Language on the Islands of Zanzibar: The Role of English in the World

7 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

If I hop off a plane, whether it be in Zanzibar, Shanghai, Vladivostok, Timbuktu, or anywhere on the planet, I assume I can have at least a simple conversation there. Why? Not because I am a globetrotting polyglot, but because my native tongue is one people have deemed the international language — English. It is easy to dream that by establishing English as the global lingua franca, we can live in a utopia where a businessman from Ethiopia can speak to a taxi driver in India without any barriers to communication. While we have yet to build our Tower of Babel leading to a dystopian future, the questions concerning the comfort of a simplistic world have current importance. As Aldous Huxley asks us in his dystopia, Brave New World, what price are we willing to pay for this lingual stability?

The problems of a multilingual world have troubled humans throughout recorded history. A few periods have demonstrated one language’s rise to dominance, as seen with Latin during the height of the Roman Empire. However, the status of English today is unlike that of any other language seen before. First ascending during the British Empire in the 1600s up until the end of World War II, the British structure of rule ingrained the use of English into all facets of governmental life. Though local languages were still used across its many colonies, the language of commerce, government, education, medicine, and the like, was English. English’s global dominance was then cemented by Britain’s unruly colony, the United States. Great Britain may have planted the seeds of English expansion, but it was the dominance of American entertainment and economy that grew English to the point it is at today. American-English spoken-culture is shipped around the world, and the command of the American corporation stirs entrepreneurs, engineers, salesmen, and all members of the business community to learn English in order to dive into the bounteous American cornucopia.

Various linguists have identified components of English that make this language suitable as the global lingua franca: its claim to the largest vocabulary in the world, flexible sentence structure, relatively simple grammar, lack of social coding, generalized spelling, and the presence of adopted foreign words. Plenty of these claims are contentious, as anyone who has wondered about the pronunciation of colonel or when to use ‘me’ vs. ‘I’ can attest to. Nonetheless, English is already the de facto or de jure official language in 64 countries, and is at least one of the official languages of 85% of the world’s international organizations: records that no other language can compete with. All of this is wonderful for the native English speaker, but a far less rosy reality defines the other half of this experience. Of the roughly 6000 or so spoken languages, more than half have less than 3000 speakers, and estimates range as high as 80% of the world’s languages will die out within the next century. Of particular interest is the role economic performance plays in this scenario. In 2014, researchers from the University of Cambridge found that minority languages in the most developed parts of the world are the ones most at risk. As one particular language comes to dominate the political and economic landscape, people feel pressured to either learn that language or be left behind. This phenomena can be seen in the US, where prior to European arrival more than 300 indigenous languages were spoken; now, only 150 remain and only 20 are expected to be left by 2050.

My own interest and experience with this topic stems from my time in Zanzibar, Tanzania.  This past summer I spent time on both sides of the equation there: as a teacher of English, and a student of Kiswahili. Kiswahili, usually referred to in the US as Swahili,  originates in the 2nd century along the coast of East Africa. From there, the language evolved to reflect the unique history of the region. While Europe experienced the Dark Ages, the Swahili coast of East Africa was expanding as powerful cities rose to hubs of trade, centers of the arts, and melting pots of the Indian Ocean world; consequently, Kiswahili became an eclectic mix of groups engaging in this arena. The language is syncretic in the way it fuses local Bantu languages with Arabic, the language of the traders who came from the Middle East and many of whom came to make East Africa their home. As European traders and explorers became eager to join and profit from the trade networks of spices, slaves, ivory, and gold, they too left their linguistic footprint.

The start of the 20th century saw an important period of evolution for Kiswahili: from being the foundation of East African culture, to an active tool of resistance in the colonial era. Using the Zanzibar dialect, or Kiunguja, a standardized form was established for the language going forward. This new unity of the language confronted the challenges of colonialism and a changing world by creating new vocabulary, rather than borrowing heavily from colonial lexicons. Kiswahili was accordingly just as much a resistance to British imperialism as any freedom fighter; it became a source of pride to speak in Kiswahili and a method of dodging European surveillance. Following independence, the mainland of Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar came together as a union in 1964 to create the modern day country of Tanzania: a space about 1.5 times larger than Texas, comprising a diverse multitude of people. Its solution against the divides that plagued so much of post-independence Africa was Kiswahili. The masses and government alike rallied behind a shared linguistic identity, and distinctly a linguistic similarity that was not European, as was the case in most other African countries. Today it is still the uniting language of East Africa, the official language of Tanzania (including Zanzibar), and one spoken by well over 100 million people.

There are few better places to experience a purer form of Kiswahili language and culture than on the islands of Zanzibar. As someone who has been trying to learn Kiswahili for three years, this provides additional benefits due to the ubiquity of the language. Though I still get the befuddled looks from Zanzibaris as a white American trying to speak Kiswahili, I did not encounter any instances of people feeling disrespected that I was using Kiswahili instead of English. Contrastingly, during my time in Arusha (in the north of Tanzania), while playing soccer I asked someone what their name was, to which he responded “I know English,” to imply that I was questioning his intelligence by speaking in Kiswahili. From conversations with students from Kenya at Ohio State, I’ve learned the situation is far worse in many parts of their country, a historic home of Kiswahili, where the influx of English and desires to relate in a global world have severely weakened the value and knowledge of the language. This is particularly apparent among the younger population, where a teenager may say, for example, ‘ninawalking’: an amalgamated verb that combines the first part of the Kiswahili word ‘ninatembea’ (I am walking in English), with the English verb. Presently, blended words such as ‘ninawalking’ are a common occurrence in this novel youth language, what is called Sheng. Today, Zanzibar is evermore crucial as a bastion in the preservation of Kiswahili, but even here you can see cracks in the foundation. At the secondary school where I taught, teachers repeatedly told me that the problem with their students is not an inability to understand or a desire to learn, but instead a lack of English. On the first day, many students told me their favorite subject in school was English because it is an international language important for being successful in life. They were curious as to why I would want to learn a language like Kiswahili if I already possessed fluency in English.  A curiosity I can now spin on them, as Ohio State has cut Swahili as a possible minor for students, due to a lack of perceived interest; meaning now my huge, well-ranked university fails to offer the ability to minor, let alone major, in a single African language.

These moments incite more thought regarding the role of language in our increasingly connected world. I am in a unique position as a native English speaker where I have never had to think, ‘if I do not learn a certain language, I will not be able to accomplish my dreams’. This type of mentality is disheartening; after my students spoke, I wanted to tell them “Forget about English! You speak a wonderful language that is far less illogical than my own.” Though a balance is obtainable, I fear that we may discover that balance after it is too late. There is no answer to the enigma of language, and due to its fluid nature, it’s hard to say what course is for the best. But, I cannot shake the feeling that there is a real danger in prioritizing certain languages. It’s a problem when kids get teased for speaking their family language or being unable to converse in English, it’s a problem when we think of non-Western languages as being synonymous with low class, it’s a problem when parents don’t teach their children their native tongue because they view it as impractical. If language is the foundation of culture, what price are we willing to pay for removing it?


By: Frank Sunderland