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When an Ethnic Language Sneaks into the Tanzanian Rural Secondary School Classroom: How Teachers and Learners Perceive Multilingualism

Joshua Mwaipape
Gastor Mapunda


Most African countries have adopted the languages of ex-colonial masters as media of instruction (MoI). In Tanzania, English has remained the sole MoI from secondary to post-secondary education despite the endemic multilingualism in the country. Such a monolingual tendency in a multilingual setting has raised debates on how learners manage their studies through English, a language which is scarcely used in their everyday conversation. Thus, the current paper investigates learners’ strategic use of ethnic languages (EL) Nyakyusa and Swahili in the learning of the English language and other selected subjects. It also examines teachers’ and learners’ attitudes to the use of ethnic languages in the teaching and learning process in Tanzanian rural secondary schools. The study was carried out in Kyela District, Mbeya Region, among Form One and Form Two students whose first language is Nyakyusa, but who also use Swahili often when talking to peers at home and around the school compound. We used classroom observation and focus groups to collect data. The analysis revealed that some learners made use of Swahili and Nyakyusa for a number of reasons, including seeking assistance from fellow students whenever they came across a new English word/expression in the classroom. We also found that teachers and students reacted differently to the use of languages other than English in the classroom. While students believed that they would not be able to learn anything if their language was completely unused in the class, teachers believed that the use of Nyakyusa and Swahili was inappropriate. Consequently, teachers controlled learners’ use of Swahili and Nyakyusa in the class and around the school.

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eISSN: 0023-1886