Balancing Bilingualism: English Language policy in Tanzania and Sweden

The school grounds of Kigrunyembe Demonstration School, Morogoro Tanzania. Photo by Kate O Donnell.Education policy has long been regarded as one of the most important parts of a country’s long-term economic and social development – and Tanzania is no exception. In Tanzania today there is a bilingual educational structure in which Swahili is the language of instruction in primary schools and English is the language of instruction in secondary schools. The national website of Tanzania highlights this policy as ‘the main feature of Tanzania’s education system’ and is regarded by officials as a cornerstone to the country’s progress. Although there are sharp differences between Tanzania and a Western European country such as Sweden, it is intriguing to note that similarities exist between the two countries in relation to the role and influence of a national language on both economics and culture.

As the ’Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality’ identifies, there are approximately 120 different tribes in Tanzania, each of which speaks their own language. But since independence was achieved in 1961, Swahili has been promoted as a national language by which to unify the country. Julius Nyerere, the first leader of an independent Tanzania, promoted a vigorous nation- building project under the banner of self-reliance. He used language policy as an important way of uniting the country, but while changing the language of instruction in primary schools to Kiswahili, he retained the use of English in secondary schools. This bilingual system has far-reaching and often hidden ramifications for Tanzanian education.

Tanzania has been praised for the improvements it has made across various educational indicators: the World Bank notes that net enrollment rates were 96.1 percent in 2006.  But some key issues remain, such as the low numbers of students who complete primary and secondary education and, crucially, the quality of education – to which Tanzania’s bilingual system may be detrimental. For students who progress to secondary education, it is difficult to adapt to being taught in English, and consequently the quality and pace at which students learn is diminished. Furthermore, most children born outside of the country’s urban areas speak Bantu languages as their mother tongue, which means that they not only have to master English, but also Kiswahili.

Therefore, while English is an important skill, the use of the language in secondary school may lead to a trade-off in which education as a broader concept – which includes creativity, critical thinking and innovation – is harmed.

Perhaps the most detrimental impact of this system is how it both sustains and perpetuates inequalities: children from poorer and more rural areas suffer while children from wealthier families often go to private English-medium schools. This, coupled with the poorer quality of schools in rural and poorer areas, results in a two-fold spiral of inequality. This point is closely related to existing structural issues, such as the quality of teacher training in Tanzania. As a result, even those who admire the bilingual system cannot ignore that in reality, due to the lack of English fluency among teachers (even in the English-medium secondary schools), Swahili is still used as a means of improving understanding and clarification.

However, the theory and ideology behind the bilingual policy deserves some recognition. The system aims to serve a two-fold purpose in which students learn a national language and culture in primary school and then gain skills in the English language to prepare them for the labour market and the wider world.

An English class in Kigurunyembe Demonstration School, Morogoro, Tanzania. Photo by Kate O Donnell.

As with any long-term policy change, reforms will take time and pose considerable challenges. But it is important that real reform takes place, whether that means changing the bilingual system or improving the standard and means of English teaching in primary schools, as it is integral for Tanzania’s future development. The empirical results of this policy must be assessed not only regarding benefits to the social and economic progress of Tanzania but also to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges many countries face in balancing the use of a national language while also preparing young people for the demands of a globalised world.

It is interesting to show how other countries, such as Sweden, deal with this issue because its system has managed to create a balance between maintaining its national language and culture while also fostering a high level of English language proficiency. But as Inger Lindberg, a professor of bilingualism, notes, Sweden is currently facing linguistic divides with increased immigration creating challenges for teachers and policy-makers but also the increased use of English in official sectors potentially threatening ‘the position of Swedish as the national language to be used for all purposes and in all domains. This could result in a situation of diglossia with Swedish relegated to a low-status variety, used only in unofficial and private domains and deprived of its role as a complete language, serving and uniting the whole of society.’

It can be said that language policy, especially in relation to education, is an important part of any country’s approach not only to education but also to culture, as well as the country’s relationship with the wider world. Although Sweden and Tanzania are at different stages of development, these linguistic debates pose challenges to both nations.


2024 © The Perspective – All Rights Reserved