As reported in Tanzania’s Guardian newspaper, former Member of Parliament for Kalenga, George Mlawa, has called for Tanzanian secondary schools to adopt Kiswahili as the language medium of instruction. Following the excessively large number of Form IV (equivalent of high school senior) failures in last year’s national examinations, it is time to reassess the current policy of English-language instruction. This remains an unpopular position among Tanzania’s foreign development partners who too often confuse English language mastery with competence. It is especially for their benefit that I reiterate the following defense of switching the language of instruction in Tanzanian secondary schools from English to Kiswahili.
The Future of Secondary Education in Tanzania
Kiswahili or English?
The question of whether to use Kiswahili or English as the language medium of educational instruction in Tanzania has been long debated. Following the guidance set down by Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere himself, Tanzania has pursued a middle path, striving for universal, Kiswahili-language primary schooling while offering an increasingly growing segment of the population with English-language secondary and tertiary education. Many argue, however, that it is time for a change.
Those who favor English language instruction at every educational level, point to the broader East African community’s acceptance of English-language education, with even formerly Francophone Rwanda joining the ranks of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Malawi. Those who wish to see even Tanzania’s primary schools one day switch to English-language instruction imagine that such a move will help to usher Tanzania into the global marketplace, competing with the likes of India and China with its own skilled, English-language workforce. These proponents of English-language education have their eyes firmly fixed on cities like Dar-es-Salaam and Arusha, cities flush with money and personnel from the English-language dominated Tourism and Aid industries. To chart the country’s development path along these lines, however, is as naïve to the realities of economic development as it is disrespectful to the legacy of Kiswahili in its continued shaping of Tanzanian civil society.
From the colonial era through the end of the twentieth century, secondary schools remained essentially elite institutions, training Tanzania’s primary school teachers and government workforce. Tanzania’s majority rural population entered agricultural and pastoral work with only primary school education and many without even that. Primary education was designed to provide the foundations for civil society, teaching all Tanzanians their history, civic rights and responsibilities, a basic understanding of the tools of mathematics and science, the national language of Kiswahili, and the beginnings of English to communicate in an international context. In some of these goals, Tanzanian primary schools have succeeded; in others, they have failed. Among most Standard 7 (final year of primary school) leavers who qualify for secondary school and begin Form 1, most have a high level mastery of Kiswahili and a keen understanding of their government and its history. However, the overwhelming majority arrive at secondary school with abominably poor mathematics skills, virtually no understanding of the methods and processes of scientific investigation and little more than a handful of English words and phrases.
In this twenty-first century, secondary schools are no longer the elite institutions they once were. Rapid school expansion is quickly closing in on President Kikwete’s promise to put a secondary school in every ward in the country. School enrollments are double what they were several years ago. Secondary schools are no longer simply training the government and business leaders of the big cities. They are training farmers, herders, craftworkers, and small-scale entrepreneurs who will continue to live and work in the communities where they were educated.
The average secondary school student who will continue to live and work in the village can nevertheless potentially get a great deal out of a secondary education. The tools of mathematics and science, if properly used, can help farmers, herders and craftworkers to maximize their yields, profits and savings. Rather than simply copying the economic models around them, critical thinkers can evaluate their surroundings empirically, can test alternatives, and can evaluate the results to their own benefit and to the benefits of their families, friends and neighbors. Surely, this is the meaning of “Education for Self-Reliance,” as Mwalimu Nyerere propounded, the ability to use local resources to create sustainable, effective, income-generating projects. This requires no hand-outs from foreign NGOs, no expensive foreign experts in brand new Land Cruisers, and certainly does not require fluency in English. It requires only the critical thinking skills and collaborative efforts of an educated workforce. While secondary schools are capable of this task, they fail at it miserably, in every region, district and ward in the country.
Sitting in Dar, Arusha or even some of the middle-sized towns such as Dodoma, Morogoro or Njombe, the state of secondary education still seems relatively positive. Qualified teachers are widely available (if still often overworked) and resources are plentiful (if not fully accessible by every student). It is in the small towns and villages that the disgraceful state of secondary education and the absurdity of mandating English-language instruction becomes clear. In the larger of the outlying village secondary schools, those schools in district or ward capitals yet still far from the tarmac roads are demonstrably worse now than they were even 3 years ago. For the past 3 years, these schools have watched their enrollments nearly double while their workforce has been cut in half. Their senior teachers have been sent off to become headmasters at the newly built schools even further off the beaten path. These schools used to be able to teach all their periods or were at least just a few teachers shy of being able to achieve that goal. Now there are not even enough teachers to have one per subject for student enrollments exceeding 400 and 500 students. Now, these teachers can do little more than keep discipline and order and the only students who manage to succeed are the ones who mostly teach themselves.
The situation of few qualified teachers, high student enrollments and minimal school resources would be equally challenging in any part of the world. Indeed, this is not a problem limited to Tanzania. Moreover, there are plenty of other countries with fewer teaching facilities and higher student to teacher ratios. Mandating English-language instruction under these conditions however has made an already difficult and challenging environment entirely unable to fulfill even its most basic mandate. Even as police and armed security guards use excessive force to extract taxes from reluctant villagers for new school construction, there are still not enough teachers for minimal staffing needs. Quality standards for both teachers and students have plummeted. Secondary school teachers need only be form 6 leavers with a 3-week teacher training course. Students need no longer make any pretence of passing classes to advance through the ranks. After passing their primary school Standard 7 exam, a student can enter Form 1, fail every class, continue on to Form 2, fail every class, fail the national exam, continue on to Form 3, fail every class, continue on to Form 4, fail every class, fail the national exam and still qualify as a Form 4 leaver. As long as a student pays their fees and does not get pregnant, mere persistence with no academic effort can secure a secondary school degree in Tanzania today. This is shameful and a national embarrassment. Moreover, it does not need to be this way.
While the desire to increase secondary school access for Tanzanian students is an admirable one, the quality of those schools cannot be allowed to suffer anymore in the process. On top of the under-supplied schools, under-trained teachers and under-prepared students, there is the issue of English-language instruction. Even with the best available, thoroughly English-language fluent teachers, the expectation that primary school students with little English experience should enter secondary school and take instruction for all subjects in English is unreasonable. Educational research has long shown that students’ skills and capacities are varied in any classroom setting. An aptitude for foreign languages, while a valuable skill in itself, is not so important as to stake the entire secondary educational system on its mastery. All of those students who might otherwise excel in mathematics, the natural and social sciences or even the non-English humanities but do not have a particular aptitude for foreign languages are being cheated out of an education. Instead of graduating critical thinkers, well-prepared citizens and workers who may or may not perform well in English, Tanzania is producing a generation of students who have spent countless hours memorizing words and phrases they do not understand taught to them by teachers with little understanding themselves. While the current system would still largely fail were it staffed with thoroughly fluent English-language teachers, the grim reality is that English fluency even among secondary school teachers is poor indeed. Perhaps the best illustration of this comes from the National Examinations Council of Tanzania (NECTA) itself.
Every year NECTA issues examinations for Form 2 and Form 4 full of awkward and poorly constructed English sentences, low-quality representational drawings (especially problematic in the Biology exam), and questions that contain a disturbing range of over-simplified generalizations, petty definitions, excessively difficult arcana, and downright inaccuracies. That poorly-prepared students should have to take such poor-quality tests only adds insult to injury. While the English-language medium is not the sole cause of NECTA’s poor performance in the creation of its O-Level examinations, it is a strong contributing factor. The lack of English-fluency of most of the relevant stakeholders (students, their parents and teachers) keeps them from recognizing how bad these tests actually are. By hiding under the cover of the English language, the NECTA test writers escape criticism and accountability for their abysmal performance year after year. If these tests were written in Kiswahili, poorly worded or inaccurate questions would be noticed everywhere and NECTA would be held accountable. As is, there is no opportunity for democratic participation in the process. Either Tanzania needs to hire outside contractors who can actually command the English language to write and grade these tests or else the entire enterprise needs to be abandoned and replaced with Kiswahili-language material.
With so few secondary and tertiary educational materials written in Kiswahili, how can the educational system possibly make this change? This question, though often posed, misses an important alternative. It is quite possible to use foreign language materials in a native-language educational environment. Take for instance Sweden, whose population and language are much smaller than Tanzania’s by comparison. While Sweden has been able to incorporate foreign language study into its curriculum from early primary education onwards, Swedish is used as the medium of instruction for all other subjects from nursery school through to university. There is no reason why Tanzanian students could not use English (or even French, German or Arabic) books in secondary and tertiary education while still allowing teachers to teach in Kiswahili and students to take tests in Kiswahili. Achieving a “reading-level” knowledge of English can still be accomplished while allowing students to learn and express themselves in Kiswahili – a national language that is already the second or even third language learned for many students! As Tanzania looks ahead to the future of its secondary educational system, the time is ripe to ask, “Do we want to create the best Kiswahili educational system in the world, or one of the worst in the English-speaking world?” Elimu gani ni haki ya wananchi wote?
As Nyerere himself was at pains to demonstrate throughout his life, Kiswahili has the ability to express concepts every bit as poetically or precisely as found in any European language. Unlike virtually every one of its neighboring countries, Tanzania has been able to unite numerous and disparate religious and ethnic groups under one national identity and one national language. To discount and dismiss this legacy in favor of an English-language identity will only undo the gains made by the generation that brought independence and further fracture the country along class lines. Tanzania has the chance to become the international center of a vibrant Kiswahili language and culture, spreading its influence throughout East Africa. However, if Tanzania turns away from its own heritage, why should any other country turn towards Tanzania? The choice is either to lead from a position of strength and experience or to follow from a position of weakness. Mpango gani ni haki ya wananchi wote?