Because many African countries lack a common indigenous language to serve as the national language and medium of instruction, European colonial languages such as English, French, and Portuguese have been used to foster postcolonial multiethnic unity. Tanzania shares with many African countries a colonial legacy in which English is used as an official language and as the medium of instruction in secondary and tertiary levels of education. However, Tanzania is also distinctive in having an indigenous language, Kiswahili (also known as Swahili), which is spoken by most Tanzanians, is the national language, and is the medium of instruction in primary schools.
Equating the use of a foreign language with good education is common throughout Africa. After independence, countries such as Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia insisted on English as the medium of instruction from the first grade,1 even though vernacular languages had been used in the first few grades during British colonial rule. As Mazrui and Tidy note, it is ironic that independent African countries have sought to introduce English into the educational system earlier than did the British, based on the perceived need to expose students to English at an early age when they learn language best.2
The disturbing anomaly of such a policy is that, after primary school, many Africans have little use for English since they do not go on to higher education. In Kelly's view, the policy of using English as a medium of instruction in Zambia has actually impaired learning.3 The same might be said for Tanzania, where belief in the superiority of education in English affects education in all subject areas, and perhaps especially in the social studies, normally considered the vehicle for forming a new multicultural national identity in postcolonial states.
This belief in the superiority of education in a foreign language, while often not acknowledged by policy makers, is very evident in their policies. One is reminded of Ngugi's observation that "The choice of language and the use to which language is put are central to a people's definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe."4 Language policies of African nations must address the question of decolonizing the mind, so it is encouraging to note that educators in South Africa consider this problem seriously and assert that education can be imparted in any language.5
In this article, I argue that Tanzania's language policy in education, formulated in 1960 from the British colonial education system, is no longer consonant with present realities because English is no longer an effective medium in secondary schools. I argue, furthermore, that the language problem is symptomatic of the larger crisis of a neglected education system in Tanzania, and that Kiswahili has become the scapegoat for declining standards of education. My conclusions are based on my examination of policy decisions and implementation as reported in documents of the ruling party, the Ministry of Education, and research reports, along with my years of experience as a secondary school teacher in Tanzania in the 1980s.
Tanzania's Language Policy
According to Grimes, there are about 112 native languages in Tanzania, and the number of speakers for each ranges from a few thousand to millions.6 Although the definition of languages versus dialects is complex, since many speakers do not differentiate their languages entirely on linguistic grounds, most of these native languages are as distinct as English or German.
An estimated 90 percent of the Tanzanian population speak Kiswahili and at least one
indigenous or vernacular language, while only 15 percent speak English.7 Only 10 percent of the population speak Kiswahili as their mother tongue. Most educated people, therefore, have at least three languages: (a) a vernacular mother tongue language; (b) Kiswahili, the instructional medium at the primary level and the national language used in most aspects of life outside education and home; and (c) English, the instructional medium in secondary and post-secondary education.8
In Tanzania, primary education lasts for seven grades. A small percentage of pupils go on to secondary school for Forms I-IV, and a few Form IV graduates are selected for Forms V-VI (pre-college grades). Post-secondary education generally lasts for three years except for a first degree in engineering (which requires four years) and medicine (five years). This educational structure and the language policy have been in effect since 1967, as part of the First Five-Year Development Plan for independent Tanzania.
Tanzania's language policy problems stem from the roles assigned to Kiswahili and English. Since 1968, the medium of instruction in pre-secondary education has been Kiswahili, with English introduced from the first grade.9 In secondary schools, both English and Kiswahili were to be taught as compulsory subjects for four years. Thereafter, very few students studied them. French was taught in secondary schools as an optional foreign language, but there was no provision for vernacular languages. This policy remains in effect today.
Typically, language policy involves decisions about language use in social contexts, usually concerned with: (a) status and the functions that different languages perform; (b) corpus, or the choice of dialects and the standards required with respect to grammar and terminology; and (c) language acquisition.10
Tanzania's language policy was based on demographic, historical, political, economic, and linguistic factors. Kiswahili had been used in primary education since German colonial rule in the nineteenth century, when it was already widely used throughout the colony. The British continued to use Kiswahili in the first four grades, and English became the medium thereafter. Politically, Kiswahili is not the language of a dominant ethnic group, so it proved a viable agent of integration during nationalist struggles for independence-allowing political activists to visit all parts of the country without need for interpreters, thereby identifying themselves with the common people.
The other factor in favor of Kiswahili was that, at independence in 1961, Kiswahili was well standardized. But although its grammars, dictionaries, and literature were sufficient for primary education, it was not developed fully enough to be immediately used for higher education, and English thus had to remain the medium of instruction from the fifth grade through higher education. English was also the language of international communication. However, at independence, the goal of education was seen mainly as preparing young people for life in the rural areas, so English was not a language that the majority of primary school leavers would need.11 Consequently, English was taught only to the few who would continue on to secondary schools where English is the medium.
The Second Five-Year Development Plan (1969) envisaged that English would be replaced by Kiswahili in secondary education and later in higher education,12 but this policy was never implemented. A report of the Presidential Commission on Education in 1982 noted students' lack of proficiency in both English and Kiswahili; it recommended changing the medium of instruction to Kiswahili starting at all school levels in 1985, and reaching the university level in 1992.13 The expert recommendations of the educators were rejected by the government and the ruling party,14 and English remained the instructional medium in secondary and higher education.
English as a Barrier to Education
Practice in Tanzanian secondary schools has been inconsistent with the proclaimed language policy, since English has ceased to be an effective medium of education and has been replaced by Kiswahili as the de facto medium.
The majority of secondary teachers teach all subjects in Kiswahili. As I observed during my years in Tanzanian classrooms, for instance, the chemistry teacher will use English terminology but explain things in Kiswahili since most students cannot follow instructions in English. Teachers provide written notes in English for students to memorize, and they give exams in English as the language in which national examinations are conducted. As a result, teachers and students operate on a contrived dual language system. Roy-Campbell reports that students who answered exams in Kiswahili, contrary to the official policy of English only, were penalized because it would be unfair to other candidates who could also have answered in Kiswahili.15
This situation raises three points. First, the authorities do not want to acknowledge the social reality of the language being used in schools. Second, the policy seems to deny that knowledge can be acquired and transmitted effectively in Kiswahili. Third, the policy accords English superior status.
The result is demonstrated by Kapinga's study of secondary school students' comprehension of the Form III and IV Literature textbooks, in which the evaluator found that most students felt the textbooks were too difficult and that they could not independently seek knowledge because they were under the tyranny of a foreign language they had not mastered.16 Due to its use on national exams and in tertiary education, English has become viewed as the only route to legitimate knowledge and cultural capital.
The low level of proficiency in English, however, makes it a barrier to the acquisition and sharing of knowledge in secondary schools. Criper and Dodd estimated that, after five years of instruction in the primary grades, only 10 percent of Form IV students were at a level where English-medium instruction could begin.17 Many writers have gone so far as to argue that the policy concerning English as the medium in secondary education is not implementable.18
Another negative result is the psychological effect on students' expectations. When I taught in secondary schools, many of my students arrived with the belief that English is a very difficult language to learn. After studying the language for five years, they still could not communicate in it, so what could the students expect to accomplish in secondary school? Instead of inculcating a sense of accomplishment and opening windows to education, English became a frustrating barrier to my students.
The Crisis in Education
In the foregoing section, I described the problems students and teachers face in Tanzanian secondary schools. How did this situation arise? I believe that the problems in the medium of instruction are only a symptom of the general crisis in Tanzanian education.
Many people, educated and uneducated, attribute the decline in English language proficiency to the promotion of Kiswahili. The following assertion in Kiswahili is an example:
ikumbukwe kwamba kati ya 1970 hadi tuseme mwanzoni mwa 1980, Kiingereza kilianza kufa. [kilikuwa kipindi cha kuzorota kabisa] kwa sababu tulitilia sana mkazo Kiswahili na Kiingereza kikasahauliwa.
[It should be remembered that between the 1970s and early 1980s, English began to die (in Tanzania). It was completely declining because we put a lot of emphasis on Kiswahili and English was forgotten.]19
This statement refers to the language policy in effect since 1967. Immediately after independence, Kiswahili became the language of most government activity, including the parliament and interdepartmental communication.20 The statement of intent that Kiswahili would ultimately be the medium of instruction at all levels of education provided more promise for Kiswahili.
English was no longer the medium of instruction in primary schools; its use in public diminished, and it no longer enjoyed exclusive status as the language of politics and administration. The loss of status for English and negative attitudes toward it led to an atmosphere in which English was neglected in schools. At the same time, Kiswahili, cultivated as a national language and a marker of Tanzanian identity, acquired a high prestige status and thus a competitive advantage vis-à-vis English. Consequently, Tanzanians' potential exposure to English was drastically narrowed, although English remained the medium of instruction in secondary and higher education and the ticket for upward mobility in education and obtaining high income jobs.
However, the crucial question regarding English being the victim of the policies that promoted Kiswahili is: What about the rest of the education system? If English is the only problem, a change of the medium back to English would probably correct the situation. Unfortunately, the entire education system is in a serious crisis that is not attributable to promotion of Kiswahili.
A look back shows how this situation developed. By the end of the 1970s, Tanzanian education was in decline. Illiteracy and attrition rates were on the rise again, primary school leavers were deficient in many essential skills, and schools no longer provided environments conducive to education. The president commissioned a study of the causes of educational decline.21 The causes of the crisis in education provide insights on why English ceased to be an effective instructional medium and why the language policy became impossible to implement.
The principal cause of decline was identified as inadequate allocation of resources to education. These problems of resource allocation-exacerbated by the expansion needed to universalize education and to combat illiteracy and poverty-are widespread in African education and the Third World in general. Low economic growth makes very limited resources available for education in Tanzania and elsewhere at any time. Between 1975 and 1981, this problem became particularly notable as primary school enrollments doubled under the Universal Primary Education program (UPE), while the budget for education increased by only two percent in spite of considerable new demands for qualified teachers, books, classrooms, and teaching materials.22 For example, in Kibaha district (Coast Region), the average ratio of students to textbooks was 8:1. The financial crisis of the 1980s further aggravated this situation.
Another cause of educational decline is the exploitation of education for political ends. The best example of this is the UPE program itself. The Second Five-Year Development Plan (1969) had envisaged that UPE would only be fully implemented by 1989, since the program required adequate preparation in terms of teacher training, textbooks, infrastructure, and training materials. However, UPE was implemented in the mid-1970s when it became politically expedient to give an impression of rapid progress.
This program marked a rapid turn for the worse in Tanzanian education. The emphasis on quantitative expansion overshadowed the need for quality, even though the latter need was clear in teacher training programs of the time, as reported by the Ministry of Education: "Once the required number of 40,000 teachers was achieved in 1984, emphasis shifted to improving their quality and standard of living through in-service courses and provision of better terms and conditions of service."23
The campaign for improvement of quality never materialized, and the education of Tanzanian youth was compromised. My conclusion is, therefore, that political decisions over allocation of resources, the Universal Primary Education program, and inadequate teacher training were the real causes of the educational decline. The emphasis on Kiswahili was only one part of the larger picture.
Combining my experience as a Tanzanian educator with my reading of the
relevant literature, I suggest that a viable solution to the language problem must occur on two levels. First, it must address problems in the whole education system. More resources need to be allocated to help the teaching process directly, through better training, adequate teaching materials, improved infrastructure, and better learning environments for students. I see these basic requirements as an absolutely necessary investment that any country serious about education needs to make.
The second level is specific to language teaching and learning. The debate over the medium of instruction in Tanzania has tended to be polarized between two options: the continued use of English as the medium and a change to Kiswahili. Let us first examine the argument for English use, and then the argument for changing to Kiswahili.
In 1984, the government reaffirmed the position of English as the medium of instruction in secondary and higher levels of education,24 rejecting the 1982 recommendations to change the medium of instruction to Kiswahili.25 Then-President J. K. Nyerere argued that if English was not used as the medium of instruction, it might die in the Tanzanian community. Nyerere was concerned because English is widely used around the world, especially in science and technology, and that when schools use English as the medium of instruction, they provide exposure to the students and thus open their minds to world knowledge.
The problem is not this theory itself-but the fact that the theory cannot in reality be implemented. As long as students spend five years in primary schools learning English with the same unqualified and unmotivated teachers, and with no books or supplementary materials, English proficiency will not improve. In such a situation, English contributes only to miseducation. In essence, the current language policy concerning the medium of instruction cannot be implemented because schools are not prepared to use English as the medium of instruction and teachers are not proficient enough to teach it.26
I strongly believe that changing the medium of instruction from English to Kiswahili in secondary schools is long overdue for at least three reasons. First, English has ceased to be a viable instructional medium in secondary schools, while Kiswahili is the de facto medium. Even at college, Kiswahili already plays an important role. One Norwegian educator who taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1980s observed that even when questions were given in English, students very soon were discussing them in Kiswahili. Legitimizing Kiswahili as the instructional medium would free students and teachers from having to learn in a language they have not mastered.
Second, instruction in Kiswahili is viable because it will be less expensive than the investment needed to improve instruction in English. Teachers already speak Kiswahili, so the only orientation they would need is in terminology and academic discourse. And, third, the use of Kiswahili would help dispel the myth that better education must be provided in English. This is important because it builds self-confidence and self-determination, in the true spirit of Education for Self-Reliance (ESR) for which Tanzania is renowned.
Because any solution to the problem must be situated in the wider educational context if it is to be implemented successfully, I offer these proposals. One way to have a more efficient program is to reduce the number of years for English-language learning in primary schools to, say, the last two years of primary school. This change would require fewer teachers to be retrained and fewer English textbooks.
I also argue for a bilingual system of education in Tanzania in which Kiswahili and English are given equal weight in secondary schools to promote literacy skills in both languages. Elsewhere in the world, research shows that when students are offered instruction in both their mother tongue and English, they end up doing better than native English speakers who are monolingual in their middle school years. Examples include the Edmonton Public School Board's English-Ukrainian program, the Bradford Punjabi Mother Tongue Project on English and Punjabi, and the San Diego Spanish-English Language Immersion Program.
In cases such as the Toronto Board Reanalysis, more cognitively mature people with better-developed first language skills acquired more demanding aspects of a second language more rapidly than younger people. The idea of introducing English at an early age should not be an overriding principle. The cognitive development of the learner should be taken into consideration. An appropriate elementary school Kiswahili program and curriculum should be the foundation on which other foreign languages will be introduced.
The development of educational materials for Kiswahili is a key part of this change. In the past, textbook policy seems to have been determined more by Tanzania's need for financial aid than by the need to develop local initiative. In the early 1980s, for example, British experts advised the government on how to improve the teaching of English through the English Language Teaching Support Project. This project, funded by the British government, supplied school readers written by British authors and published by a British company. If Kiswahili is made the language of instruction in secondary schools, however, Tanzanian educators will need to write textbooks and reference materials in Kiswahili. A program to develop books and materials in Tanzania could be a very lucrative business, and would encourage Tanzanian talent to write indigenous materials with the local relevance appropriate to Education for Self-Reliance.
Opposition to this promotion of Kiswahili is based partly on fears that Kiswahili lacks terminology appropriate for modern science and technology. However, the problem cannot be reduced to one of terminology. Translations can be made and used. Another fear is that education in Kiswahili will mean isolation for Tanzanians, who will consequently be unable to access knowledge in English. This assumes that instruction in Kiswahili will mean English will not be taught at all. My proposal emphasizes bilingualism as an asset. An effective program of English language, similar to foreign language programs all over the world, can help maintain good standards of English in Tanzania while allowing Tanzanians to develop their own identity through Kiswahili and quality education.
The dilemma in language policy is universal. On the one hand is the need to use local languages in education because they are the most accessible to the people, they emphasize local relevance, they enhance self-determination, and they encourage creativity in education. On the other hand, every country needs international languages such as English and French as windows to modern science and technology around the world. Overemphasis on one adversely affects the other. The best approach, as I have argued here for Tanzania, is to make appropriate use of both.
1. For example, see M. J. Kelly, Education in a Declining Economy: The Case of Zambia, 1975-1985 (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 1991).
2. A. A. Mazrui and M. Tidy, Nationalism and New States in Africa (London: Heinemann, 1984).
4. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Decolonizing the Mind (London: Heinemann, 1986), 4.
5. LANGTAG, Towards a National Language Plan for South Africa, Summary of the Final Report of the Language Plan Task Group to the Department of National Education, Pretoria, South Africa, 1996.
6. B. F. Grimes, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992).
7. M. Abdulaziz, "Tanzania's National Language Policy and the Rise of Swahili Political Culture," in Language Use and Social Change, ed., W. Whiteley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).
8. M. Abdulaziz-Mkilifi, "Triglossia and Swahili-English Bilingualism in Tanzania," Language in Society 1, 2 (1972): 197-213; C. Rubagumya, "Language Promotion for Education Purposes: The Example of Tanzania," International Review of Education 37, 1 (1991): 67-85.
9. S. N. Eliufoo, Education: A New Era Begins (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of Education, 1968).
10. C. M. Eastman, Language Planning: An Introduction (San Francisco: Chandler and Sharp Publishers, 1983); J. A. Fishman, "Language Planning and Language Planning Research: The State of the Art," in Advances in Language Planning, ed., J. A. Fishman (The Hague: Mouton, 1974); E. Haugen, "Language Planning Theory and Practice," in The Ecology of Language, ed. E. Haugen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969).
11. J. Nyerere, Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Oxford University Press, 1968); Eliufoo.
12. R. S. Seme, "Lugha ya Kufundishia," Lugha Yeta, 3 and 6 (1970); United Republic of Tanzania, The People's Plan for Progress: A Popular Version of the Second Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development 1969-1974 (Dar es Salaam: Ministry of Economic Affairs and Development Planning, 1969).
13. Ministry of National Education, Report of the Presidential Commission on Education, Vol. 1 (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of Education, 1982).
14. Ministry of National Education, Recommendations of the 1982 Presidential Commission on Education as Approved by the Party and Government: Educational System in Tanzania Towards the Year 2000 (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of Education, 1984).
15. Z. M. Roy-Campbell, "The Politics of Education in Tanzania: From Colonialism to Liberalization," in The IMF and Tanzania, Southern African Political Economy Series, ed. H Campbell and H. Stein (Harare: Zimbabwe, 1991)..
16. Kapinga, 1982.
17. C. Criper and W. Dodd, Report on the Teaching of the English Language and Its Use as a Medium of Education in Tanzania (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of National Education, 1984).
18. See, for example, J. Barrett, "Why Is English Still the Medium of Education in Tanzanian Secondary Schools?" Language, Culture, and Curriculum 7, no. 1 (1994): 3-16; Z. M. Roy-Campbell and M. Corro, "A Survey of the Reading Competence in English of Secondary School Students in Tanzania," unpublished manuscript, University of Dar es Salaam, 1987; Ministry of National Education, Report of the Presidential Commission on Education; P. Mlama and M. Matteru, Haja ya Kutumia Kiswahili Kufundishia Katika Elimu ya Juu (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Bakita Publ., 1978); H. Mwansoko, "The Post-Primary Swahilization Scheme in Tanzania: From Debate to Struggle," in Teaching and Researching Languages in African Classrooms, ed. C. Rubagumya (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1994).
19. A. Kishe, "Contribution to the Debate on the Medium of Education in Tanzanian Higher Education," Tanzanet online discussion group communication, March 11, 1996.
20. W. Whiteley, Swahili: The Rise of a National Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).
21. Ministry of National Education, Report of the Presidential Commission on Education.
22. H. Mosha, "A Reassessment of the Indicators of Primary Education Quality in Developing Countries: Emerging Evidence from Tanzania," International Review of Education 34 (1988): 17-45.
23. United Republic of Tanzania, Development of Education, 1984-1986, National Report of the United Republic of Tanzania (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of Education, 1986).
24. Ministry of Education, Recommendations of the 1982 Presidential Commission.
25. Ministry of Education, Report of the Presidential Commission on Education. On the political context of language issues, see also M. E. Kashoki, The Factor of Language in Zambia (Lusaka: Kenneth Kaunda Foundation, 1990), and M. Mulokozi, "English Versus Kiswahili in Tanzania's Secondary Education," in Swahili Studies: Essays in Honour of Marcel Van Spaandonck, ed. J. Blommaert (Ghent: Academia Press, 1991).
26. Barrett; Roy-Campbell and Corro, "A Survey of the Reading Competence;" Matteru and Mlama.
Ministry of National Education. Basic Facts About Education in Tanzania. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of Education, 1980.
-----. Some Basic Facts on Education in Tanzania. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of Education, 1982.
Nyerere, J. "Tanzania: Ten Years After Independence." Report to TANU National Conference, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, September 1971.
Polome, E. "Tanzania: A Socio-Linguistic Perspective." In Language in Tanzania, edited by E.Polome and C. Oxford: International African Institute, 1980.
Rubin, J., and B. Jernudd, B. "Introduction: Language Planning as an Element in Modernization." In Can Language Be Planned?, edited by J. Rubin and B. Jernudd. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1971.
United Republic of Tanzania. Recent Educational Developments in the United Republic of Tanzania (1981-1983). Country Report submitted to the 39th Session of International Conference on Education, Geneva, 16-25 October 1984. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of Education, 1984.
-----. Ministry of Education and Culture: The Development of Education 1990-1992. National Report on the United Republic of Tanzania International Conference on Education. 43rd Session, Geneva. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Ministry of Education, 1992.
Deo Ngonyani is a Tanzanian educator now living in the United States and serving on the faculty at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. Before coming to the United States, he taught in Tanzanian schools. His interests are in Tanzanian educational reform and language policy and their links to national development.