The Importance of a National Language


According to Ethnologue, a popular online linguistics publication, there are one hundred and twenty seven languages spoken in The United Republic of Tanzania, a country comparable in size to the state of Texas. Of these, one hundred and twenty five languages are living, and two are extinct. Of the living languages, one hundred and seventeen are indigenous, and eight are foreign. Fifty-eight are considered to be vigorously used and sustainable, thirty-nine are considered endangered, eighteen languages are considered to be developing, and eight are considered dying. Two languages, Swahili and English, are recognized as institutionalized national languages by the legislature of Tanzania.

The two languages have very distinct roles within the nation. In 1984, the National Linguistics Policy proclaimed Swahili the primary language of Tanzania and the language of the social and political sphere. English was proclained to be used almost entirely for educational purposes as the language of high schools and universities, as well as in technological centers and within the high courts. This system prevailed, but with complication. Classes in primary schools were taught in Swahili and English was taught as a secondary language, much like Spanish and French are taught in American primary schools. But as soon as students reached high school, their regular language of instruction switched to English instead of Swahili. Though the intention was to create a nation of bilinguals the result was one of students not necessarily proficient in either language, yet expected to comprehend both.

Being that this was only one of the many issues plaguing the Tanzanian education system, the government embarked on an all-out education system overhaul. In March of 2015, the government declared their solution to the language of education problem. Becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to do so, Tanzania discontinued the use of English as the language of education, switching instead to Swahili at all levels of education, from primary school through the university level. The question is…was this a practical change?

Due to European imperialism in the partition of Africa, national boundaries throughout the continent do not necessarily reflect the cultural identities of their inhabitants, and Eastern Africa has long been afflicted with cultural strife and conflict due to the lack of a unifying sense of nationality. Though its neighbors, especially Kenya and Rwanda, have been heavily burdened by this disunity and tribal warfare, Tanzania has managed to mostly evade this issue, despite boasting over one hundred and thirty tribes each with their own language and culture. Many Tanzanians credit this relative tranquility to the popular use of Swahili over smaller tribal languages. Swahili itself is a combination of many languages and cultures: a blend of Arabic, Bantu, English, and German. The language reflects the history of East Africa, and has served as a force of unification in Tanzania. Some believe that choosing to educate Tanzanians in their own language promotes cultural self-affirmation, and furthers national unity by helping define what it truly means to be a Tanzanian.

Others fear the international implications this bold proclamation will set forth. In a globalized world where international economics and politics are executed in English, devaluing a Tanzanian student’s English education may be a step backwards for a nation hoping to increase its presence in the global arena. The decision to turn English into a foreign language will inevitably exacerbate the barrier to entry Tanzanians face when trying to involve themselves in international affairs. Even if Tanzanians are able to retain their ability to speak English eloquently enough to conduct business in Europe and the Americas, Tanzania will lose its competitive advantage over the rest of East Africa when companies realize that in order to settle down in Tanzania, they must pay more for bilingual employees or hire additional translators.

The lack of national unity resulting from European-imposed artificial borders has been the cause of intermittent tribal warfare across the African continent. A clear example of this is Nigeria, a country lacking a common identity so much so that CollegeBoard uses Nigeria on the AP Comparative Government exam as an example of a “failed state”. What it means to be Nigerian has become so unclear that an overwhelming number of Nigerians consider their first loyalty to their tribe, laying aside their allegiance to their country. This lack of national unity is what has made violence between tribes so easy, and this intra-national division has forged an environment where terrorist organizations like Boko Haram can pick up the fallen pieces to create a thriving breeding ground for radicalization and recruitment.

This is not to suggest that Tanzania’s conversion to Swahili necessarily saves them from intertribal crises. Nor do I mean to suggest that if Nigerians could only pick a common language, Boko Haram may cease to exist. I do believe, however, that Boko Haram would have a much harder time carrying out attacks and radicalizing young recruits if Nigerians truly felt a sense of pride and connection to their national identity. In this sense, I see Tanzania’s move towards using one shared language as creating a common thread across the country, an opportunity to truly unify a nation out of an artificially fabricated state. Unified, Tanzania could expect to see less tribal chaos and more national order. A common sense of patriotism would illuminate Tanzanian self-identity, an ideal I believe is well worth the potential economic difficulties Tanzania may face in the future.

Originally published in Washington University Political Review. 


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