Linguistic Imperialism

English as a Medium of Instruction in Tanzanian Secondary Education

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

39 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Perception of English Language Policies
2.1. Linguistic Imperialism
2.2. World Englishes
2.3. Language Policies in Anglophone Africa

3. Tanzania
3.1. Language Situation in Tanzania
3.1.1. Swahili – the National Language
3.1.2. English – the Official Language
3.2. English as the Medium of Instruction
3.2.1. Resulting Problems
3.2.2. Obstacles to Change
3.2.3. A Case of Linguistic Imperialism?

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Every year in the beginning of the school year Tanzanian students starting secondary school are confronted with a foreign language as medium of instruction: English. Every year at the end of the school year Tanzanian students finishing secondary school are confronted with fears of failing their examinations due to the foreign language of examinations: English. Every day of their secondary schooling career Tanzanian students approach the additional task of mastering the contents of their daily curriculum in English. Despite concerns from various areas this language policy has remained in existence since the idea of school has been introduced to what today is Tanzania. The purpose of this strategy is not self-evident as the results appear to be problematic for Tanzania. Other countries, however, might benefit from this particular Tanzanian language policy.

With respect to Phillipson’s1 notion of “Linguistic Imperialism” this paper will examine the current use of English as a medium of instruction in Tanzanian secondary education. In combination with Kachru’s2 model of “World Englishes” Phillipson’s theory gives a sound foundation from which it will be possible to assess language policies in anglophone Africa. In due consideration of the linguistic situation in Tanzania, the role of English as a medium of instruction emerges as an appealing topic to inquire. It must be emphasized that this thesis does not contain any arguments against the learning of English as a foreign language; on the contrary, reasonable English language proficiency is regarded as very valuable in today’s globalized world. However, this paper is only concerned with English as the language used for the daily classroom communication.

When speaking about language it is convenient to clarify some terminology. Language can be differentiated according to three major criterions. Firstly, it is possible to distinguish different levels of speakers’ language proficiency. The mother tongue is the language the speaker knows from his immediate initial contact with language. It is usually the language that he learns from his parents, hence the term mother tongue. Sometimes the mother tongue is also called native language or first language. It is possible to have more than one first language as bi- or multilingual speakers show. A language that is acquired at a later stage but with which the speaker feels very confident is usually referred to as second language. Languages that the speaker learns but never adopts as his preferred language of expression are called foreign languages. Secondly, language can also be differentiated with reference to its role in a political setting. Official languages are languages that are attributed a function by law within a state. National languages, in contrast, are accepted by governments and spoken by many members of the nation, but not necessarily used in all official situations. Thirdly, languages can be classified with reference to their geographical occurrences. Dialects, for example, are spoken by a relatively small number of people and are regionally restricted. In contrast, languages of wider communication, which go beyond political borders are often used for transnational communication of neighboring countries. Global languages have speakers in virtually every corner of the world and are particularly important for general international communication. The only truly global language today is English as it has the biggest number of speakers if all levels of proficiency are accepted and as it is not geographically restricted. However, being a global language the worldwide use of English entails debatable issues.

2. The Perception of English Language Policies

People perceive English language policies differently depending on their experiences and their attitudes towards this global language. In order to examine the language question in Tanzania, we have to gain insight into the most influential perspectives first. In the following paragraphs these, namely Pennycook’s, Phillipson’s and Kachru’s theories, will be introduced as they show the whole scope of the past’s approaches to view the topic.

An approach, which already in itself incorporates different stances, is what Pennycook names “English as Global and Worldly Language” (Pennycook 2003: 3). On the one hand “global language” illustrates the wide spread of English and its institutionalization and “focus[es] on the process of globalization” (ibid: 15). “Worldliness”, on the other hand, emphasizes on the perspective of the people to which English has spread and where it was institutionalized. It is the “site of resistance, change, adaption and reformulation” (ibid: 15). The combination of these two viewpoints gives an insight into the complexities of English language policies.

Similar perspectives are considered in Phillipson’s outline of “Linguistic Imperialism” and the Kachruvian notion of “World Englishes”, which in juxtaposition show two sides of the coin of English Language Policies: an outside and an inside view. Phillipson focuses on the forces acting from the outside: How do global institutions dictate the language policies of certain countries? On the contrary, Kachru explores the forces acting from within and honors the development English has already undergone in certain countries. The following paragraphs will explore these two perspectives in order to lay a theoretical foundation on which the case of Tanzanian secondary education can be examined.

2.1. Linguistic Imperialism

According to Robert Phillipson we speak of English Linguistic Imperialism when “the dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages” (Phillipson 1992: 47). English Linguistic Imperialism is a term that derived from the discussion of why English has gained the status of a “global language” and whose interests it serves. At the same time we have to question whose right or duty it is to use such a term.

In the wake of the international debt crisis in the 1980s, which showed the limitations of our planet’s resources, the Western countries developed a growing global consciousness. In this context many conferences and summits took place including the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (Nuscheler 2005), which, amongst other things, stated that “States should recognize and duly support their identity [of the indigenous people], culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development” (UN 1992). In accordance to this movement Phillipson adopts a term that was first mentioned by Gilbert Ansre, a sociolinguist from Ghana in 1979.

The phenomenon in which the minds and lives of the speakers of a language are dominated by another language to the point where they believe that they can and should use only that foreign language when it comes to transactions dealing with the more advanced aspects of life such as education, philosophy, literature, governments, the administration of justice, etc. […] Linguistic imperialism has a subtle way of warping the way of even the most noble in a society and of preventing him from appreciating and realizing the full potentialities of the indigenous languages. (Ansre 1979: 12-13)

Phillipson embraces Ansre’s concept of Linguistic Imperialism and develops it further. He embeds it into Johan Galtung’s theory of imperialism that focuses on the creation of a scholarly discourse with an emphasis on human needs rather than on pure economism (Phillipson 1992: 51). “Structural and cultural inequalities” accordingly refer to material and immaterial/ideological disparities. If these are deliberately constructed and sustained in order to uphold the dominance of English, Phillipson suggests, we speak of English Linguistic Imperialism. He believes that English keeps on being deliberately spread to serve British and North-American interests. “Linguistic imperialism dovetails with communicative, cultural, educational, and scientific imperialism in a rapidly evolving world in which corporate-led globalization is seeking to impose or induce a neo-imperial world order” (Phillipson 2006: 357). The linguistic component alone would not cause much debate, but its entanglement with other components of imperialism named above creates a situation in which ethical principals are not adhered. Linguistic imperialism is only in these powerful connections a problem and must be addressed within this setting. The different components and their links to each other will be explained in the following few paragraphs.

As English is dominant in most international corporations as well as in bodies such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, English is usually accepted as a global language of communication. English has therefore become the language of international relations and is thus the “established lingua franca of the political sphere because it is the language of the most powerful players and of the dominating ideology” (Wright 2004: 150). Because communication with all participants in a globalized world is indispensable and English seems to be accepted as the sole medium, we can definitely state that communicative imperialism is strengthened every day through linguistic imperialism.

The English mentality is imported into every part of the world that has access to electricity and electronic devices, through the film industry and the North American popular culture. Therefore it becomes evident that cultural imperialism is common. Exceptions to this are countries such as North Korea, because they resist English imperialism for ideological reasons at the expense of many types of freedom. Whether or not resistance could, in these cases, be worth the prize is not part of this paper though it remains an area worth exploring. English cultural export does not only manifest itself in the worldwide recognition of English speaking celebrities, but also in US food and drink styles (Mc Donald’s, Coca Cola) and in US fashion styles (Nike). Local youth culture, in particular, is contributing to the spread of the demand for English cultural goods (Wright 2004). Interestingly not only Hollywood (US film industry) conveys culture through English, but also Bollywood (the Indian film industry) and Nollywood (the Nigerian film industry) use English, though not solely, as a medium. To what extent Bollywood and Nollywood diffuse or strengthen cultural imperialism through linguistic imperialism will be seen in the future.

English educational imperialism implies that any didactical or methodological question with any educational relevance is not answered by the respective nation, but by an anglophone nation. Also administrative controversies are not an issue of the country itself. This includes, amongst other things, particularly the language question. The choice of languages taught as subjects as well as the choice of languages used as media of instruction is made abroad. While these choices come to mind when considering the language question, as they are the most dominant ones, also other choices are affected: development of curricula for teachers’ education and the appointment of textbook publishers are also influenced. Through direct interference in these educational language policies, the Western English speaking countries and the whole apparatus that emerged from it are intensely practicing English linguistic imperialism.

Another component of linguistic imperialism is scientific imperialism. With communicative, cultural, and educational imperialism scientists in their publications cannot avoid the use of the English language. Due to the dominant Western position and most notably of anglophone Western scientists, the research community quite naturally communicates through English. Especially since the Information Technology revolution that emerged in the USA other languages had to face their retraction in favor of English. Today, when we come to the medium in which the flows of information on cutting-edge science take place, then English does dominate exclusively and in every sphere. The research community has come to inform itself, debate and publish in English, even where the innovation originated in other speech communities. (Wright 2004: 151)

Keeping the interaction between the different components of imperialism in mind, we speakers of English should reflect on our position and contribution to linguistic imperialism.

This paper is written in English. Being written in English this paper uses English syntax and semantics and therefore employs a Western line of argumentation and Western rhetoric. As it will be read only by people who understand English this paper contributes to English-medium scholarly discussion. So far, the main emphasis was on Robert Phillipson (a British linguist, currently working in Denmark) and the arguments were backed by Sue Wright (again, a British linguist). For the eligibility for the further employment of the term “Linguistic Imperialism” in connection with Tanzanian language policies I would like to refer to some African voices.

Within the setting of growing global consciousness in the early 1990’s Phillipson’s work on Linguistic Imperialism was debated controversially. Especially his reference to Africa found dissentient opinions amongst the English speaking African élite. Joseph Bisong, a Nigerian linguist, argues that English is not imposed on African countries such as Nigeria, but that they voluntarily chose English as their national language. “Nigerians are sophisticated enough to know what is in their interest […] Phillipson’s argument shows a failure to appreciate fully the complexities of this situation.” (Bisong 1995: 131) Bisong’s response reflected the feelings of many Africans. The Western society could therefore accept the current situation and be indifferent about this particular global issue. However, other African voices have called for further investigation.

Long before 1992, accompanying the series of independence movements in Africa in the 1960s, African authors had to make decisions on their use of language and therefore make a decision which language policy to support. Two main schools of thought emerged. One was favored by Chinua Achebe who grew up in colonial Nigeria and learned to love colonial education with all its culture, which he later incorporated in his opinion. This school of thought valued English as the unifying global language and vigorously demands an African appropriation of English.

What I do see is a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a worldwide language. So my answer to the question Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask. Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker ? I should say, I hope not. […] The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience. (Achebe 1965: 29)

With growing understanding of dignity and self respect the second school of thought established itself as such. It is usually associated with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan author whose essay “The Language of African Literature” pinpointed this alternative school of thought. After years of writing in English and enriching a foreign tongue, he decided in 1977 to follow his “calling to do for his language what Spencer, Milton, and Shakespeare did for English, what Pushkin and Tolstoy did for Russian; indeed what all writers in world history have done for their languages [emphases added]” (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o 1986: 82). He wrote in his own language, Gikũyũ.

In a globalizing world global communication becomes indispensible, so we have to find an adequate way of interacting. This includes the choice of language and the choice seems to be made: English. If this choice was the outcome of a natural development of non-anglophone countries’ language policies, it would be easy to accept. However, as this paper will exemplarily explore, “the dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstruction of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages” (Phillipson 1992: 47). So the phenomenon of what Ansre named linguistic imperialism causes problems, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, which the examination of the case of Tanzania will approach later.

Remaining questions are of an ethical nature and are concerned with the motives of the group of people who are interested in establishing the term “Linguistic Imperialism”. The role of the Western scholar engaged in this debate is ambiguous. On the one hand he is fulfilling a historically given responsibility; on the other hand he is claiming an unjustified right to judge other cultures’ maturity. It is difficult to speculate about the perception of a comparable term to the term of “Linguistic Imperialism” created by an African. It is even more difficult to speculate if the discussion took place in an African language. Thinking in postcolonial terms, however, it would be more appropriate for this whole debate to occur in an African context, because [t]he terms we use, the words we work with and the concepts we apply are never innocent. They constitute not just the field under discussion, but determine the approaches taken to this field, the questions raised about it and the insights to be gained. If theories generally begin by naming, postcolonial theory begins with the awareness that names are never natural but always imposed, hence that naming is an act of power. (Döring 2008)

Through application of the postcolonial theory as explained in the above quote the term “Linguistic Imperialism” has to be reflected with great care, because it is an oxymoron. The concept of these two English words is meant to advert to the inappropriate English language dominance. Alternatively, the English debate about the concept of “Linguistic Imperialism” could raise awareness of historical wrongs and start to influence the Western mindset, through which it would retain its qualification to appear here. Perhaps the sole view from “this side of the coin” is not sufficient and “Linguistic Imperialism” needs to be viewed in juxtaposition to the theory of “World Englishes”.

2.2. World Englishes

English is the language that currently is most widely spread. A large proportion of the world’s population today is learning English either as a native language (ENL), a second language (ESL) or a foreign language (EFL). ENL means, that the speaker grows up with English as his mother tongue; English is therefore the language that is spoken at his home where he grew up, the language the speaker was mostly exposed to. The estimated 350 million ENL speakers (Jenkins 2003) live mostly in the UK; the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is possible to have more than one native language, which is the case for many Mexicans living in the USA and South Africans. If English is learned as the second language, the speaker is exposed to English in his own country. However, these speakers of ESL have other languages as their mother tongues. They approximately number to 350 million again (Jenkins 2003) and live in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Singapore (mostly Commonwealth Countries). When English is neither an official nor a national language for people who nevertheless learn English, they are said to be speakers of EFL. Usually EFL speakers learn English through formal education with the intention of communicating with other English speakers in this globalized world. The number of EFL speakers is difficult to estimate because this depends on setting a standard for the level of competence. Jenkins carefully alludes to the estimate of one billion of EFL speakers with a ‘reasonable competence’ (Jenkins 2003: 15)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Braj Kachru developed a three-circle model, in which he incorporated ENL, ESL, and EFL speakers. Compared to other models that also show the diverse picture of “World Englishes“, Kachru’s has been the most influential. It depicts three groups of English speaking people and represents the ENL speakers in the “Inner Circle”, the ESL speakers in the “Outer Circle” and the EFL speakers in the “Expanding Circle”. In the most recent version of the model from 1992 Kachru places three circles vertically on top of “earlier versions of English” (Jenkins: 2003: 16). The Inner Circle, based on the earlier versions, represents the English as spoken by native speakers. The Outer Circle, based on the Inner Circle stands for the speakers of ESL. The Expanding Circle, respectively, corresponds to the speakers of EFL. Next to the patterns of acquisition, the three circles also represent “the types of spread […] and functional allocation of English in diverse cultural contexts” (Kachru cited in Jenkins 2003: 15). During the first diaspora, English travelled from Great Britain to the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These are the countries where English is mainly spoken as the mother tongue. The second diaspora during colonialism brought English to the Outer Circle. Usually English is spoken as a second language in these countries. In the Expanding Circle countries are found, in which English is sought after as a foreign language with negligible political pressure due to the strong position English has acquired during its first and second diaspora. With respect to the functional allocation, English is used as a vehicular language in the Inner Circle. In the Outer Circle English is equated with a certain degree of power; in order to access this power (political, economical, educational, or medical) English proficiency is requested. Unlike in the other Circles, people from the Expanding Circle do not depend on their knowledge of English. It offers benefits (especially in the economical sector), but the lack of English proficiency in the Expanding Circle does not prevent exercising any rights. The size of the circles in Kachru’s model represents the number of speakers. Clearly the number of people who do not speak English as their mother tongue has long overtaken the number of ENL speakers. This development resulted in many different accepted “Englishes”.

English is not a uniform term. Just like any language it undergoes formal change in time (diachronic development) and shows variations in different social groups (sociolects). Naturally, the register of English changes with the situation’s requirements. However, keeping all of these variables in mind, English has a huge diversity around the globe. Even within the Inner Circle, there are officially accepted differences in vocabulary, grammar, and most easily detectable pronunciation. British English is in many respects different from White South African English, which is very different from American English or Australian English / New Zealand English. Even within England, which accounts for a small percentage of the Inner Circle, there are many local variations. Still, the Inner Circle is said to be ‘norm-providing’ (Jenkins 2003: 16), while the Outer Circle is ‘norm-developing’. Which “norms” and whose “norms” are provided and should be considered? The Outer Circle, naturally, is influenced by its particular history. Most of the countries that have become part of the Outer Circle were colonized by Great Britain and were therefore introduced to the British norm. However, as every learner of a language mixes ideas and concepts of his mother tongue into the new language, whole nations develop their own patterns and sounds of the language. Dialects evolve, and, if the acquired language becomes an official language, (and official speeches are held), the dialect quickly is perceived as a new “norm”. Kachru argues that these dialects of English should be recognized as a particular variation of English also by people from the Inner Circle (Kachru 2009). Indian English or Nigerian English are typical examples of dialects that have become relatively well accepted languages.


1 Robert Phillipson is the author of the book „Linguistic Imperialism“ published in 1992 and has greatly influenced the perception of language policies.

2 Braj Kachru, born in India, has argued for more acceptance of non-standard varieties of English (Kachru 2009).

Excerpt out of 39 pages


Linguistic Imperialism
English as a Medium of Instruction in Tanzanian Secondary Education
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg  (Anglistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Tanzania, Language Policies, Medium of Instruction, English, Secondary School, Linguistic Imperialism, World Englishes
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Hanna Nieber (Author), 2010, Linguistic Imperialism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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