Thursday, February 26, 2015

Teaching in Swahili:A Big Step Backwards to What?

 Teaching in Kiswahili is a Big Step Backwards to What?

Chambi Chachage

When the chairman of the CEO Roundtable speaks notable people notice. After speaking eloquently on “Is Africa really “rising”?” Ali Mufuruki has now spoken about the new education policy. For him “Tanzania’s Latest Big Change is a Big Step Backwards.

This is how he describes the step: “This change has led to the replacement of English as a medium of instruction in primary and secondary schools with our very own Kiswahili.” He then adds this interesting disclaimer: “As someone who was educated in a developed foreign country that uses its own indigenous language as a medium of instruction from Kindergarten to University, you would expect I would be supportive of this big change”.

Interestingly, two informative reviews of the policy from experts of education seem to interpret the (actual) change differently. Dr. Aikande Kwayu is more in line with Mufuruki, they only differ in terms of welcoming the change: She writes: “The emphasis of Kiswahili as the language of instruction (in addition to properly teaching English) is a wise move highlighting the true spirit of Tanzania and correlates with the underscored importance of educating people for peace. Research and literature has it that language of instruction should be what is spoken at home – in our case it’s Kiswahili. Teaching our kids in Kiswahili will improve learning to the masses in Tanzania”.

However, Prof. Kitila Mkumbo’s interpretation indicate that nothing much has changed in terms of making a solid decision about the language question. In other words, Tanzania is still maintaining what we have referred to as a sera ndumilakuwili’ (‘schizophrenic policy’) as far the medium/language of instruction is concerned. This time, though, it has been packaged in a policy language that easily appeals to those in favor of Kiswahili.

Prof. Mkumbo categorically states that the “policy is evasive” in regard to the language of instruction. “On the one hand”, he elaborates, “the policy seems to heed to the consistent call that has been made for years by some educationists and Kiswahili zealots to use Kiswahili as a medium of teaching and learning throughout the education System”. After citing policy statement 3.2.19, he points out that, “nevertheless, the policy also stress” that “there is a need to strengthen the use of Kiswahili and English languages as languages of instruction at various education levels”.

By way of translation from the original Kiswahili version, Prof. Mkumbo also notes that policy statement 3.2.20 states that the “Government shall continue strengthening the use of the English Language in teaching and learning at all levels of education and training”. Out of this observation he thus make this poignant observation: “Effectively, therefore, the policy recognises both languages (Kiswahili and English) as media of instruction in our education system. As such, the policy is not helpful to the campaigners of using Kiswahili as a medium of instruction in Tanzania”.

Having read all these three interventions, among others, what is clear is that we all want Tanzanians to be both fluent in English and Kiswahili – and, if possible, other languages too, both local and foreign. Our bone of contention, then, is how to achieve that given that the current reality is that we are “backward” as far as such bilingualism – let alone multilingualism – is concerned hence my query: A big step backwards to what?

Mufuruki informs us, tantalizingly, that he “was educated in a developed foreign country that uses its own indigenous language as a medium of instruction from Kindergarten to University”. He also affirms that he has “always believed that being able to acquire and to impart knowledge in local languages is a mark of progress and cultural maturity, not backwardness or weakness”.  Then he confirms that “most developed nations from North America through Europe, Asia and Latin America to Arabia use their own languages as medium of instruction for all stages of schooling”.

So why does he go out of his way to buttress his argument on why we are not yet ready for the big change by quoting at length someone who simply dismiss all this on the basis of an uninformed take on why it is important to teach – as in communicate knowledge – in a language that both the teacher and student are more familiar with? Who said switching to Kiswahili is simply about patriotism and (cultural) nationalism? Can Biyi Bandele, “the London based African blogger”, whom Mufuruki agrees with in regard to this big change tell us how the British switched from Latin to English as the ‘language of knowledge’ without having to first translate each and every Latin (scientific) word?

Bandele is thus quoted in Mufuruki’ intervention as saying this about our new education policy: “Until every single Mathematical theorem and every single theory in astrophysics and cosmology, and in medicine, and in 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 cheap, and hokey, and cheaply sentimental rhetoric of noble nationalism. I’ve been to Tanzania, and I’ve been to Zanzibar. And I’ve been to many countries in East Africa. What Tanzania needs now, what East Africa needs now, and what Africa needs now isn’t another instance of brainless, reflexive, macho posturing [which this is]. What we need, what we really need, is to have tens of thousands - millions - of our best minds, schooled, not only in Swahili, Hausa, Xhosa, and Yoruba, and every major African language but also in English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and in Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Farsi, Chinese and Japanese, and in every single language on this little planet called earth, where knowledge, not just cheap, populist, propaganda, is disseminated”.

Now who said that in order to communicate the knowledge about a Mathematical theorem in Kiswahili, you have to first write or make it available in Kiswahili? What matters is to be able to communicate it and make others understand. As long as the teacher/educator has read (and understood) a theorem – whether it is Pythagoras that comes from a Greek Mathematician and hence the Greek language or about Algebra that comes from a book an Arab Mathematician wrote in Arabic – in whatever language, all that is needed is for him/her to be able to communicate it to students in a language they all understand very well.

I took Mathematics in both O-Level (where I got an A in the National Examination of Tanzania) and A-level (where I did not reproduced the A but still got a decent grade) that were examined in English and I remember we used Kiswahili to teach other even though we were using books that were written in English – even some of our teachers used Kiswahili when they realized we didn’t understand them. For example, one did not really have to know the etymology of ‘differentiation’ and ‘integration’ to know what they really meant and how to actually differentiate and integrate. We could explain what these Calculus concepts meant and proceed to communicate – and understand each other - easily in Kiswahili by saying, for example, ‘diferentieti’ and ‘intagreti’, which were our own Swahilized versions of the respective English words. For us what mattered was communicating, i.e., understanding. 
There is also this curious connection that Mufuruki makes: “I can say with confidence that if Rwanda had instead changed the medium of instruction from French to Rwandese, it would not be the much admired fastest growing African economy it is today”. It is as if switching to English is what has been propelling its celebrated growth. He also argues it is “a good decision because in everything that matters (books, systems, teachers), English is very well resourced even in Rwanda and”, allegedly, “the change did not cause any major disruptions at all”. Hence for him this “change from French to English was a step up, not a step down as will be the case with Tanzania’s policy choices”.

Such a canny comparison made me wonder about Rwanda. I thus recalled a paper Nephat Maritim wrote in his research project at Harvard University in 2013. It is titled Language of Instruction in the Rwandan Education System: Politics of Exclusion or Inclusion?

It makes this interesting observation: “There are three different but related events that contributed to the adoption of English in Rwanda as an official language. The first one was a weakening French-Rwanda relationship, the second, constitutional amendments that allowed for the recognition of English as an official language, and the third was an increased influx of American and British influence in Rwanda after the genocide.”

After elaborating on these three factors in relation to economic rationales, Maritim raises these pertinent questions: “Although these economic reasons make a lot of sense, it is difficult to ignore other realities in Rwanda that complicate the language issue. Of all the people in Rwanda, only 8% speak English, 14% speak French, and 99% speak Kinyarwanda. In addition, there are more people that speak Kinyarwanda and French than Speak Kinyarwanda and English. Therefore, if the transition is to enable Rwanda to open up to the English-speaking world, it is clear from these numbers that only a very small portion of the national population is being exposed to the Anglophone world. This means that the benefits that accrue from being able to speak English only go to a small section of the whole population. Is this an establishment of the returnees’ hegemony over the Hutus as an act of revenge, or is it an instance of pure coincidence? Does it not seem like the preference for English is serving an exclusionary purpose just like the other language changes that we have seen over the course of the country’s history?”

Such a ‘minority’ is present even in some African countries that we, in Tanzania, regard as being far ahead in English proficiency. The only difference is that they have more of those ‘elites’ than us. For example, the other day I stumbled on a journal article that presented these disturbing statistics: “It has already been observed that English, which is barely understood by 25% of the more than 34 million Kenyans, remains the official language, and is used in most of the official realm.” Yesterday I was even more shocked to read this assertion from a scholar: “The Nigerian intellectuals hate English colonialism but they speak a lot of English which Nigeria has adopted as the official language even though over 95% of Nigerians cannot speak, write, and understand English language”.

What I find more revealing is that Dr. Baruani Mshale’s reaction to Mufuruki’s article raises more or less the same issues even though he has not yet read Maritim’s paper. He writes: “I will just talk about the misplaced praise for Rwandas embrace of English away from French. Yes, it has worked and yes there are teaching materials in that language. But there have been serious problems with adopting English in Rwanda. In the short run, this move has excluded a significant number of Rwandans/Rwandese who were living in Rwanda and has benefited a minority Rwandans/Rwandese who were living abroad. I had been to Rwanda several times before the move from 2003-2005 and many people were more conversant in French than English”. 

Dr. Mshale goes on to make this observation: “The adoption of English was not just for technical reasons as [Mufuruki] puts it. It was intended as a political statement to distance itself from attachments to the [Belgians] and [French] whom Rwandans believe didn’t do enough prior to, during and after the genocide in building a unity nation. It’s a nationalistic movement to detach from colonial relations similar to policies adopted in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zaire etc post independence”. He then concludes: “There are so many examples of people who have been marginalized by the adoption of English in Rwanda. A 50+ practicing lawyer trained in French and practicing in French, suddenly has no job because he cannot use French in the courtroom. So many of these examples. I have been following up on Rwanda very closely. [Mufuruki] may have a point, but it is based on wrong premises and lacks concrete evidence”.

Yes, indeed, and for me one such point is Mufuruki’s call to “make decisions that will allow Tanzanians to grow”. The same arguments that he has been making against the complete switch to Kiswahili now could be leveled against the complete switch to English. Various research over the years have shown, over and over again, that we are not well (human) resourced as far as using English as medium of instruction is concerned.

All is not well even in schools that are hyped for not using Kiswahili as a language of instruction. For example, an abstract from a recent Investigation of Pupils’ English Language Abilities in Tanzania: The Case of English Medium Primary Schools reads: “This article is based on the study which sought to assess pupils’ abilities in written English language skills among English medium primary school pupils in Tanzania. The objectives of the study were to examine pupils’ abilities in constructing complete and meaningful sentences; to investigate pupils’ abilities in using tenses; to assess pupils’ abilities in using punctuation marks; and to examine pupils’ abilities in spelling words. The respondents were 240 pupils from four English medium primary schools, based in Mbeya and Dar es Salaam Cities. The data collection process was done using an achievement test and the collected data were subjected to item analysis in which frequencies and percentages of students exhibiting the specified abilities were computed. The findings indicated that the majority of the pupils had serious problems in the tested English language abilities. It was recommended, among others, that English medium primary schools should recruit teachers who are proficient in English languages that they could serve as role models to the pupils.”

Now imagine a country that pretends to be teaching Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Commerce, Accounting, Economics, Geography and so forth in/through English even though the majority of our teachers who are conversant in those subjects can hardly communicate effectively in English. Isn’t that being ‘backward’, and if it is, switching to Kiswahili is moving backwards to what? For Mufuruki this switch now “spell disaster for the development of the Tanzanian human resource on whose strength the very future of this country depends”. But aren’t we in a disastrous situation already as many a job interviews of Tanzanian graduates from our universities/colleges also attest?

I, for one, support the usage of Kiswahili as the language of instruction simply because it facilitates communication relativelymore easily and connects what is taught and what surrounds us in 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. That is the best methodology of/for teaching a new/second/foreign language and it should never be confused with simply using a language as a medium of instruction, especially in a country with a very low fluency in English, hoping that students would automatically learn that language that way.

What we are now having due to our imposed communication barriers in the classroom and the examination room is what language experts call ‘subtractive bilingualism’ in contrast to ‘additive bilingualism’. Put simply, the former makes one lose on both ends – ending up knowing little of Kiswahili and very little of English. But the latter makes one gain both ways – Knowing more of Kiswahili as well as English. More significantly, the former subtracts knowledge through lack of effective communication and the latter adds knowledge through effective communication. So, why should we get ‘lost in translation’?

At the risk of being repetitive let me end by recycling an anecdote of my own experience with our exercise in madness, i.e., our repeated attempts at teaching English by making it a language for teaching other subjects, expecting a different result, i.e., learning English:

One day my teacher wrote this definition on the blackboard: “Species are groups of organisms that can interbreed to produce fertile of spring.” I knew the meanings of fertile and spring. But I couldn’t figure out how they fit in. Anyway, I memorized and reproduced it in the examination. As you can guess, I got it right. It was only later, much later, when I came to know what species are. Actually, they produce fertile offspring. I don’t know whether it was my teacher’s fault or mine. What I know is that, as a young boy, I frustratingly tried to breed fish. But, alas, they produced infertile offspring! I didn’t know why. What a missed opportunity to relate what I was taught with what I practiced!

May we teach English and teach in Kiswahili. Both can be done. Let us do so now.


Unknown February 26, 2015 at 8:32 PM  

Good and well constructed analysis. Very informative and well reasoned.

Zibotili February 28, 2015 at 6:26 AM  


Good thinking and I agree with your conclusion.

However, I think your disparaging remarks about the Rwandan experience are misplaced. If you were honest, and I believe you are, you would also see the "distributive consequences of making a switch" (I.e. the hegemony of an elite is extended) also exist in Tanzania.

The fact that you are at Harvard speaks volumes. If you had poor English you would have ended up in UDOM or something. And, you come from a family with very high English skills, which puts you in an elite camp in Tanzania. It means you can read our formal history, laws and key documents for these are all in English. Your access to this means you can make more informed decisions about your wellbeing. As a nation, unajua kabisa, bila kiingereza watu wanakuona hujasoma.

So what is true for Rwanda is also true in Tanzania. Indeed, without a good knowledge of English this excellent blog wouldn't exist.




Chambi Chachage February 28, 2015 at 8:05 AM  

Ndugu Zibotili,

Thank you for reading and commenting!

Getting to Harvard is not simply about having good English that is why they have programs/courses for teaching English to some newly admitted students from countries that do not have high proficiency in English. They know that knowledge is more than language. By the way, my GRE scores for English were not that great either. My secondary school grades for English were also simply modest/okay - my English improved through reading, writing and talking it when I went to universities in English-speaking countries, I also took a course at UCT.

I also don't think I was disparaging Rwanda, I was simply presenting the findings and observations of those who have really researched/followed-up on Rwanda given that it's so easy to over-hype things.

Surely you know this blog is bilingual - it posts Kiswahili and English articles. So, I don't think it owes its existence - let alone its said excellence - to the so-called 'good knowledge of English'.

Ili tukijue Kiingereza vizuri tukifundishe/tukisome kama lugha mpaka tukijue na siyo kukifundishia tu masomo mengine ilhali hatukijui vizuri na kudhani kwa kufanya hivyo tutajifunza Kiingereza - huko siyo kuelimika wala kuelimisha, ni kujidanganya.

Best Regards,


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