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Teens Make Film In Broken English To Explain Why They'll Fail English

Two minutes into Present Tense, a short film made by three high school students in a fishing village in the East African island of Zanzibar, a set of subtitles lay out their mission:

/ Screen grab from the film, Present Tense.
Screen grab from the film, Present Tense.

The film examines one of the oldest debates in African education. Should classes be taught in the colonial language of English (or French) or in local languages that students speak and understand more fluently?

For the filmmakers, this question charts their future. Tourism is one of Zanzibar's main industries, and learning English is vital to attain a highly prized hotel job. It's their ticket out of the hardscrabble life their parents lead in the fishing industry.

But their primary school education was all in Swahili. Now that their high school is taught in English, as the law requires, the students can hardly read the questions on the science quiz, let alone absorb the science.

The short film is the work of a student film club launched by a retired pilot in Zanzibar. He set up the Matemwe English Speaking Student Cinema Club so the teenagers could practice English by making a film with the pilot's old iPad.

Yakubu Fimbo Suleiman, whom everyone calls Yaks, is the film's student narrator. He wants to improve his English, he says, but that's not so easy to do. His teachers barely speak it. Though they are required to teach in English, they don't have to prove English competence to graduate from teacher's training college. Many teachers, Yaks says, simply sound out the words from the textbook.

Present Tense argues that a language policy that was designed in the name of equal opportunity — to give poor kids in government schools the same valuable English skills that they'd get in private schools — has become a barrier to their getting any education at all.

The film was submitted to EYE Want Change, a film contest in the United Kingdom for socially conscious short films shot with an iPad by people under age 25.

At first, Yaks felt embarrassed that British judges would see the film. He thought that when they heard his broken English, they'd laugh.

Instead, the film won first place and a cash prize of 500 pounds (around $785).

A bigger 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.

The Matemwe English Speaking Student Cinema Club has also adjusted. Their latest short film, about the shortage of drinkable water in their village, is filmed in Swahili. English-only speakers can read the subtitles.

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Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.