- - Wednesday, April 18, 2012

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Before class starts, the schoolyard at Gerezani Secondary School is typically noisy; but inside the classrooms, where only English is allowed, students are reluctant to speak.

It is not just shyness that keeps them quiet. Few of the children speak English with confidence, and many have problems understanding the teachers because the classes are held in what is to them a foreign language.

Like the majority of Tanzanians, these students were taught in the Kiswahili language throughout seven years of primary school.

But moving to secondary school means an abrupt shift to learning all subjects in English, which many educators, students and parents say affects how much learning actually takes place. Fewer then five percent of Tanzanians speak English at home.

“It is obvious that you can only be taught in a language you understand,” said Martha Qorro, a senior lecturer on education at Dar es Salaam University.

Kiswahili still mother tongue

She said students are losing out on the content of all subjects and that results in them having a weak command of their first or second language.

Most Tanzanians grow up speaking one of about 120 local languages as a mother tongue, but Kiswahili, an official language alongside English, is spoken by 95 percent of the population.

Policymakers have been aware of the language problem since the early 1980s, when a government review of the education system raised the issue.

So far, there has been no change in policy, and none is expected anytime soon, according to Magdalena Kishiwa, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.

As a result, those lucky enough to advance to secondary education, about 36 percent of the population, graduate with difficulty.

Gerezani student Mousa Membar, 18, said it is difficult at first to understand and to communicate.

“In Form 3, I started to talk nice English,” he said, referring to the equivalent of 10th grade.

Until then, he added, he just had to try his best.

“I had to get used to it,” he said. “I had no choice.”

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