When will the language of instruction debate end?

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What you need to know:

  • Kiswahili is used as a language of instruction in primary school, the aim being to make students easily understand what they are taught. However, in secondary school up to university level, the language of instruction is English

Tanzania’s education system has been under scrutiny due to a number of challenges, including the confusion over the language of instruction.

This issue, which needs to be addressed in policy, has been the subject of debate for decades as students and teachers continue to be overwhelmed by the barriers to learning and teaching.

Kiswahili is used as a language of instruction in primary school, the aim being to make students easily understand what they are taught. However, in secondary school up to university level, the language of instruction is English. This has been an obstacle to achieving the quality education goal.

“As teachers, we would like to see a decision on the language of instruction reached now. We have struggled enough and it seems, as a country we still have no knowledge about what we want for our children,” Amos Mpenje, a secondary school teacher in Dar es Salaam tells The Citizen.

“It is time we had a certainty of what is being taught and give students easy access to knowledge that they deserve,” he adds.

Amos says whichever language is chosen, the government should make a decision and strategies to train teachers in the language as most teachers are not fluent due to the current system (code switching).

“Instructors should be made to use the language of instruction fluently. Even in Kiswahili, most teachers still are not fluent or experts despite being the national language...,” he believes.

Veronica Ndeki, a primary school teacher in Coast Region, was taught in Kiswahili in primary school and in English at the secondary school level. When she went to college for a Grade A teaching certificate, Kiswahili was the medium of instruction. English was the medium of instruction when doing her Diploma in education.

“Look at how confusing this is, and then you expect me to deliver a clear message to my students? In this challenge, we are confused, students do not understand, experts are increasingly arguing, and the government is left in the middle. When will be the end of this?” She questions.

For a long time now the debate over language of instruction has created controversy, making students and stakeholders wonder whether there will ever be a conclusion on the matter.

Kiswahili stakeholders have been demanding that the national language that has continued to spread in various countries be used as a language of instruction to facilitate further understanding that will stimulate knowledge among students.

On the other hand, some scholars argue that English still remains a global language that is used in a variety of contexts, making it an important language of instruction at all levels of schooling.

Another section recommends that both languages be used in the sense of exams composed so that students themselves can choose which language test to take based on comprehension.

Why Kiswahili?

According to Unesco, Kiswahili is one of the most widely used languages of the African family, and the most widely spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. It is among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 200 million speakers.

The language is one of the lingua franca in many countries within East, Central and Southern Africa as well as in the Middle East. It is also taught across major universities and colleges globally.

Kiswahili is one of the official languages of the African Union (AU), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and East African Community (EAC).

“It is therefore an indispensable tool in achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and in facilitating regional integration, particularly in the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA),” states the Unesco, which in its 41st Session, Paris, 2021 declared July 7 of each year the World Kiswahili Language Day.

This is one of the main reasons why pro Kiswahili stakeholders want it to be the language of instruction as it has already become an important language in Africa and other parts of the world.

“It is very clear that Kiswahili is spreading across the globe at the moment and as pioneers we must give it priority. It is more important for our children to have the knowledge than to follow a path that does not help us as a nation,” says Dr Omary Mohammed of the State University of Zanzibar.

Retired Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda goes further to say if he were the minister for education, he would have already declared Kiswahili as the language of instruction as it is a national treasure.

In his budget address, Finance minister Dr Mwigulu Nchemba proposed expansion of the use of Kiswahili in interviews when applying for employment opportunities instead of English.

This initiative, some stakeholders believe, will provide an opportunity for young people with good knowledge but who are not proficient in the English language to be able to express themselves…

This makes HakiElimu, which has been at the forefront in the support of using Kiswahili as the language of instruction, to ask the government to solve the problem starting at the root instead of the branches.

They remind that the use of Kiswahili is a policy requirement noting that the declaration No. 3.2.19 of the Education and Training Policy of 2014 gives the language a nod.

It says; “The Kiswahili language will be used for teaching and learning at all levels of education and training and the government will put in place mechanisms to enable the use of this language to be sustainable and effective in providing productive education and training nationally and internationally.”

“We propose the use of Kiswahili in teaching to enable students to learn in depth and develop intended skills such as creative thinking,” says Dr John Kalage, executive director of HakiElimu.

Dr Kalage believes if Kiswahili is used, young Tanzanians will be able to master the content because it is the language that that they use every day. “The use of Kiswahili for instruction will not kill English as the latter will continue to be taught as a subject.”

Why English?

This is the language of the world, they say. “Tanzania is not an island we must be ready to make our youth seek employment abroad and in international organisations locally and English as language of instruction would help,” notes Dr Amos Magembe, an education specialist in Dar es Salaam.

He claims that many politicians who want Kiswahili to be used in teaching already have their children in private schools where English is the main language of instruction.

“Nowadays every parent wants their child to attend these private schools due to the challenges in public schools. We must improve the skills of our teachers and make English central in teaching,” he explains.

Michael Ndibalema, a parent says Kiswahili should not be a hindrance to English being the language of instruction at all levels.

“It is true that China has continued to use Mandarin as a language of instruction and it is already spreading around the world, but their economy is not like ours. We are still dependent so our children must master the language used widely.”

He adds; “Let the government improve the capacity of teachers, provide teachers with a better teaching environment and let students be taught in English from primary school to university.”

Way forward

The authorities must see the need to make this one of the priorities after the ongoing policy and syllabus review process. They must come up with a decision that will take into account the quality of education and competition locally and abroad.

“This debate should end and a decision should be made even if it does not satisfy many, as long as it takes into account the quality and future of Tanzanian children. Politics should be avoided in this regard,” advises Dr Yunus Nyoni, from Mzumbe University.