Out Of Broken English, A Film Crafts A Call For Classroom Repairs

Jul 5, 2015
Originally published on July 5, 2015 10:11 pm

Three high school students in Zanzibar have won a prize for a film that tackles a fierce debate in African classrooms: Should the teacher speak in English or the mother tongue? (This piece originally aired June 25, 2015 on Morning Edition.)

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A group of students on the East African island of Zanzibar are caught in a fierce debate that has raged since the colonial era over what language they're taught in. English is seen as a key to jobs in the global economy. But the local language, Swahili, is what students speak best. Students on Zanzibar made a film about it. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Early in the film, there's a series of subtitles that read as follows. (Reading) We are a group of friends from Matemwe Village, Zanzibar. Next year, we will sit our final exams in English. We will probably all fail. We are making this film to try to understand why.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: And then the film opens on a hillside school. The teacher is teaching in English as the law requires. The Swahili-speaking students stare blankly back, and then comes a voice-over.


YAKUBU FIMBO SULEIMAN: And this is our problem. The teacher must speak English, but for students we don't understand.

WARNER: Their primary school classes were all taught in Swahili. High school is taught in English. They can hardly read the multiple choice answers on the science quiz, let alone learn the science.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Poikilo - poikilothermic.

WARNER: Poikilothermic.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: B. Hydrostatic.

WARNER: Hydrostatic.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: C. Sympathetic.

WARNER: Sympathetic. Biology terms hard enough for a native speaker. And as a result the percentage of high school students in Matemwe who pass their final exams is usually in the single digits. Like the film begins, we will probably fail.

The short film is the work of a student film club launched by a retired pilot in Zanzibar. Tourism is one of the island's main industries. Locals struggle to compete for jobs in the fancy hotels against better English speakers from the mainland. The Matemwe English Speaking Students Cinema Club was set up to practice English by making a film with the pilot's old iPad. Yakubu Fimbo Suleiman, who everyone here calls Yaks, is the 17-year-old student narrator you heard before.

SULEIMAN: In tourism, you must know English in order to get a job.

WARNER: But he says his teachers barely speak it themselves. Teachers may be required to teach in English, but English competence is not required to graduate teachers college. And many teachers, he says, simply sound out the words from the textbook. It means that a language policy that's meant to give poor kids in government schools the same English skills that they get in private schools can become a barrier to absorbing any education at all.

The short film is called "Present Tense," and it was submitted to a British film contest open to socially conscious short films shot by people under 25 with an iPad. This was apparently the only African submission. Yaks, though, felt embarrassed to have his film seen by British judges.

SULEIMAN: For me, I think that's they can laughing our English.

WARNER: You thought they'd laugh at your English?

SULEIMAN: Yes, because it is broken English.

WARNER: Instead, they gave you an award for it.

SULEIMAN: Thank you (laughter).

WARNER: The film won first place. The biggest surprise came this spring when the government announced that Swahili would soon replace English as the language of instruction in government schools. English will still be taught as a foreign language, and the English Speaking Students Cinema Club has also moved on. Their latest short film about the shortage of drinking water in their village was filmed in Swahili. If you're an English-only speaker, you'll have to read the subtitles. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Zanzibar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.