Tanzanian Schools Will Teach Students in Swahili, Not English

School children in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo released under Creative Commons by Flickr user Colin J. McMechan.

School children in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo released under Creative Commons by Flickr user Colin J. McMechan.

Tanzania is set to make a historic shift away from English and replace it with Swahili as the language of instruction in the country’s schools.

The new education system launched by President Jakaya Kikwete on February 13, 2015, in line with National Vision 2025 will also extend basic education from seven years to 11 years, provide free education at primary and education levels and abolish national examinations for primary school levers.

This appears to be one of the first times that a country in Africa will teach students at all levels in an African language instead of a foreign language.

Commenting on the language shift, Atetaulwa Ngatara, the assistant director for policy at the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, said English will still be taught as a language, but for students to learn English it's not necessary that all their subjects be taught in it.

An article about the policy shift posted on Facebook by Oliver Stegen, a Swahili speaker of German origin and a linguistic advisor at language development non-profit SIL International, elicited mixed responses.

Nancy Petruzzi Maurer joked:

“Goood mauning teacha!” No more

Paul A Kijuu commented in Swahili saying that English has turned the educated class into robots:

Kwa upande wangu, Oliver Stegen mimi naona hii ni hatua nzuri sana. Shida yetu ni kulalamika. Elimu inapaswa itolewe kwa lugha inayoeleweka kwa mtumiaji. Kiingereza hakitusaidii zaidi ya kutufanya maroboti. Wasomi wetu hawafikiri kwa kujitegemea kwa sababu hakuna walichojifunza wanachokielewa.

On my side, Oliver Stegen I see this as the right move. Our problem is complaining. Education has to be given using the language that the user understands. English does not help us apart from turning us into robots. Our educated elites do not think independently because they do not understand what they studied.

Vera Wilhelmsen noted that not everyone needs to go to university but everyone deserves a good basic education:

I think it is important to consider what kind of basic education will benefit the most people. It is clear that per today not very many people make it to secondary school, and even fewer graduate from it. There is a problem when neither students not teachers are equipped to make the switch from Swahili to English in secondary school. Of course we have to watch for the effects, but I also do think it is a good step forward. Not everyone needs to go to university, but everyone deserves a good basic education!

However, not everyone was in support of the new education system. Steve Nicolle pointed out one possible effect of the new policy:

I suspect one effect of this legislation will be an increase in enrollments in private schools that continue to offer tuition in English. Keep an eye open for politicians opening new English medium schools in the near future!

Elly Gudo agreed with Steve Nicole, arguing that politicians will be the main beneficiaries of the policy:

I totally agree with Steve Nicolle. Having lived in Tanzania, I can tell you for sure that politicians are the highest beneficiaries of this new policy. Majority of Tanzanian middle and all upper classes who have identified with the global village will do anything to take their children to English Medium Schools. The common man's child will then be highly disadvantaged when it comes to University admission and by extension job acquisition. After 2 decades, the country will be highly classified. Tanzania needs a French-type Revolution in many facets.

Opposing the policy, Muddyb Mwanaharakati said the following in Swahili:

Oliver Stegen usichekelee. Wametia siasa ndani yake. Watoto zao wanasoma international schools. Sisi akina kajamba nani tutasoma zilezile S.t vichochoroni ili tubaki na Kiingereza chetu cha ya, ya, yes no yes no. Wakati watoto wao wanamwaga ngeli ya maana. Sijaifurahia hatua hii. Kwetu bado sana Oliver hata matangazo na sehemu nyingi ya masuala ya serikali yapo Kiingereza.

Oliver Stegen do not make me laugh. They have politicised the issue. Their children go to international schools [where the language of instruction is English]. We, the poor ones, will continue with going to under performing and poorly equipped schools and continue with our English of ya, ya, yes no yes no. At the same time their children are speaking English fluently. We are still very far, Oliver, even public notices and government information in many places are still in English.

Josephat Rugemalira observed that the new policy is not as radical as people think:

You need to read carefully what the policy says: it says Swahili will be used at all levels and ALSO says English will be used at all levels (that means including primary level). So my interpretation is that the only NEW thing made possible by such statements is that it is possible now for some people to establish Swahili medium secondary schools, and it is now official that local government authorities can convert existing primary schools to become English medium.

Reacting to the same article posted on Trending Kenya, Margaret Njeru explained that the new system does not kick out foreign or second languages but put them in their appropriate places in the learning process:

Indeed, bold and in the right direction. Education is about development, and that development can only come through a language a people make sense of. The world over, none of the so-called developed economies operates in a foreign language, and the use of the former colonial languages in many African countries has definitely contributed to the marginalization of the majority in the development process. If we have to define “our” development path, then the language choice must go hand-in-hand with it. And this does not in any way mean kicking out the foreign (or second languages), rather putting them in their appropriate place in the learning process.

Kwame Aboagye said it is time Africans used their languages:

It is about time that our African countries should speak our own dialects such as Twi, Yoruba, Swahili and Mandingo. English wasn't our original language in the first place and we need to wake-up and go back to our principals with pride.

The shift is monumental but it comes with significant challenges, noted Christina Higgins:

What good news indeed. Now the big test will be how to transition to Swahili in terms of materials, exams, and more. Despite challenges, this shift is truly monumental.


  • Richard litu

    Kids might fail to learn english properly


  • Tmc

    Sounds pretty odd to hear about a school abroad teaching in something other than their native language… This sounds like a good move for their country, students can just learn English as a class option for one period if they still want to learn the language. Hopefully the change isn’t too stressful on the students.

  • Ibo4U

    Teaching is mean “explaining something to someone”, and if we agree on this; then there is
    no argument that, explaining it by the language you as teacher know better, & the student understand well, is the best thing to do. The philosophy of
    education is not making you, him or her Russian or Italian or English or
    French, but making you understand very important things your life, our life and
    the surround.

  • Ibo4U

    Let’s just leave patriotisms one side, and look at the Economic perspectives, on the
    language issue for the Africans.

    Here is a Child or person in a small or big area in Africa, a continent formed of 54 countries with 1.5 billion fast growing populations, in all corners of Africa there is breath taking countless
    wealth, in & on the land.

    So what Economic power mineral less England with her dwindling 60 million populations, can offer African? In fact; if you add Canada, the USA, and Australia & New Zealand etc, where already a normal African will never reach as he is been restricted by bureaucratic demands &
    VISAs, all these nations can’t offer 10% of what Africa can offer, for the
    normal African man.

    So why any wise & honest person should encourage an African parent teach his Children the tongue of ElizaBitch? We need to open the doors and encourage the Africans know & talk to each other, particularly to their neighbours, for love & business, facilitate the Sotho Man to trade with the Tshwane Man, and then to the Zulu Man and then to the Xhosa Man etc and etc.

    And I am sure that, there are many, many similarities on the languages of those interrelated Men, than what they can get in French or English or Portuguese and Afrikaans etc.

    There is no any logic of telling a man living in Johannesburg to fly to Paris and borrow
    the tongue of General de Gaulle, to come and speak with the man living in
    Harare or Nairobi.

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  • thank you

    What is the problem with colonial languages. The major problem Africa is facing today is language. Most of the African languages are not properly developed and is only helping children confuse. Latin America was colonised and are proudly using Spanish and moving forward. Even some of those advanced economies still need English especially in technology how more of an African language. Either a language is used from primary to university or not. Hatred is blinding Africa. Ofcourse we should speak our languages but if we can not use it from start to finish, do not use it.

  • […] Tanzanian schools will teach students Swahili, not English […]

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