The Chanzo is hosting Digital Freedom and Innovation Day on April 20, 2024. Register Here

Close this search box.

In Tanzania, English Is Not Just a Language. It Is a Whole Religion

Authorities’ insistence on using language as a medium of instruction elevates it to a status of religion with both peddlers and believers.

subscribe to our newsletter!

The peddlers of religion know that ‘faith’ is the basis on which they can build their particular brands. Evidence is irrelevant, or at least only a little ‘evidence’ needs to be found or manufactured to bolster the call to faith. I don’t doubt that many believers are genuine, even if, in most cases, they are genuinely duped.

And some of the peddlers are genuine, too. They sincerely believe in what they peddle. And these true believers become fanatical warriors against the reality that constantly threatens to seep into their lives.

I am not only talking about religion as an expression of our relationship with an unseen force that guides and controls our lives. Many other religions or faiths are prevalent in our society.

Take the example of the place of the English language in our education system in Tanzania. Realistically, yes, we need to understand and use English as it remains the world’s dominant (for how long?) language. English should be taught to our children.

So when and how does it become a religion? When we are asked to believe, in the face of overwhelming reality, that because English is essential, all our children, whatever their circumstances, should be subjected to English as a medium of instruction.

English, not knowledge and skills, becomes the alpha and omega, the overriding goal of education. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand what they are being taught. They are coming into contact with the God of all languages. Miracles will occur.

Of course, a belief in miracles is another crucial weapon in the armoury of peddlers of religion. Show a miracle here and there, and people will believe that miracles are not one-offs but can be mass-produced.

Yes, there are always a few, maybe even a significant few, who will buck the trend and succeed in acquiring the God of all languages despite all the impediments of circumstance. And these notable few will be touted as examples of what everyone can achieve.

READ MORE: Disoriented Education: Why University Degree Is Now More Questionable Than Ever?

We just need more teachers, better-trained teachers, teachers with an intimate relationship with the God of language (where do they come from? What is the teacher pool from which we can draw? But more of that later), more books, better classes and the miracle of the few will become the saviour of the masses.

I fail to understand how believers cope with cognitive dissonance, the widening gap between what they believe and what reality shows them. Let me take two examples.

Lack of mastery

Firstly, research has shown from more than fifty years ago, when only a selected few were admitted into the hallowed halls of secondary education, that the majority do not have enough English to use it as a medium of learning.

At the time when the British were working overtime to nullify the recommendation of the Makweta Commission on Education that Kiswahili should become the language of instruction, two senior British academics, Criper and Dodd, carried out research in the early 1980s into the preparedness of Tanzanian secondary school students to use English as a medium of instruction.

They found that only ten per cent of Form Four students had sufficient English to study all subjects effectively in that language and only one per cent of Form One students. As I have said, this was when less than ten per cent of Tanzanian children went to secondary school.

I quote these British academics only to show that even the British themselves while insisting and even linking their ‘aid’ to the education sector on retaining English as the medium of instruction, recognised that such a policy flew in the face of reality.

READ MORE: Education Stakeholders Call for Improved Budget to Boost Quality

A whole host of Tanzanian sociolinguist researchers have shown this again and again, starting in the 1960s when the situation was much better for this small elite who cleared the hurdle of the primary school exam up to today when we now say that lower secondary school is a part of basic education for all our children.

If, when there were far fewer schools which catered for a select few, only ten per cent had sufficient language to understand (not cram for exams, but to understand and engage with) what they were being taught, what is the situation now?

But of course, as all good religions do, the blame is put on the believers themselves for not having sufficient faith or energy to follow that faith.

One of the problems is that many of the peddlers are a select few who did understand what they were being taught, and they come with the ridiculous mantra: If I succeeded, why can’t everyone else succeed? Others are too lazy, they conclude. I am a miracle; everyone should be a miracle!

This goes hand in hand with the insistence that you just have to improve conditions in the school, and the whole situation will change. Yes, one of the factors holding back further miracles is the condition of our schools.

I agree that we need to address those conditions. But as research has shown from when schools were really schools, the problem remained. The majority did not have sufficient English. To dismiss such research is the mark of a true believer.

Foreign/second language

Secondly, best teaching practice shows that there is a difference between teaching a language as a second language (in other words, a language which those being taught have significant access to outside the classroom and the school) and teaching a language as a foreign language (in other words, a language which the learners only come into contact with in class and, perhaps in boarding school) in school.

For a small, mainly urban, minority, English can be classified as a second language. Their parents use that language at home, watch English-speaking movies, and communicate on social media using English. The likelihood of their becoming proficient in English and being able to study in that language is much higher (but not a given).

READ MORE: Young Activist’s Twelve-Year Ordeal In Search Of Education

However, for the vast majority, English is a foreign language and requires a different teaching method. That is standard educational theory and practice. In Tanzania, Kiswahili is rapidly becoming a first language for more and more children and a second language for all the others (with a few exceptions).

Tanzanian children inevitably come into contact with Kiswahili in different contexts, not just in school. It makes sense, though not to the true believers, to teach them in Kiswahili if education aims to develop knowledge and skills and then teach English according to the tenets of language theory.

I’ll examine this further in my next column in this space, where I’ll analyse the impact of this ‘faith’ on the vast majority of our children and the development of our nation. But let me conclude by inviting you to reflect on this situation.

In the new education policy and curriculum for secondary schools, authorities maintain the English faith against all odds, except for History and Morality subjects, which are important subjects that students will learn in Kiswahili.

Can anyone explain why we only want our children to understand those two subjects alone? See you next week!

Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries.

Digital Freedom and Innovation Day
The Chanzo is hosting Digital Freedom and Innovation Day on Saturday April 20, 2024 at Makumbusho ya Taifa.

Register to secure your spot

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *