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Blog post Part of special issue: A global goal but local challenges: Perspectives on education in the Global South

Linguistic injustice in secondary school classrooms: The case of Tanzania

Joshua Andilile Mwaipape, Assistant Lecturer at N/A

In Global South countries, the issue of students’ freedoms to learn in a language they know well has been a subject of discussion for many decades. In Tanzania, there is an ongoing debate regarding the language of instruction in secondary schools. The country is blessed with a wealth of ethnic groups and languages – about 150 local languages are spoken by people from more than 100 ethnic groups. Such diversity of languages has turned into a great challenge for teaching and learning. In primary schools, Swahili, Tanzania’s national language, is the language of instruction. However, when pupils enter secondary school, Swahili – which they have been learning with great effort for seven years – is no longer used. Here, the language of instruction is English. However, in many rural communities, children’s native language is neither Swahili nor English – each community has its own native language.

Over the past 60 years, politicians have attempted to replace English with Swahili as the language of instruction in secondary schools, as English is considered to be a colonial language. However, these attempts were unsuccessful due to a lack of political support. For example, in 1982, a commission tasked with reviewing the national curriculum recommended to make Swahili the language of instruction. However, the president of Tanzania at the time, Julius Nyerere, rejected the recommendation citing reasons that included the cost of translating textbooks into Swahili and the fact that Swahili was not widely spoken by most learners in rural areas. I believe that instead of focusing on replacing one language with another, multilingual education could be a more productive way forward. Given these linguistic complexities, pupils could have access to more equal opportunities if they were allowed to learn using all languages they know.

Several studies show the benefits of multilingualism. For example, Baker (2001) demonstrates that learners’ use of two or more languages can enhance learning and critical thinking. However, teachers in secondary schools discourage the use of languages other than English. They believe that teaching and learning should exclusively happen in English as pupils can only learn English effectively if it is used as the medium of instruction and communication at school (Mwaipape & Mapunda, 2022). Findings from my doctoral research show that teachers have been punishing students for speaking Swahili or their native language. I consider this denial of languages other than English to be linguistic injustice. For example, a maths teacher asked students to change a fraction into a decimal. One of them happily jumped to the front of the class and began calculating the problem on the chalkboard while explaining the procedure by mixing English with Swahili, ‘Hapa tunachukua three tuna divide na four…’ (‘Here we take three, we divide by four…’). However, before he could finish the teacher angrily asked him, ‘Why do you speak Swahili? Go back to your seat.’ Then, the teacher called upon another student to solve it.

Translanguaging: a pathway to more sustainable futures?

Such observations show the process of translanguaging in which students receive information from the teacher in English, then they process and discuss this information with other students in their native languages or Swahili. When responding to the teacher, they use English again. Teachers tend to discourage this learning strategy due to school policies which prohibit multilingualism. Other reasons include teachers’ negative attitudes towards particular native languages and the fear that using them and Swahili may confuse pupils during examinations which are set in English. Therefore, they force pupils to use English only, which is counterproductive. Pupils stop engaging with the teacher and fall silent as they do not have the linguistic skills to discuss material only in English.

‘Teachers have negative attitudes towards particular native languages and fear that using them and Swahili may confuse pupils during examinations which are set in English.’

One may ask, ‘Which is the best way for learning, silence or translanguaging?’ I advocate for teachers to embrace translanguaging to empower students in their learning journey. This practice would encourage learners to negotiate meaning in their native language then guide them to use their native language experience to discover meaning in English. Scholars such as Rubagumya et al. (2022) demonstrate that if all languages that learners know are strategically used, translanguaging can enhance both learning of English and the subject taught in English. Education policies, therefore, should highlight the importance of incorporating learners’ native languages as a valuable resource for teaching and learning alongside English.


Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Multilingual Matters.

Mwaipape, J., & Mapunda, G. (2022). When an ethnic language sneaks into the Tanzanian rural secondary school classroom: How teachers and learners perceive multilingualism. Kiswahili, 85(1).

Rubagumya, C. M., Sane, E., & Ndabakurane, J. J. (2022). Vignette: Implementing language supportive pedagogy to support content learning in Tanzania. In E. J. Erling, J. Clegg, C. M. Rubagumya, & C. Reilly (Eds.), Multilingual learning and language supportive pedagogies in Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 170–174). Routledge.