Over 100 languages are spoken in Tanzania. However, the national language is Kiswahili, popularly referred to as Swahili, and it is used in parliamentary debate and in the lower courts. Immediately after independence in 1964, Tanzania adopted a distinct language of instruction system in its primary and secondary schools: Swahili was adopted as the language of instruction for primary schools, while English was the language of instruction for secondary schools.

Students were expected to be fluent in English by the time they completed primary school. However, it was found that many of them often could not conduct a conversation in the language. It was also common to find that students who had progressed from the primary to the secondary level had never learnt the language in their primary schools at all.

It was found that most students in Tanzania did not properly understand the subjects taught to them in English. The language of instruction is a vital factor in determining the quality of education.

The pervasiveness of English

English has been adopted as the official language of instruction and communication in many sub-Saharan African countries and is seen as critical for successful participation in the global economy. English is an official or working language at most international gatherings and mastering it can provide fluent individuals with access to crucial knowledge, skills and employment opportunities. It has contributed immensely to the economic, political and educational development of many countries and has enabled them to create and sustain links throughout the world.

English has become the second language of everybody,” said Mark Warschauer of the University of California, Irvine. “It’s gotten to the point where almost in any part of the world to be educated means to know English.”

Language is a vital tool for the cultural, educational, political and social development of individuals and nations. But children are best grounded in any language when they are instructed in it and communicate in it while they are still growing up. However, only a language that both teacher and student understand can effectively function as a language of instruction.

In the case of Tanzania, which saw no improvement in the use of English among its students, there was a need to make a decision on whether the benefits of being an English-speaking country outweighed the benefits of building a strong education system. And so, in February 2015, former President Jakaya Kikwete decided to dump the English language completely and adopt Swahili as the official language of instruction in both primary and secondary schools in Tanzania.

A Tanzanian student Credit: YouTube

How the English language failed Tanzania

In 2015, Bryson Kinyaduka and Joyce Kiwara, assistant lecturers from Mzumbe University, Tanzania, carried out research on the effectiveness of the country’s language of instruction system and its impact on the quality of education in secondary schools. The researchers wanted to know whether students understood the subject matter of classes that were being taught in English.

It was found that most students in Tanzania did not properly understand the subjects taught to them in English. A majority (69,5%) of student respondents said that they did not fully understand the subject matter when they were taught in English. Only 30,5% said that throughout their period of study they completely understood the content when teachers taught in English.

According to the authors, the use of the English language as a medium of instruction affected students’ academic performance, resulting in a poor quality of education in secondary schools. The research report revealed the following:

Over 69% of students said they usually do not understand if teachers use English throughout classes while 43,4% of teachers strongly agreed and 35,5% agreed that English language as a medium of instruction affects the student academic achievement, which amounts to 78,9% of teachers who perceive the English language as a setback in a student’s academic achievement.

According to the report, “The education system in Tanzania gives students neither proficiency qualifications nor creative qualifications.”

In her paper titled “Does Language of Instruction Affect Quality of Education?” Martha Qorro, a senior lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, noted that the language of instruction is a resource. Unlike many other countries, the adoption of Swahili as Tanzania’s language of instruction will be beneficial to its education system and its students.

“In terms of improving the quality of education, Tanzania has a competitive advantage in Kiswahili, compared to other countries in Africa which do not have a language in which the majority of school children are proficient,” Quorro noted in her paper.

“It’s gotten to the point where almost in any part of the world to be educated means to know English.” – Mark Warschauer, University of California, Irvine

Swahili now recognised by East African countries

Swahili is a Bantu language and a lingua franca of the Great Lakes region. It has been recognised by several governments in East Africa as a means of building cordial relationships within the region. Some other countries outside this region also speak Kiswahili. This includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Somalia, the Comoros Islands, Zambia, Malawi, Madagascar and South Sudan. Tanzania’s adoption of the language will now improve its economic, political and educational relationship with these African countries.

If English had been adopted successfully in the primary school phase, Tanzania might not have had the problems it did with the language. English may be universal, but adopting a language that works for the people, a language that people understand, will play a huge role in the country’s development. Making Swahili the official language of instruction will be a commendable step towards developing Tanzania’s educational system.