered what is so different there… Now I have better vision. Keep it up! 😉

  2. Virginia says:

    I agree excellent Anna. Send us another!

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