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Tuesday, June 26, 2018


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(Kiswahili Kidato cha Tano)

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Although Kiswahili is widely spoken in all these East African member states, it is only in Tanzania that the language has been given the status of both the national language and that of the medium of instruction in all basic education institutions.

Tanzania, along with Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, belongs to the East African community, a regional intergovernmental organization that aspires to lead the five countries into a political federation (East African community website).

Kiswahili is the African lingua franca of Tanzania. In the education system it serves as the language of instruction at primary school level. From secondary school and onwards, however the medium of instruction is English. This is an issue that has caused a lot of debate over the years. Many publications and a lot of research on the issue suggest that the current language policy is an obstacle to effective learning and teaching because students as well as lecturers are not sufficiently competent in English. Therefore it has been argued that the medium of instruction should be Kiswahili, also at post primary level.

Although it seems obvious to many educationists that learners learn best through a language they understand well, there is also considerable support for retaining the English medium in Tanzania. The proponents of the English medium often argue that globalisation makes it important to keep the English medium, that the Kiswahili language lacks the necessary vocabulary to function as an academic language or that such a change is too costly for a developing country like Tanzania.

The main objective of this study is to explore and gain insight into the various views concerning the medium of instruction at post-primary level in Tanzania with a special focus on higher education and the University of Dar es Salaam. The opinions of lecturers, professors and students were sought through open-ended interviews, employing the interview guide approach. The study also involved document analysis of Government policy documents, newspapers and earlier studies and publications on the issue


Tanzania, like many African countries, boasts a wealth of indigenous languages. At last count, over 127 languages were spoken in this country of 37 million on the east coast of Africa (Gordon 2005). Tanzania differs from some of its neighbors in that a lingua franca, Swahili, is spoken as a second language by a vast majority of the population and is a straightforward choice for a national language. Swahili is a Bantu language in structure and vocabulary, making it closely related to many of the country's local languages, but it also draws a great deal of its vocabulary from Arabic due to the influences of coastal trade. Swahili is the mother tongue of the Swahili people living along the coast and in Zanzibar, as well as of the younger generations of city dwellers. An estimated 30 million rural Tanzanians are second-language speakers, using their local language at home but Swahili for cross-tribal communication (Gordon 2005). In 2004 the National Kiswahili Council estimated that 99 percent of all Tanzanians spoke Swahili as at least a second language (Brock-Utne 2005).

A common educational dilemma in multilingual African countries is what to choose as the language of instruction. In the absence of an ethnically neutral lingua franca, any choice will be seen to favor certain ethno-linguistic groups at the expense of all others. According to Alidou (2004), this was not a problem prior to colonization, when each community used its own language to educate its children. Education across ethno-linguistic groups was not necessary until the arrival of colonialism and Western education, when formal schools were introduced and children who spoke different languages were often placed in the same classroom. The problem of multilingualism in the classroom had a simple solution for most colonizers: simply teach in the colonial language. In Tanzania 2 , however, the choice of a colonial language was less obvious. Swahili, widely spoken by the arrival of the colonizers, could be used as easily as the colonial language to bridge linguistic gaps in the classroom. Today, Tanzania and Ethiopia are the only countries on the continent to use national languages rather than colonial ones throughout the primary school system (Alidou 2004).

Nonetheless, Tanzania has not escaped the medium-of-instruction problems plaguing so many other African countries. Although Swahili is used in primary education, English is the medium of instruction at the secondary and post-secondary levels. There is an ongoing debate over whether this is the optimal amount of English in Tanzanian schools, with compelling arguments for both English and Swahili as primary media of instruction; this controversy will be addressed in the following sections. Swahili had its first taste of official status during the German colonial rule beginning in the late seventeenth century, when it was designated for nationwide use in education and colonial administration. After some controversy over whether German or Swahili should be used as the medium of instruction in schools, Swahili was eventually chosen, although the colonial government’s motivation for this decision has been called into question. Rather than desiring Tanzanians to learn in a language they spoke because it would advance their education, did the administration perhaps hope to prevent Tanzanians from learning German and thereby acquiring a sense of equality with their colonizers? (Roy-Campbell 2001: 41).

The most straightforward explanation for their decision is that since the goal of the government schools was to prepare Tanzanians for employment in the colonial bureaucracy, using the convenient lingua franca already spoken by nearly all potential employees both in schools and in colonial administration was most practical. This promotion of Swahili as a language of education and administration during German colonial rule was instrumental in the language’s spread as a lingua franca in Tanzania (Roy-Campbell 2001: 42).

When the British government took over administration of German East Africa following World War I, Swahili was preserved as the language of instruction in the first five years of primary school, but the medium in last three years of primary and all of secondary school was switched to English (Rubagumya 1990). Colonial administration was also now carried out in English. Roy-Campbell (2001) argues that the British administration had a concrete plan to train a small minority of elite Tanzanians to assist in colonial administration, while for the rest of the population the aim was to maintain very low levels of education.

This could be seen in the “Ten Year Development and Welfare Plan for Tanganyika,” put out by the colonial government, which stated that ideally 100 percent of the population would attend primary school and only 4 percent would attend secondary school (RoyCampbell 2001). This proposed imbalance more or less holds today, with secondary school enrollment still drastically lower than primary school enrollment and among the lowest in Africa at 5 to 6 percent in 2000 (World Bank Group).

In 1954 the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), the political party that fought for independence from British rule, used Swahili as a tool for uniting the different ethnic groups it sought to represent (Rubagumya 1990). Tanganyika gained independence in 1961, with Julius Nyerere, a former secondary-school teacher and founder of TANU, as its first leader. His vision was of a country united under ujamaa, or “familyhood,” a political philosophy of socialism and self-reliance. Nyerere adopted an aggressive nation-building campaign that included promoting Swahili as the language of public life and transforming