For a century now, Tanzania’s courts have been operating in both English and Kiswahili (Swahili)—that’s set to change soon, however, after the country announced measures that would switch all English-language proceedings to Kiswahili, the most widely spoken language in the nation.
Proponents of the new plan say that the measure will help destroy the linguistic barriers that prevent the judicial system from effectively administering justice. According to a local newspaper in Tanzania, the country’s vice president, Samia Hassan Suluhu, said that the language barrier has an especially profound impact on rural residents who often have little knowledge about the mechanics of the country’s justice system, preventing them from effectively accessing court systems.
“Tanzania is an independent state, and therefore, it is unfair for people to be denied justice because of language,” Suluhu told Tanzania’s Daily News, underlining the colonial legacy of English.
Following the country’s independence from the UK in the 1960s, Tanzania began introducing Kiswahili at all legal levels. Still, English has remained in frequent use in the courts throughout the country’s history, despite the fact that Kiswahili is spoken by a much larger population of the country’s residents.
Despite the country’s courts already conducting about 70% of proceedings in Kiswahili, many materials, such as judgements, are recorded in English. To ease the transition, a Kiswahili law dictionary is in the works under the direction of Tanzania’s Ministries of Justice and Education.
This is Tanzania’s latest move to embrace Kiswahili as its national language, coming nearly six years after the country introduced a similarly Kiswahili-centric education policy. After gaining independence, the country had a bilingual education system in which students were instructed in Kiswahili in elementary school and in English from high school onward. In 2015, the country revamped this system so that students would receive instruction in Kiswahili only, at the time making it the first sub-Saharan nation to conduct education only in an African language.
This article was written by Andrew Warner and appeared in the February, 2021 issue of Language Magazine.