A snippet of history: English in Kenya & Tanzania

One of the main goals of the Global Studies department is historicity: In order to understand changes associated with contemporary globalization, we have to realize the effects of long-term historical processes. This couldn’t be more true for my case study involving Kenya and Tanzania. To understand the current situation regarding the English language in these East African countries, it is necessary to take a step back and analyze the history of the language in these areas in the first place. To give you an overview, Kenya and Tanzania were subject to colonization by Europe (Kenya–Britain and Tanzania–German/Britain rule). Obviously, this intervention of Britain as an English-speaking country laid the foundation for English in the countries today (as well as the intervention of missionaries and spreading religion through English Bibles). Prior to Britain’s control of Kenya, Swahili was developing along the coast through trade with Arabs and Portuguese peoples. Britain’s power and influence in Kenya through indirect rule influenced the spread and use of English, which ultimately created a legacy of English being widely spoken in commerce, schooling and government. Today, Kenya has two official languages: English and Swahili, along with several other languages associated with the various ethnic groups and even the different regional dialects. Tanzania, which was originally termed German East Africa, also has Swahili and English as its two official languages. However, Swahili is the national language. English is viewed as a means for Tanzanians to participate in the global market and it is the language of secondary and university education. Swahili is a unifying language and it is viewed as the language of social and political spheres. Why the difference?

Kenya and Tanzania share this history of European colonization and introduction (and ultimate domination) of a foreign language. To understand the difference in use and development of English, we can bring Marx into the equation regarding his argument concerning base and superstructure. For Kenya, the base is capitalism–the basic means of production and the superstructure is ultimately the ideology concerning capitalism (the focus on individualism, competition, etc). Indeed, this is a result of colonial legacy whereby the ruling class (in this case, the British) controlled society politically and economically and their ideology regarding language dominated the times. This supports the idea that if you can speak English, you will succeed in the global market and ultimately become affluent in your own society. For Tanzania, the base is ujamaa (a Swahili term meaning “familyhood”) whereby socialism was the basic means of production and thus the superstructure involved the ideology surrounding socialism. This is evident in the term ujamaa itself and the fact that Swahili was/is viewed as a unifying language in all of Tanzania (no matter what ethnic group one comes from, what mother tongue one speaks). Thus, in both Kenya and Tanzania, the superstructure consists of the ideas that reflect the base–be it capitalism or socialism. Marx’s view regarding the tradition of culture was that cultures belong to ideology; cultures belong to the superstructure (since the superstructure contains the ideology).

In both cases, the English language was/is key to becoming a global force in the global market. Thus, we can now zoom out to the world system and how the global base, I would argue, is capitalism itself and that the modes of production are controlled by capitalist ideology. For this reason, English remains and continues to influence and penetrate more of East African life. As developing countries, Kenya and Tanzania are trying to make a name for themselves in the global market and through English, they become more likely to compete in this capitalist system.

So what’s the matter with this? Indeed, integrating oneself into the global market is not all hunky-dory. For instance, I stayed with the Ameru peoples during my rural homestay in Kenya (Spring 2012). My host sister, educated in Nairobi, speaks Swahili, English and Kimeru. Her parents knew little English, and most of the time they just spoke Kimeru to one another. However, the youngest child knows the least amount of Kimeru. This is because he does not learn this language in school–he learns Swahili and English. As a result, it is up to his family to maintain their mother tongue. Inevitably, some of this knowledge will not be passed down, thus totally affecting the preservation of the language of the Ameru. One aspect of this case study that I will be looking into involves the role of technology, especially the Internet. It is becoming so easy to be connected across thousands and thousands of miles. Almost everywhere you go, you can probably be sure to find someone who has a Facebook or other form of social media account. The use of the Internet and media also affects the spread of English to Kenya and Tanzania, illustrating the origins of certain ideas (i.e. Sheng in Kenya) and the formation of an ideology of how the world is viewed. Indeed, Althusser can also be brought into this equation.

After doing a bit of research and stumbling across videos, I came across this TedTalk. According to Mark Pagel (a biologist), language is the foundation of the creation of ideas and knowledge. He states: “Language is a piece of social technology.” Later, he asks: “In this modern globalized world, can we really afford to have all of these different languages?”

“Is our destiny to be one world with one language?”

[youtube ImQrUjlyHUg nolink]



Source used: Cheshire, Jenny. English around the World: Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.



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