Tanzanian students struggling with English ‘feel bullied’ – a major barrier to learning

In many postcolonial contexts, early learning is conducted, and assessed, in a language that is unfamiliar to learners. About 40 percent of the world’s population cannot access schooling in a language that they understand and that is regularly used in their communities. This figure may be as high as 80 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Language policies in some countries preserve a role for mother tongue or other familiar local languages in the first years of schooling. This is the case for example in Kenya, Botswana and Ethiopia. In Tanzania, the national language – Kiswahili – is the language of instruction in primary schooling. The use of Kiswahili at this level was seen as integral to forging a new national Tanzanian identity after independence.

But nearly all countries switch to English, French or Portuguese by the start of secondary schooling.

Tanzania is no exception. Although there was a shift in the wording of the language policy in 2015, there was strong opposition to change. Young people continue to experience an abrupt transition to English when they enter Form 1 of secondary school from 14 years old.

There is clear evidence that the compulsory use of English makes learning more difficult and contributes to poor outcomes. Research has also found, however, that many students and teachers wanted to retain English as the language of instruction.

To try to unpick this perplexing confusion, I sought to explore students’ experiences of language in school, alongside their broader attitudes and aspirations relating to education and language. My study confirmed previous findings that compulsory use of English limits learner comprehension and participation. More significantly, I found that underlying student fear of poor expression in a new language – and being laughed at or mocked by teachers and fellow students – was a prevalent barrier to learning and participation.

The findings from this study are a clear pointer that any new approaches must include changes to classroom management.

Laughter and humiliation should not be allowed as responses to mistakes.

The study

This study was conducted over eight months in two secondary schools in the Morogoro region of central Tanzania. The urban school had more than 1,500 students and included both lower and advanced secondary level, forms 1-6. The rural school was a newer, community school, with 600 students in forms 1-4. This study was designed for depth of understanding, so it focused on only two schools. There may be differences in learners’ experiences in different schools and regions across the country, but the challenges found in these two schools were similar to those reported in the wider literature.

The research approach was ethnographic – through observation in and out of class as well as formal and informal interviews with students and teachers. During this research, young people were free to speak Kiswahili, English or a mix of these two. Although there were other local languages used in the communities, they were not widely used in school. This is perhaps different in other regions of the country where there is a more dominant local language.

I trained and worked with a group of pupil researchers from the two schools. They conducted their own interviews, co-facilitated workshops and helped to interpret the findings and explain their meaning in the Tanzanian context. I wanted to recognise the importance of their accounts and explanations.

What we found

The vast majority of pupils in this study had not used English as a language of instruction before starting secondary school at age 14 or above. They also had limited exposure to English outside school. Only a small number of pupils at the urban school had attended private, English-medium primary schools.

To enable learners to understand, most teachers translated lesson content into Kiswahili. This happens elsewhere too, but it is much less common for teachers to allow students to answer questions in a familiar language. In this study I observed learners asking to speak in Kiswahili and being told that this was not permitted. Students had to translate their knowledge into English to respond.

Many students explained that they preferred to remain silent. This is because if they tried to answer and failed to express themselves, they risked being laughed at and perceived as unintelligent by their teachers and classmates. A female Form 2 student in the urban school said, “You will be laughed at, which means we are afraid of the shame … fear, again.”

Students’ fears were not unfounded. I recorded many instances of laughter punctuating student responses in class. These include some which were led by teachers who seemed to be using humiliation and fear of failure as strategies to motivate learners to work harder. In some cases, threats of physical punishment were also used against students who were unable to complete a task.

This study found that girls were particularly worried about cruel comments from other girls that they termed “gossiping”.

Learners’ experiences of negative emotions may differ based on gender, but this was not the focus of my study.


Requiring young students to use an unfamiliar language to participate in learning works against the global aspirations for inclusive and equitable quality education. In Tanzania and other Sub-Saharan African countries, some important work is being done with local teachers and teacher educators to develop multilingual, trans lingual and language supportive approaches to teaching.

The key feature is the use of a familiar language for exploratory discussion and to support learning of both subject content and the target language. Currently on a small scale, it is happening in a several countries, including Tanzania, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Research is also under way to explore opportunities for expanding to a larger scale.

Students must feel safe to talk and experiment with language and ideas without fear of shame.