Like many other countries on the African continent, Tanzania is a multilingual country with many languages spoken by various ethnic groups. These languages are not only used as a mode of communication but also represent the culture of the given tribes.
Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Three-Volume 17th Edition, which is an annual reference publication that provides statistics and other information on the living languages of the world, shows that the number of individual languages listed for Tanzania is 127. Of these, 125 are living and 2 are extinct. Of the living languages, 117 are indigenous and 8 are non-indigenous. Furthermore, 2 are institutional, 18 are developing, 58 are vigorous, 39 are in trouble, and 8 are dying.
Through languages the understanding of the history of a country has been made possible. Unfortunately many of these languages are now under threat of dying out day by day and this is because of various factors that affect culture of the language in many ways.
Lifestyle on one hand is said to have brought a number of challenges when it comes to preserving and developing our native languages. Intermarriages between ethnic groups and migration makes it difficult for children to learn the language of either parent.
Cecil Sagawala, a second year Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and Management student at the University of Dar es Salaam does not speak any of his parents’ languages. His father is a Ngoni from Ruvuma Region and his mother a Nyiramba from Singida.
“I was brought up in Tabora and Kiswahili was the language of communication in my family, given that my parents don’t belong to the same ethnic group. ” says Cecil.
Cecil rarely visited his grandparents and could therefore not learn the language in the village. He wishes he knew how to speak one or both his parents’ languages.
Rose Shuma too. A Form Six student at Tegeta High School, Rose has been struggling to learn her parents’ ethnic languages. At least she can speak a few Chaga and Nyakyusa words.
“My parents didn’t teach my brother and I how to speak their mother tongues. I think if the two of them were from the same tribe maybe that would have been easy,” explains Rose.
Rose’s mother Grace, who was born and raised in Mbeya and married a Chaga from Moshi wishes her children could speak one of the languages. But it was hard.
“Having my children speak Nyakyusa would have been a great thing but I never wanted to be judged as favouring our language over their father’s. I think things would have been different if my husband and I belonged to the same tribe,” explains Grace.
While many youngsters are struggling to speak ethnic languages, some like Medianna Ngosso do so with ease. But they are few compared with those who don’t speak any ethnic language at all, apart from Kiswahili.
Born and raised in Mwanza for seven years, the 23-year-old environmentalist had the opportunity to learn her mother language, Sukuma.
“I can speak Sukuma comfortably thanks to the seven years I spent in Mwanza as a child,” says Medianna.
She believes the fact that both her parents are Sukuma made it possible. Itwas even easier because her parents spoke the language at home, unlike most parents do.
Donatha Mtei’s parents for example are both from Rombo District in Kilimanjaro Region but none of their children speaks Kirombo.
Donatha, 23, and her siblings were raised in Dar es Salaam and their parents taught them Swahili.
“My parents never spoke Kirombo much and that’s why we never got a chance to learn it. I understand a few words though. It’s good to know our native languages,” Donatha thinks it’s now too late for her to learn the language.
Medianna thinks the young generation has no interest in learning to speak their native languages. She says they perceive the languages as being outdated.
“I think parents still have a chance to teach their young children their mother tongues before the most important part of our culture dies,” advises Medianna.
Different researches have highlighted various reasons as to why it is difficult for parents to teach their children their mother tongue. Negative perception that exists within our communities that languages create tribalism is one of the reasons.
Also research shows that education has even forced children in the village to speak Swahili all the time even when they are at home.
Prof Henry Muzale, a researcher of the languages of Tanzania and a former University of Dar es Salaam’s Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics lecturer, says the growth of our native languages have been affected by history. He gives an example of colonialism where many cultures were colonised as the colonialists introduced their languages as a means of communication. He also points an accusing finger at our education system, which does not give a chance to our native languages to be used as a language of instruction in schools.
“It’s unfortunate how we value foreign languages, particularly the English language than Swahili and our own native languages. People believe that English will open many opportunities for them than their own languages,” explains the linguist.
“One thing we are missing out is setting priority within our communities or at the family level on what language we want to use while at home, school or in the street.”
The professor says its high time initiatives are put in place to change people’s mindsets on how they perceive their native languages so they can see the value of the languages. People also need to be educated on the difference between language, tribe and tribalism.
He says the country’s culture policy requires research and documentations to be done in our languages but government hasn’t shown enough commitment in doing research on our native languages because many languages are not published
“There is a lot of knowledge in native languages and the responsible ministry can assist to ensure these languages are well preserved by having a special department that focuses on the matter. We should not leave all the initiatives to be done by individuals only. Parents need to teach their children their native languages and tell them positive stories about their culture,” advises the Professor.