Sunday, July 19, 2009

"‘Tis the quality of what we produce that will make us global, not English" by Young Kimaro, columnist, Daily News Online, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

‘Tis the quality of what we produce that will make us global, not English
by Young Kimaro
Development with Commonsense column
For May 10th, 2008 issue of the Daily News

According to an article in the Citizen of April 30, the Minister for Education and Vocational Training, Prof. Maghembe, wants to make English the medium of teaching and learning at all levels of Tanzanian education system, as soon as possible.

The reasons he reportedly gave were that “English is the recognized medium of instruction and communication in the world and, according to him, everyone is encouraged to learn it in the hope of keeping pace with the… globalization process.” But he recognizes that there are many challenges – lack of English-proficient teachers at all levels, lack of books – that may slow down the implement by five years.

What if the reasons for which English is about to be enthroned again in Tanzania are misplaced, fallacious?

The “we need English to participate in globalization” mantra has taken hold of Tanzania. It is chanted repeatedly by people of all ages, so much so that despite the fallacy of its assumption it has donned an air of unassailable truth.

Don’t they say if a lie is repeated often enough, even the liar himself will begin to believe it? So, assail we must this pretender to unassailability.

English is the medium of instruction in the U.K. and its ex-colonies as French is the medium of instruction in France, German in Germany, Swedish in Sweden, Dutch in Holland, Japanese in Japan, Spanish in Spain, Danish in Denmark, Korean in Korea and so on. Let’s get it straight. English is one of many, not “the” medium of instruction around the world.

Do you suppose that those countries listed whose people don’t all speak fluent English, struggle to keep up with globalization as some English speakers might want us to believe? Not in the least bit. They “lead” the globalization process in many areas, ahead of their English speaking counterparts. More than half of the countries listed have average income that is higher than those of the U.K. or the U.S.A. Doesn’t that drive home the point?

Japanese products – Sony, Toyota, Nissan, Nikon, Hitachi, Sanyo, and National have become household words even in remote villages. It wasn’t English that Japanese don’t speak that made them so, but the “quality” of their product that made them highly sought after even in our villages.

Yes, people in these non-English speaking countries all learn English. They do so for the convenience of it. English has indeed become the lingua franca of the world. That has more to do with history than inherent merit of the English language. England was, afterall, the leading colonial master from the 18th to 20th century. Three centuries is a long time, long enough for a language that was imposed to stick.

Wouldn’t we love to export to our neighbouring countries cars that we have started to assemble in Tanzania? What if that company spent money to train every single person in that car factory, from the floor sweeper to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), to speak English fluently? What if, instead, that money was spent on quality enhancement and quality control so that they end up producing better cars?

Wouldn’t a CEO who is mindful of costs be selective? Would he have only those who need English on the job be trained and devote a larger chunk of the money on product quality enhancement? He wouldn’t train his entire labour force in English. That would be a waste. And yet isn’t that precisely what our Ministry of Education proposes to do, but in a grander scale involving the entire country?

In Italy, as in all non-English speaking countries, English is taught as a second or third language. The majority of Italians wouldn’t be able to converse comfortably in English. Still, Italy “leads” the world in tourism, hands down. With them, there is no “hoping” to keep up with globalization for them.

It’s not English but the quality of our products that will earn us a place in the globalization process. Why then do we persist, wanting to put all bets on English when improved math skills, science, entrepreneurship, management and marketing skills could serve us better?

No Kiswahili in schools means Kiswahili will fade away in large parts of the country where it is not the mother tongue. English will replace Kiswahili as the country’s lingua franca, the only means of uniting 120 some ethnic groups throughout the country that have their own distinct languages.

Gone will be our national pride for having an African language to unify us rather than a language that has a stamp of colonial legacy. And we would have spent hundreds of billions of shillings with the hope that English will make us more global when that “hope” may be nothing but our misplaced, wishful thinking.


  1. This is very powerful article. I could not agree more. I have drafted an article for my blog on the same topic but I will add some of the comments, nonetheless.

    One of the writers in Malawi's Daily Times also published an article arguing for the 'importance' of English in development. Unlike this minister, the Daily Times author blamed democracy for the 'increasingly sub-standard' levels of English and not the lack of resources as the Tanzanian minister has.

    What is interesting however is the fact that this is least important issue as far as Africa is concerned. In fact it would not even appear on my footnotes.

    Africa and Africans need the kind of education that will teach them to be self sustained: Agriculture, vocational courses, basic numeracy and literacy, improving their heath and well being (curable Malaria remains one of the highest killer diseases on the continent, not to mention HIV/AIDS).

    All these issues have to be taught in a language that people are familiar with. Not starting to teach people foreign language. English is administrative language in Africa, if anything. No-one can tell me that everyone will work in public administration. In fact overwhelming majority of Africans depend on Agriculture.

    For instance, UN statistics indicates that over 86 per cent of Malawians depend on agriculture for their living. What these people need are ways on how to improve the agriculture. Things like irrigation, making composite manure and coping with affects of global warming. Not globalisation that has so far only helped to promote multinational corporations - mainly American.

  2. Well done as you selected this topic as such education.And the different information about this and steps those taken by the different association...Thanks for publishing ...
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