Negotiating language and learning: an ethnographic study of students' experiences in two Tanzanian secondary schools

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis is concerned with students’ negotiations of language and learning in multilingual contexts. Students’ experiences of schooling are profoundly shaped by language-in-education policies and practices. In Sub-Saharan Africa, language of instruction policies overwhelmingly give prominence to European languages. This is despite a body of evidence, that has been built up since the 1970s, showing that the use of an unfamiliar language as the language of instruction limits learning. Debates about language of instruction in Africa are crucial, but have tended to become stuck in a conflict of seemingly irreconcilable beliefs and priorities. This thesis asks whether broadening the lens of language-in-education research and exploring the multiple roles that language plays could support the acknowledgment and explanation of these different concerns. It also considers how the conceptual vocabulary offered by the capability approach might help to reframe the debate so that it encapsulates all valued functions and meanings of language and makes a clearer distinction between language-related outcomes and learning processes. Drawing on the analysis of data from an ethnographic study in two Tanzanian secondary schools, this thesis offers a rich, socially-situated account of students’ experiences of negotiating language and learning in their school environments. This demonstrates that language acts not only as a form of communication, but also as an aspiration, a guardian of culture, and an expression of being. The key finding and contribution of this thesis is that students’ experiences of language and learning are characterised by important connections between a range of different language values and language- and education-related capabilities. A more holistic approach to language and education planning and intervention, that recognises and strengthens these connections, could result in more inclusive and equitable learning experiences for students in multilingual environments.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University College London
  • McCowan, Tristan, Supervisor, External person
  • Unterhalter, Elaine, Supervisor, External person
Award date28 Jul 2020
Place of PublicationLondon
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jul 2020


  • language
  • learning
  • ethnographic study
  • language-in-education
  • Tanzania


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