Friday, 14 December 2012

Language Policy in Rwanda: Exploring the change from French to English

Language as a Cultural Marker

Post-conflict redevelopment and reconciliation interestingly encompasses the influence of language as it becomes and is utilised in conflict as both an ethnic and cultural marker of difference. 

How the history of Rwanda has influenced language

Rwanda has most definitely faced this mechanism of political division through language, visible in the politically constructed ethnic differences created between the Hutu and Tutsi communities in Rwanda. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide nearly one fifth of the population was killed due to their ethnic identity.1

French became heavily bound up in ethnic division of the Hutu and Tutsi people whilst the legacy of Belgian colonialism during the genocide also became so deeply implicated in French spoken in Rwanda. According to a UNESCO report most Tutsi returnees to Rwanda post-conflict were English speaking and most French speakers were Hutu and Tutsi who grew up in Rwanda or Tutsi returnees from the DRC and Burundi.2

Language in Rwanda in the 1990's: The Tri Language Policy

Thus after the Tri-Language Policy in education introduced in the mid-1990s, the country changed its language policy again in 2008, where the Government ordered education to be taught exclusively in English.3 This was introduced in an effort to absorb returning refugees from English-speaking Uganda and Tanzania whilst also turning Rwanda’s back on la Francophonie where Belgian colonial legacies and French military and financial support were implicated in the Rwandan Genocide.4

This current Language policy was therefore introduced as a mechanism to unify the country, supporting economic growth and development post-conflict as well as fostering national, regional (e.g. East African Community) and international political relations with English-speaking countries.5

Language and Development: The transition to an English speaking Education in Rwanda today 

In Rwanda today, the government has replaced French with English as the language of business, diplomacy and scholarship. Kinyarwanda, the language that united Rwanda is still widely spoken and estimates suggest that over 80% of the Rwandan population speak only Kinyarwanda fluently, 5-15% speak French and only 2-5% speak English.6

Issues of child development as well as the poor quality and lack of access to English speaking teachers has lead the country to re-introduce Kinyarwanda as the official school language during a child’s first few years. This is seen by many as a progressive step yet others perceive the constant change of language as more disadvantageous to child development.7

The fact remains that difference is still so highly delicate within the population of Rwanda, it seems amazing to think that in just over a decade since the genocide and civil war any means of differentiation has been eradicated.

English as the National Language of Rwanda: Has it made a difference?

Has this fostering of English as the National Language of Rwanda really made a difference post war? We currently see the UK withdrawing aid to Rwanda amidst allegations that Rwanda has military influence in the DRC.8 The rise of China within Africa also leads us onto another discussion, stepping away from the international prowess of English.

Rwanda has mainly been a development success within the states of Africa. Rwanda - like that of Yugoslavia and the ongoing Syrian conflict - manipulated ethnicity, nationalism, and difference as a tool for war. Today language has been manipulated for peace and this can only be a positive step forwards.

Please take a look at this link to hear a 10-minute interview made in 2008 discussing English in Rwanda:


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