I’ve been asking myself this question ever since I arrived in Kenya. In my 8 months travelling in Tanzania, language has been a barrier in communicating. Especially in the villages and especially with women. That actually turned out very well for me as I was improving my Kiswahili significantly.
The minute I arrived in Kenya the difference was over whelming. Everyone I was talking to was speaking perfect English. Actually, much better than mine. Absolute perfection!
Do Kenyans speak English?
Do Tanzanians speak English?
Those are the 2 basic questions people ask me. Though the answer is yes, the full answer is much more interesting. In general, much less Tanzanians speak good English than Kenyans.
A conversation I had with my taxi driver, a 24 year old named Kevin, provided the answer to why. It turns out that in Kenyan schools the language spoken since the first day girls and boys enter the first class- is English.
All the subjects are taught in English and that is the only language children are allowed to speak all through the school day. The only subject taught in Kiswahili is, of course, Kiswahili…
This educational choice insures that Kenyan children will grow up to be fluent in English. The history behind it is of course the British rule. With independence, Kenya decided to embrace the queen’s English as it’s formal language, alongside the Kiswahili language.
Tanzania chose Kiswahili for the official language. Their first president after Independence, Julius Nyerere, had a vision of unity for his young country. As part of his vision, which he called Ujamaa (familyhood), the one language was to unite all tribes of Tanzania. And he succeeded in that, making Tanzania one of the most peaceful countries in Tanzania.
In Tanzania, English is only spoken in English class in Primary schools. They only start speaking English, throughout the school day, in Secondary school. So if you don’t have a passion for the language, if you find it difficult to learn, or if you just don’t have any opportunities to practice speaking it, you might graduate without being able to converse fluently. As is much the case in my home country Israel.
For me it certainly makes it easier to travel in Kenya where I can easily talk to most people, although a slight embarrassment on my part for my own imperfect English. But one thing Kevin and I agreed on- Tanzanians speak much better Kiswahili.
Tanzania is known in east Africa for the best and complete form of Kiswahili. And is actually the place where Kiswahili was first formed. In the coastal region and especifically in Zanzibar, but that’s a whole story by itself. Kenyans consider their Kiswahili “broken”, meaning not spoken properly, and full of slang that they call Sheng.
So I guess I’m getting the best of both worlds- Learning my Kiswahili from Tanzanians and improving my English in Kenya…