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."
Geoffrey Mwemezi, now studying taxation at the University of Dar es Salaam, said it took two years of secondary school before he could understand English fluently. In the meantime, he said he was "just learning the answers by heart."
Teachers also have difficulties un-der the dictate to only use English.
"In reality, half of the topic is taught through Kiswahili," said John William-Ngowi, a civics and history teacher at Gerezani.
"If you're teaching half and half, what do you expect? Students cannot become competent [in any subject]."
"Most students are not ready to use English," added his colleague Jullie Chitambo, who teaches history and English. "At the end of the period, we are not sure if they have understood anything."
Even though most parents acknowledge that their children comprehend very little, the majority do not wish to change the system, analysts say.
That is partly because they worry about employment opportunities.
Their children need to learn English to get into universities or hold jobs in public administration.
Others worry about international isolation.
Despite the difficulties he experienced, Mr. Membar said learning in English is important.
"When you're outside this country, you can't talk Kiswahili," he said.
Many worry that if the system is changed, people will speak even less English, the language of business, administration and higher education as well as the common tongue of the East African region.
In such a market, it is important to continue teaching in English, said Mwemezi Makumba, a journalist at the Tanzanian Business Times.
"It's important to know English," he said. "There is no way we can avoid this."
Officials from HakiElimu, a Tanzanian group campaigning to improve schooling, say they are open to keeping English as long as teachers are better trained and the curriculum improved.
Tanzania's education system faces numerous challenges, including low graduation rates, crowded classrooms and unmotivated teachers, analysts say.
Jonace Manyasa, assistant lecturer at Dar es Salaam University College of Education, believes many of his students are not really committed.
"They choose teaching as a final resort," he said.
Education experts say the impact of changing to a Kiswahili-language system could be far-reaching, unlocking broader economic development.
"Japan, China, South Korea, the Nordic countries ... they developed because they use their languages," said Ms. Qorro.
"It's not that they are using their own languages because they are developed."
Still, it is unclear how any future overhaul of the system would be financed in a country still highly dependent on outside aid.
Though the main challenge is changing attitudes, cost is also an issue, said Mwajama Vuzo, who is leading a research project on language and education in Tanzania and South Africa.
"Would foreign donors be interested in financing such a policy?" he asked.
Britain, one of Tanzania's biggest foreign donors, plans to spend $95 million over four years to improve teaching of the English language.
The international charity Save the Children and the British-based CfBT Education Trust have warned, however, that funds allocated to educating children in a language they don't understand are "at risk of being wasted."
Policymakers who claim language reform is not a priority are missing the point, said Ms. Qorro.
"It's like wanting to send water to a village," she said, "but saying we have no money to waste on the pipes."