English as a Second Language of Instruction in Tanzania


By Shaaban Fundi

English language learning in the Tanzanian Education System can be characterized as being “problem-solving” oriented. The type of problem solving that does not include exercises that cultivate higher-order thinking skills.

The main goals are: 1) to obtain enough knowledge of English to reach a minimal level for a specific purpose, such as obtaining a position doing menial work, 2) to help students pass standardized exams. Noticeably absent is the goal of real learning and/or authentic learning.

Fixating on Standardized Testing

When students focus on passing exams, they lose sight of authentic learning. Especially for those that English is their second, third, or fourth language. Most students in Tanzania falls in this group.

Equivalently, when educators fixate on having their students pass exams, they may neglect authentic teaching. Educators should certainly work to comply with the country’s learning standards and prepare students for standardized tests, however, these formalities should be placed in the background and place authentic learning in the foreground. If students are truly learning, they will pass standardize tests ANYWAY.

As educators, one question we need to ask ourselves is this, “Do we want to teach our students to just survive, or to flourish?”

The Cycle of Learning is Important

Along similar lines of reasoning, educators need to grasp the need for cycles of Question-Answer-Question instead of merely Question-Answer. For that matter, educators should not be the only ones asking questions. Instead, students should be afforded the opportunity to ask and answer own questions. If educators are to treat students as “explorers”, rather than “plants” that absorb information, and provide space for their voices, students should be able to pose their own questions and problems and seek solutions themselves with the facilitation of the educator, as needed.

The idea is to break the orthodox of what is called in education as “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” in which educators control learning and “deposit” knowledge into students. This is quite rampant in the Tanzanian education system.

Sharing the Expertise Stage

Similarly, educators cannot be the only expert in the classroom. To deny students their own expert knowledge is to dis-empower them. Let the students ask and answer their own questions.

When working with English Language Learners, it is especially important to help build students’ confidence. Adapting these ideas would hopefully create an environment rich in learning. In that students would learn from each other and the teacher and the teacher would learn from the students.

Competing Ideas in Resource Poor Countries

These ideas may be difficult to accept and implement in teacher dominated classrooms. They require educators to relinquish some or most of their powers. Implementing these ideas sometimes leads to classroom management issues in the beginning. Thus,  such classrooms and students would need adequate practice in instructional conversation and class discussions. I do realize the fact that most classes in Tanzania are extremely overclouded. This could lead to other issues including how to group students for group activities. Moreover, enrichment activities that feature language learning would likely require increased efforts on the part of the teacher to construct and execute, as compared with implementing lessons grounded in straightforward test preparation and grammar drills.

Ideological Shift

Yes, fostering real and authentic learning will require a lot of work. However, instructional practices and broad structural changes are necessary.  Real change cannot occur until we drastically modify our ideological framework.

Expectations make all the difference. That is, if all that is expected from the educator is that students pass the standardized exams or obtain jobs in the menial labor industry, than learning goals and instructional practices will reflect such aims, and at best, that is merely what students will learn and do.

Should Tanzania change the language of Instruction? In my humble opinion, I believe that there is no need to switch from all English instructional delivery in secondary and tertiary schools as of yet. However, changing the way we teach English to second, third or fourth language learners in Tanzania will take us a long way, modifying our ideological framework will also help, and raising our expectations for what our students can learn and do will increase tremendously higher-order-thinking skills of our students. In my view, at present time, the Swahili only educational delivery model is flawed to say the least.

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10 thoughts on “English as a Second Language of Instruction in Tanzania

  1. Goodman Manyanya Phiri

    Thank you for the post “Mwanamapinduzi” and “Mkereketwa” (if you will allow me to christen you).

    I am not sure, though, if I understand the gist of your LAST PARAGRAPH. Unsure whether you are espousing a linguistic two-tier approach to Tanzanian education or you are opposing the aforesaid two-tier system (Kiswahili and English) in preference to an all-English (“hyphenated”) medium or even all-Swahili medium (of instruction).

    Would you please clarify.

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    1. Thanks for the comments Mr. Phiri. There is a massive debate going on in Tanzania right now about this topic. A lot of people thinks that due to massive failures in our form 2, 4 and 6 exams, it is evident that most students and teachers do no have a firm understanding of the English language and therefore it is unfair for them to teach, learn and be tested on the language they do not understand very well. Some people thinks that we should teach and test our students in Swahili becasue most of them and their teachers are very good at it.

      My views are that, we can still continue with current instructional model we are using right now, that is English medium of instruction with some Swahili blended in it. A lot of the research on bilingual education support this model. If done effectively and using high impact learning activities, most students would be able to master the English language.

      Therefore, I oppose the backward move to Swahili only as a medium of instruction in our primary, secondary and tertiary education. We just need to improve the way we teach English and probably start early on….like in standard 1.

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  2. Goodman Manyanya Phiri

    Thank you for your meticulous explanation, Mr Shaaban Kitindi Fundi

    I think your head is well screwed where hotheadedness in tampering with educational systems, even if they be bequeathed us by colonialists, sometimes leads to national disasters and please ask us South Africans with our I-love-you-and-I-love-you-not attitude towards a thing we called Outcome Based Education!

    That aside,you have no idea how much you have inspired me, particularly as I am not only one interested in matters educational in general and wherever they are to be found on the Continent of Africa, but I’m currently wracking my brains on an article to do with the founding of South Africa’s ruling party, The African National Congress which in exactly 201 days from now, is turning 100 years old.

    Bravo, Brother of MIne, Shaaban Fundi!

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  3. I did not expect that kind of response from you. I will take it anyways, thanks. I follow what you write most often and is very inspirational. For things educational, I feel like we need to talk about it and seriously, because it affects the next generation. The system (educational in TZ that is) we have needs massive overhauling to meet the challenges of today’s society. But, changing language of instruction(LOI) is the least of the problems.

    There are major issues like the learning environment (not conducive in most places), teacher’s education and quality (is not sufficient), teaching strategies and the curricula are very much outdated. All these issues needs to be addressed before we start registering any uptick in our educational outcomes for our students.

    As far as I know the people at the top are not loosing sleep over this because they are able to send their kids to international schools, to neighboring countries and colleges abroad. Therefore the situation we are in is somehow a mixed blessing for them. There will be no real competition for their offsprings from the kids attending these local schools. And, I guess they like it to stay that way.

    Anyways, when you finish your article, share it so that many people can learn from it. I hope that is your intention in the first place.

    cheers, and sorry for not looking you up when I was in SA.

    Shaaban Fundi

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  4. deodat

    we must start teach english from pre primary level so that we can develope understanding of our children.because language development of the child start from o to 12 years

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    1. I agree wholeheartedly with you. There are research based instructional strategies to teach bilingual students. What we have in Tanzania is a bilingual student body and we are trying to teach a second language to them using methods for teaching a monolingual student body. It does not work that way.

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  5. josephat

    make comment does not help, but solution finding Shaaban. See the way experienced teachers of such subject exert effort to advance the student’s performance. And why are we so concerned to performance(passing ) why not speaking, writing, listening and reading ? it is wrongly framed. Many street English courses answer the national question about English language teaching and massive failure. Reconsider your comments.

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