‘Is English a Commodity in Rwanda?’ asks ROB COLEMAN

Many things are bought and sold as commodities – tea, coffee, oil, gold, but how about the prospect of a better future? That’s what is being sold to individuals who are getting English qualifications through ETS, using the TOEFL test – ‘the most widely respected English-language test in the world.’ Despite it never being said explicitly, it is heavily implied through phrases such as ‘go anywhere!’ and ‘your passport to study abroad’ that students can expect more opportunities once they’ve completed the course.

Pierre Bourdieu, in 1991, claimed that ‘language functions as a form of capital in the modern economy’ and he was almost definitely correct in saying this as, according to Gray in 2012, this ‘global service industry’ has expanded rapidly since the 1970s. Whenever political and economic change occurs in a country that isn’t already English-speaking, or doesn’t yet have an infrastructure in place to teach English, a company such as the British Council or ETS are likely to be setting up shop, attempting to generate profits by selling English as a qualification. The British Council are a registered charity in England and Wales that offer a qualification, IELTS, that is very similar to TOEFL, for a very similar price (£130 for IELTS, from $150 for TOEFL in Rwanda).

After the genocide in Rwanda, President Kagame, and other government officials, wanted to separate themselves from France as much as possible (due to their role in the genocide), so the language of education was changed from French to English, thus furthering the political distance between Rwanda and France, whilst improving relations with Britain – Rwanda going on to join the Commonwealth in 2009. The change also made sense, as Gray (2012) pointed out, in terms of career prospects for the Rwandan people because if a person can speak English, they can potentially earn a lot more money for doing the same job. For example, a receptionist that can’t speak English would earn $110 per calendar month in Rwanda; however, someone that could speak English, doing the same job, would earn $310 per calendar month, almost three times as much.

In theory at least then, this was a good trade out. However, Williams (2011) found that, in 2004, less than 1% of 251 year 6 students could read adequately for their studies at primary level. This suggests that despite the theory, the actual teaching of English to Rwandan teachers is inadequate, especially for them to be able to pass their skills onto the children that they’re teaching. The teachers in Rwanda are taught English on courses, one of which is offered by the British Council. The cost of an IELTS or a TOEFL test is exorbitant for someone living on a Rwandan wage, so to charge these prices for a terrible standard of English is immoral, especially from a company registered as a charity.

Personally, I feel as though English is now a commodity. It is a skill and skills are taught every day for money – think cookery classes, university lectures, sports coaching, etc. However, like any other skill that is taught, it should be available at a very high standard of teaching, especially if the student is being charged a fee to take the course, the test or both.

ROB COLEMAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. (trans. G. Raymond and M. Adamson; ed. J.B. Thompson), Cambridge: Polity.

Gray, J (2012), English the Industry. In A. Hewings & C. Tagg (eds.) (2012) The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existence. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 137-62.

Williams, E. (2011), Language policy, politics and development in Africa (paper 3). In H. Coleman (ed.) (2011) Drums and Realities: Developing Countries and the English Language. London: British Council, Teaching English Series, pp. 2-18.


One thought on “‘Is English a Commodity in Rwanda?’ asks ROB COLEMAN

  1. Melissa Baddley says:

    Hi Rob,

    I think you have raised some significant points to be considered here. It seems there is a market for English, due to the globalisation of the language, allowing people to profit from that. In that sense I agree that English has indeed become a commodity.

    Your point concerning the opportunities available to people who learn English I believe is a key aspect as to why people may be encouraged to pay for such courses to learn the language, despite the prices of these being rather excessive. The improvement of lifestyles and career prospects for people learning English could be seen as a justified reason as to why people are willing to pay so much, as it definitely seems to be a beneficial skill to acquire.

    However, for me, I believe your point about the teaching of English to Rwandan teachers is essential in this argument. Having volunteered myself last year in a Ghanaian school I experienced first-hand how important the teacher’s comprehension of English is on a child’s learning development. Despite English being Ghana’s official language for many it is not their first, particularly in rural areas and it was made clear that children had a greater grasp of the English language when their teachers were competent in the language also. A valuable piece of your argument therefore, is that if English is a commodity then the teaching of it should be to a very high standard, especially if labelled ‘charities’ are going to charge exorbitant amounts for these language courses.

    Evidently in your argument you have shown that English can have a great impact on people who wish to learn the language, and those fortunate enough to already be acquired with the ability.

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