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Does English Grow Brains?

Editorial, The East African (Nairobi), 28 September 2000

Dar es Salaam - The decision by the University of Dar es Salaam, the highest institution of learning in Tanzania, to introduce an English language test for aspiring entrants raises troubling questions. It is ostensibly intended to gauge the ability of applicants to follow lessons offered in English.

But while this motive sounds plausible in theory, it may turn out to be self-defeating in practice. Education standards have deteriorated sharply in recent years, and the English language has been one of the casualties.

Competence in English ceased to be a criterion for entrance into university (or high school for that matter) after independence; English was seen as a colonial language whose importance should be reduced while the status of Kiswahili was raised.

It was considered unfair to use English as a gauge of intelligence or to deny entrance to university to someone whose performance in other subjects might be exemplary.

English was thus de-emphasised at virtually all levels of learning; high-school leavers, and quite a number of university entrants, soon became incapable of expressing themselves fluently in written or spoken English.

In marking essays and exams, what counted was content rather than language. Outside the university campus, seminars and workshops in English ended up as bilingual events. Chairpersons tended to put participants at their ease by giving them the freedom to speak in either English or Kiswahili. Similarly, many resource persons circulated papers in English but made summarised presentations in Kiswahili.

Experience has shown that rigidity doesn't pay and is actually counterproductive. Nevertheless, in recent years, the importance of English is being more and more acknowledged and emphasis is being laid on its promotion as an academic subject and a medium of instruction and communication, as well as a bridge between peoples of various nations.

All this is reasonable enough, but it has also given rise to the unfortunate tendency to equate a mastery of English with academic competence. Hence the scramble by Tanzanian parents and guardians to send their children to school in Kenya or Uganda and the mushrooming of legitimate and fake English-medium schools at home.

A balance has to be struck. In the meantime, aspirants for local university education are being given a raw deal. What's more, many lecturers are products of the same weak English schooling. How fair would they be as assessors of the competence of others?