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The Ota Initiative Blog

The Language Barrier

Before you read this update, I must first insist that you watch the above video (or check out this NPR news story), which is an award-winning short film made by three Tanzanian youths, in broken English, to showcase how the Tanzanian education system has failed to teach them English, and how they will now fail out of the Tanzanian education system because of this. The amateur film makers are Form 3 (think 9th grade) students who must pass national tests, in English, in Form 4 next year or be kicked out of government schools. They explain that while primary education in Tanzania is in Swahili, the language of instruction switches to English in secondary schooll. This daunting switch is made even more impossible by the fact that most Tanzanian teachers don’t speak proper English. A particularly heart-wrenching section of the video comes five minutes in when the students struggle to not just answer questions from a practice test, but to even understand what the questions are asking.

While this video may shock western audiences, it details a struggle that Tanzanian students face every day. We at Ota are more than familiar with this struggle because since the beginning of our program our parents have repeatedly asked for more English instruction. They, like the students in the video, know that their children need to know English if they want an education and a better future. While people may debate how necessary it is to know English in order to land a good job in Tanzania, the simplest reason students need to learn English is that otherwise they will fail out of school. For this reason, we were very happy that we could add a full week of purely English-language instruction to this summer’s Ota program.

We had hesitated to add English programming before because we lacked fluent English speakers to guide instruction, but our wonderful Amizade volunteers from West Virginia University helped solve this problem. As I detailed in the last email update, a major focus of this program’s training seminar was having the American volunteers work with our Tanzanian teachers to improve their English and prepare them to run the English portion of the program.

Head Teach Pontian and all five of our Group Leaders reported that the English week of our program was a great success. Through games, plays, and stories, our students learned basic English phrases such as how to introduce yourself and others, how to ask about and identify classroom objects, and how to ask for permission. I even had the opportunity to talk with some students via phone one morning and hear them practice their new English skills. It was amazing. I hope that we find a way to keep receiving American volunteers to help us provide native-level English instruction during our program, something that is so very important but so inaccessible in Kayanga’s schools. For anyone even remotely thinking about volunteering or teaching English abroad, I know a place that could use your services :)

For now, I would like to thank you all again for your support and encourage you one last time to take just 10 minutes out of your commute, your lunch break, or your afternoon cup of tea to watch the Tanzanian students’ video. It will make the importance of Ota’s English language week clearer than I ever can.

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