Dozens of languages

In a project funded by Kone Foundation, Lotta Aunio and work group are studying four languages spoken in the Mara Region in West Tanzania and will create a comparative grammar to serve as a basis for standardising the languages and their writing systems.

Hoping to bring the people of the newly independent Tanzania together, Julius Nyerere, the country’s first president, declared that Swahili would be the national language used in contexts such as primary school teaching and parliament, and as a lingua franca. The official language, English, is used in higher education. Officially speaking, the language situation in Tanzania seems fairly cohesive, but in practice around 120 languages are spoken in the country. Although, like Swahili, many of these languages belong to the Bantu language family and are thus very closely related, Tanzania is the only African country where languages belonging to all four African language families are spoken. According to the most recent official population census (2012), Tanzania has around 45 million inhabitants; based on an annual population growth of over 3%, this indicates that the population now exceeds 50 million, which means that the Tanzanian population expands by the size of the entire Finnish population every 3–4 years!

Swahili and English dominate the street scene in Tanzania. Other Tanzanian languages are mainly visible in the names of small companies or in sporadic AIDS awareness posters. This is at least partially due to the fact that most Tanzanian languages have no official writing system and are not taught at school. Swahili is the first language that Tanzanians learn to write. However, the case is completely different for spoken languages:

– What language do you speak?

– Well, at home in Mugumu my mother spoke Ikoma and my father spoke Isenye. With my friends, I also spoke Ngoreme and Nata. At school, I learned Swahili and English. Here, in Musoma, I have neighbours who speak at least Zanaki and Kabwa, so I speak a little of these languages as well.

Most Tanzanians speak several languages. In addition to the languages they speak at home and school, Tanzanians often speak other languages that are widely used locally and, when they move between areas, often learn the languages spoken in the new area. Although Tanzania’s languages seem to be in complete harmony in everyday life and Tanzanians seem to speak several languages seamlessly, the huge obstacles created by so many languages cannot be ignored.

To avoid the ethnic conflicts that had beset neighbouring countries, Nyerere decided to give Swahili special status while correspondingly excluding the country’s other languages from official use. Tanzania’s other languages were only accorded official recognition in the 1997 cultural manifesto, which encouraged people to preserve their languages alongside other aspects of their cultural heritage, in a similar way to historical monuments. In reality, most Tanzanians still speak these other languages as their first language. This means that all Tanzanians use a foreign language at school: in primary school, the language of instruction is Swahili, whereas teaching is provided in English if the children are able to progress further. In many cases, children have to repeat a school year: the first year is spent learning the language of instruction and the second learning the content. Attention has recently been paid to shortcomings in the learning environment, such as a lack of school books or overly large group sizes, but it is often forgotten that huge resources are being squandered because education is being provided in a foreign language. For many, the requirement to repeat a year at school means dropping out completely.

Several studies indicate that learning is much faster and more effective when education is provided in the pupil’s mother tongue. On the other hand, educational material cannot be provided in languages that have no grammar or official writing system. In a project funded by Kone Foundation, we are studying four languages spoken in the Mara Region in West Tanzania (Ikoma, Nata, Isenye and Ngoreme) and will create a comparative grammar to serve as a basis for standardising the languages and their writing systems.


Lotta Aunio

University Lecturer in Bantu Languages / Editor of Studia Orientalia Department of World Cultures University of Helsinki Kone Foundation funds the research project of Lotta Aunio and the work group: Kielellinen variaatio historiallisten suhteiden ja kielikontaktien mittarina: neljän Maran läänin bantukielen kuvaus (Tansania).