SWAHILI AS THE MEDIUM OF INSTRUCTION IN SCHOOLS

by Ben Taylor

As part of the recently launched new education policy, the Tanzanian government announced that the language of instruction in secondary schools would switch from English to Swahili. The change has drawn both criticism and support from commentators. The following are excerpts:

Dr Aikande Kwayu
The emphasis on Kiswahili as the language of instruction (in addition to properly teaching English) is a wise move highlighting the true spirit of Tanzania. Research and literature has it that the language of instruction should be what is spoken at home – in our case, Kiswahili. Teaching our kids in Kiswahili will improve learning for the masses.

Ali A. Mufuruki, Chair of CEO Roundtable, Dar es Salaam
The changes were not made in good faith, nor was enough preparation done to make sure all systems are in place. We are going to put current and future generations of Tanzanians at a disadvantage from which they will not be able to recover easily. The arguments made by the proponents of the new policy are devoid of logic and paint a picture of a people who have very little or no understanding that we live today in a globalised world, where Tanzanians do not have the luxury of being able to create their own reality that can be kept safe from the effects of competitive forces that are a dominant feature of today’s life.

The change may be nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction of policy makers to the steadily falling pass rates at both primary and secondary schools over the past twenty years and is therefore a wrong solution to the problem. Just as you cannot cure a gangrene wound by applying aspirin to it, you cannot turn around Tanzania’s failing education system by replacing English with Swahili as a medium of instruction. I am very curious to see if those responsible for this policy change are going to move their children from the private English Medium schools to the Kiswahili-only public schools where the rest of the country’s children go.

Prof. Kitila Mkumbo, University of Dar es Salaam
The decision to recognise and promote both Kiswahili and English languages in teaching and learning seems to have been reached as a compromise to please the two sides of the debate. As a consequence, I can bet that English will continue to be used as a medium of instruction because it still is largely associated with ‘being learned’ and because it is much more available in the literary world than Kiswahili. Furthermore, the case for Kiswahili as a medium of instruction has always been made on the basis of cultural activism and romanticism, rather than on solid evidence-based scholarly discourse.

Prof. Karim Hirji
The manner in which the issue language of instruction is being posed and discussed is a diversion from much more fundamental issues. The primary requirement for Tanzania is to have a genuinely sustainable, implementable and integrated economic policy (agriculture, industry, commerce, transportation, services and communication). The nature of the education system (at all levels) has to reflect and be embedded within the context of that policy.

In the present foundational condition, it is possible to utilize either a national, local or foreign language to achieve the goals of imparting effective, high quality education and raising the standard of living, health status and general level of well-being of the broad masses of the people. And in the absence of such a foundational condition, you will end up with a mass of unemployed, unemployable youth (including graduates), generalized poverty and social unrest.

Whether you know your physics well in Swahili or English is immaterial so long as you are out in the street having nothing to do. Even a bilingual system of instruction is feasible in that context. Just consider the history of education systems and nations throughout the world and you will see the validity of my assertions. Let us not discuss the issue of language of instruction in isolation from that of economic policy and the nature of the education system as a whole.

Personally I am in favour of utilization of Swahili as the medium of instruction throughout the East African Community. But given the chaotic, fragmented and externally dominated economic policies that prevail at present, I do not think that goal is easy to achieve. Whatever language we use in schools, our streets will be flooded with semi­literate, literate and well-qualified youth selling socks and what not.”

Chambi Chachage, PhD Student, Harvard University
We all want Tanzanians to be fluent in English and Kiswahili – and, if possible, other languages too, both local and foreign. How can we achieve that when we are “backward” as far as such bilingualism – let alone multilingualism – is concerned. I took Mathematics in both O-Level and A-level in English but some of our teachers used Kiswahili when they realized we did not understand them. We could communicate – and understand each other – easily in Kiswahili by saying, for example, ‘diferentieti’ and ‘intagreti’, which were our own ‘Swahilized’ versions of the English words. For us what mattered was communicat­ing and understanding.

I support the usage of Kiswahili as the language of instruction simply because it facilitates communication relatively more easily and con­nects with our environment. At the same time I support the effective teaching of English as a second language to make us really capable of using it. What we now have in the classroom is what language experts call ‘subtractive bilingualism’ in contrast to ‘additive bilingualism’. Put simply, the former makes one end up knowing little Kiswahili and very little English, but the latter makes one gain both ways – Knowing more Kiswahili as well as English. More significantly, the former subtracts knowledge and the latter adds knowledge through effective communication. So, why should we get ‘lost in translation’? Let us teach English and teach in Kiswahili. Both can be done.

Biyi Bandele
Until every single mathematical theorem and every single theory in astrophysics and cosmology, [and] in medicine and chemistry, and in every single sphere of knowledge, is written or available in translation in Kiswahili and Igbo and every other African language, I personally will always reject and abhor that easy [and easily comforting, xenophobic language] that dresses itself in the ultimately empty and cheaply sentimental rhetoric of noble nationalism.

Richard Mabala
People who advocate the use of Kiswahili are not saying that Tanzanians have failed to master English. We are saying that if people do not have enough English to start with in secondary school, to use it as a medium of instruction is self-defeating as they do not have enough language to address other subjects. In fact we are saying that if they are taught English well, they will have better English than if it is used as a medium of instruction.

Why are those who argue for English prepared to continue putting the majority of our students today … not tomorrow, not in 25 years time … through four years of not understanding what they are taught. Everyone knows that language alone is not the issue – there are many, many more – but it is the point of entry to comprehension of whatever little teaching they may or may not get.”

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