Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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16/3/14: language matters - and my plant

I was at a meeting hosted by the Tanzanian Commission for Universities earlier this week.  As is normal at such meetings, the proceedings were in English.  The Minister of Education was guest of honour, and when his turn came to speak he started to speak in Swahili.  So what I could make out was 'KiSwahili.... KiIngereza,... mzungu'.  Filling in the blanks (and also his pointed glances in my direction) I inferred that he was saying something like, "Swahili is our national language... but we've got a white person present... so perhaps I'd better speak in English after all'.  Using an old teacher trick of making out I understood more than I actually did, I waited until he paused and then said in a voice intended to carry across the room, 'Pole sana' - 'Very sorry'.  The size of the resulting laugh implied that I'd summed things up pretty accurately!

But this set me thinking about language again, which is such a huge issue here.  I was brought up speaking English only, and my attempts to speak other languages have been mixed.  I feel that I owe the British taxpayer a refund on the money spent when I was at school supposedly learning French.  Whilst at Reading we worked with Chinese masters students so I made some attempts to learn some Mandarin words.  Now that was spectacularly bad - I tried to use what I'd learnt in Chinese restaurants, and then had to explain that I was attempting to speak their language, without the explanation they thought that the sound coming from my mouth were gibberish.   I learnt a little Spanish when visiting Peru twice in the late 1990s as part of a Christian mission.  But my most successful second language acquisition so far was in my gap year in Indonesia when I was 18 on short term missionary service.  I wasn't worked particularly hard, Indonesian is a relatively straightforward language and I spent a fair bit of time on it.  All education (except possibly at some Universities) is in Indonesian, so the amount of English spoken was much less than here, which of course increases motivation levels.  I've learnt a bit of Swahili, but work entirely in English, go to church in English, can get by in the street through a mixture of the languages - but possibly wouldn't be able to do so outside of Dar es Salaam.  The stage I've reached means that to make any real progress means real effort with verb tenses, noun declensions, this kind of thing.  The spirit is willing, the flesh is weak, and I do have a pretty demanding day job, rather more so than when I was 18 in Indonesia!

How different things are for people here.  The rule (maybe 80% of the population) is that children learn a local language from birth, so that when they start primary school which is conducted in Swahili, this is largely a new language to many.  Whilst in primary school they learn English as a foreign language.  Those children - by no means all - who go on to secondary school then find that they are supposed to learn in the medium of English.  As far as I can make out, this means in practice that many children go through secondary school barely understanding a word that goes on, although informally a fair bit of 'code switching' - alternating between the languages - goes on, even if it is strictly speaking illegal.  Meanwhile, I meet many teachers who would not count as fully fluent English speakers which, it is reasonable to suppose, is a considerable constraint on the flexibility with which they can deal with questions and other matters which can't easily be planned for in advance.

I said this is about 80% of the popuation.  For much of the rest Swahili is the first language, notably in Zanzibar and, I think, for many youngsters here in Dar es Salaam.  And then I know a number of people who are bringing up their children as first language English speakers, also able to speak good Swahili.  My sense is that this is a growing minority but I don't know that for a fact.

So, English is the language in secondary schools and Universities.  In Parliament and the law courts Swahili is spoken, but proceedings are written up in English (or both).  The extent to which English is used in the workplace varies, certainly all professional work at my workplace is in English.

I try to imagine what it must be like to study and work in a subject which is not my native tongue, and I find that imagination fails.  It's reasonable to suppose that it requires an additional level of energy and application, with a much greater possibility of missing nuances in the language used as to what is being said.  So I've learnt to be pretty blatant in checking that people understand what is going on and not take anything for granted.

This is not my area of expertise but I believe I'm right in saying that the need to study and work in a language other than the mother tongue is very common in many countries across the world.  Maybe this is inevitable?  It just seems that it represents a huge expenditure of energy with a whole raft of additional reasons as to why mistakes might get made.  Could Tanzania operate in the international marketplace if secondary schools and Universities operated in Swahili?  I'm wanting to say yes, but it may well be that there are factors which are not obvious to me as to why this would not be the case.  As always, very interested to hear from any readers with views on this matter!

About two months before I went to the UK in December I bought two plants for my balcony, lemon grass - which is supposed to help keep mosquitos at bay - and the one pictured, people who know me well will not be surprised that I have no idea what is called (and if you know, please don't feel under any compulsion to tell me).

On my return, the lemon grass was clearly beyond saving, and the other plant was very nearly dead.  But it's now thriving again.  I did start watering it until I realised that Hellen my housekeeper was also doing so.  I made a point of thanking her for her tender loving care last week but she seemed a bit confused as to the fuss I was making.

I'm not sure why this plant gives me the pleasure it does.  Maybe it's the sheer speed at which tightly coiled shoots unravel to become new leaves as the old ones die.  Finding that the rainy season means there's less of a breeze, so more mosquitos, in the evening, so spending less time on the balcony (which is where I am at the moment, mid afternoon is OK).  I have a friend and colleague, Neil, who spends his weekends trawling the garden centres (ie. plants lined up along the road side) for new plants to buy, we've agreed in principle that he'll take me along sometime, just hasn't happened yet.  I get sunlight ftom about 6.30am. to 11am., any advice on this basis gratefully received!

So, one final thought as I close, I'm sure you saw in the news this week that Tony Benn has passed away.  People my age and younger can't really remember Anthony Wedgwood Benn the moderate socialist, but certainly can remember Tony Benn the firebrand and extremely articulate leader of the extreme left.  I suppose the reason I find it so difficult to accept that he's no longer with us is because, never having actually met him, it feels as if what he represented and symbolised which has passed rather than the person.  It is the nature of democracy, and indeed creative teamwork, that we don't need to agree with people to value their contribution.  Mr Benn, you made the political world a more colourful place, many people of all political persuasions and none will be sorry that you are no longer with us.

2 Comments to 16/3/14: language matters - and my plant:

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David Mansergh on 25 March 2014 13:19
Hi Geoff, since you asked for 'any advice' regarding plants, I would recommend making a random choice of vegetation and then feeding it coffee so that it is awake at 6.30am even if it isn't really keen on mornings. Further advice available if required. Thanks for more excellent blog entries. Best wishes, David.
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Geoff on 25 March 2014 22:56
Thank you David, where would I be wihout you! In fact I have bought some more plants and have some pictures of the expedition for my next blog entry. Meanwhile, the rainy season has kicked in so no direct sunlight this morning - took the precaution of wearing flip flops to walk to work and will change to shoes before I have to meet anybody later on! Trust all is well with you in Cambridge, Geoff

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