JAMES HEYES examines Rwanda’s English Education Policy: A Gateway to Employment and a Stronger Economy, or a Learning Barrier for its Citizens?

Rwanda presents a rare case of English being introduced as an official language in an economically developing country with no roots in the British Empire. Occupation by Belgium in 1916 (Freedman & Samuelson, 2010: 191-192) led to French being used as Rwanda’s second official language alongside the native Kinyarwanda throughout the 20th Century, with its usage continuing after Rwanda received independence in 1964. As a result, a French speaking education system was established, with 95% of schools in Rwanda teaching in French prior to 2009.

The Rwandan government’s decision to change to an English education system occurred after years of political tension with France, following allegations from the Rwandan prime minister that French officials were involved in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. In addition to becoming the new language of the education system, English became the third official language of the country. Diplomatic relations with Britain have strengthened since then. In 2009, the UK was Rwanda’s largest financial donor, providing nearly half of its foreign aid (The Guardian, 2009). Rwanda is also the first country without British colonial ties to join the Commonwealth.

For Rwanda’s government, English is seen as a tool for development. According to Yisa Claver (Director, Policy Planning at the Ministry of Education of Rwanda), the decision to switch to an English curriculum is motivated by a desire to be ‘equal’, to improve trade and commerce, and to “attract foreign investors” (Williams, 2011: 8).

However, the abruptness of the decision led to a number of issues in the policy’s adoption. As Rwanda has historically had little contact with English, only a very small minority of its citizens are fluent in the language. As of 2009, only 4,700 of 31,000 primary school teachers, and just 600 of 12,000 secondary school teachers had been trained in English. To try and minimise the impact of this, during the first year of the policy, thousands of teachers were placed on six week training programmes organised with the help of the British Council in order to improve their English (The Guardian, 2012).

English communication was also an issue for pupils. A report in 2004 (Williams, 2011: 5) found that only two out of 251 (0.77%) Year 6 students tested in five Rwandan primary schools were “capable of reading [in English] adequately” for their studies. In contrast, it found that when the same 251 students were tested in Kinyarwanda, over 90% of them were able to read independently.

One Rwandan teacher interviewed in UNESCO’s 2014 Education for All Global Monitoring Report states that teaching in English is the “main barrier to basic education” in Rwanda, and argues that “the forced use of English as the medium of instruction” impedes learning for children, and restricts the amount of interaction that takes place in lessons, resulting in a “strict chalk-and-talk-structure” (UNESCO, 2014: 283).

Another issue for teachers is the availability of teaching resources – a new language means new textbooks. While Rwanda has increased spending on education, resources in the classroom have historically been limited. A 2007 study of two-thirds of Rwanda’s districts indicated that there were 143 Grade 1 pupils for every Kinyarwanda textbook, and 180 pupils for every mathematics textbook, in spite of the government having a target of one textbook for every two pupils (UNESCO, 2014: 83).

Despite the issues it has caused in the classroom, an English education system is likely to improve access to English fluency, which is considered a valuable skill by many Rwandan employers. According to one Euromonitor report, there is an estimated salary gap of 25-30% between English and Non-English speakers (2010: 65). For jobs in which communication plays a key role, such as receptionist work, English speakers appear to be capable of earning almost three times as much as those who speak only Kinyarwanda (Euromonitor International, 2010: 74).

Ultimately, I feel that Rwanda’s citizens will benefit from the ability to speak English, as it will open up more opportunities, and allow communication with the world outside Rwanda’s borders. While the shift to English has caused issues in the short term, the Rwandan government appears to be committed to improving the quality of education. UNESCO’s EFA report indicates that between 1999 and 2011, enrolment and completion rates in secondary schools have increased (2014: 64) while out of school population has decreased significantly (2014: 2), and predicts that Rwanda will see further improvements in the future.

JAMES HEYES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Clover, J. (2012) ‘Jury out on language-switch trend’. The Guardian. [Accessed 17th February, 2015].

Euromonitor International (2010) The Benefits of the English Language for Individuals and Societies: Quantitative Indicators from Cameroon, Nigeria, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Pakistan. London: Euromonitor International. [Accessed 17th February, 2015]

McGreal, C. (2009) ‘Why Rwanda said adieu to French’. The Guardian. [Accessed 4th February, 2015].

Samuelson, B.L. & Freedman, S.W. (2010) ‘Language policy, multilingual education, and power in Rwanda’. Language Policy (2010) [online], 9(3), [Accessed 4th February, 2015], pp. 191-215.

UNESCO (2014) EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4 – Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all. Paris: UNESCO. [Accessed 17th February, 2015].

Williams, E. (2011) Language policy, politics and development in Africa (paper 3). In H. Coleman (ed.) (2011) Dreams and Realities: Developing Countries and the English Language. London: British Council, Teaching English Series, pp. 2-18. [Accessed February 4th, 2015].

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5 thoughts on “JAMES HEYES examines Rwanda’s English Education Policy: A Gateway to Employment and a Stronger Economy, or a Learning Barrier for its Citizens?

  1. Andrew Roach says:

    Hi James,

    Very interesting piece. Do you feel that Rwanda’s government changed the education system to English purely because of the conflict between France or solely because English is a very powerful language and will further increase the citizens chances of success in life?

    I found it interesting that you mentioned the idea of learning English making Rwandan people ‘equal’ with the rest of the world. Is this because you believe English to be one of, if not THE most powerful language in the world and that it would empower the Rwandan people?

    You noted that English will be beneficial to Rwandan people as it will allow them to branch out and speak with millions of other people and I totally agree. However, I must ask you this; do you think that Rwandan people would speak with each other in French or in English? If the majority of Rwandan’s native language is French is their government not actively stripping their youth of access to converse with the elder generations?

    Personally, I don’t believe that Rwanda should have changed from French to English without any sort of transitional period. If the same happened in England there would be uproar. Imagine if all the children in England were forced to learn in French. I highly doubt that children can reach their true academic potential if they aren’t fully understanding what they are being taught, no less that the teachers seemingly wouldn’t understand it fully either!

    Kind Regards,
    Andrew

    • jamesheyes says:

      Hi Andrew,

      I feel that the change was likely a mix of both of those factors. Government ministers from Rwanda insist that the change is to the benefit of its citizens due to the status of English on the world-stage and the employment opportunities that English fluency brings, but I also feel that it would be naive to assume that the conflict with France didn’t have a significant impact on the choice to reduce the use of French, particularly when considering the patriotism of the current government.

      The statement about English use making Rwandan citizens ‘equal’ is a quote from one of Rwanda’s ministers, but I would agree that it would provide them with more opportunities than just speaking French or their native language would now. English is one of the most widely used languages in the world, and an understanding of the language will definitely improve employment opportunities abroad. Within Rwanda and the surrounding African nations there is a high demand for speakers of English in jobs, and statistics from the 2014 Euromonitor report have suggested that English fluency allows access to a higher wage in Rwanda.

      At home, the majority of Rwanda’s population seem to be speaking in Kinyarwandan, their native tongue. This is also the language used in the earlier stages of education. Due to this I feel a transition from French to English as an additional language would impact the lives of the citizens at home to a lesser extent than if French and English were the only languages being spoken.

      Finally, I definitely agree with you that a transitional period should have been brought into place. While it seems that the government has attempted to introduce the change as a gradual shift, in practice it appears that it has been much more abrupt than intended. While the ability to speak Kinyarwandan may reduce the impact of the language shift, the forced change to English will undoubtedly have an initial impact on the quality of Rwanda’s education system.

  2. psmith1975 says:

    I think the issues with the Rwandan people learning English are not as short term as people may think. For children who learn English as an additional language the barriers will be harder to breach especially if the teachers are not as skilled in English as they should be. Employing more English speaking teachers could be a key to helping solve this problem but after the recent economic decline are teachers going to be prepared to move to another country to help solve this problem? A six week course for the non-speaking English teachers is not really enough to grasp the concepts of the English Language and this may hinder the children’s education. The only other solution to the problem I can see is time. As the children grow older their English will improve and prepare them to join the work force maybe even become teachers themselves. When they eventually have families of their own, their children will more than likely learn English at a faster rate if their parents start to use English frequently at home but until that time the problems will still exist in the education system.

  3. YB says:

    The salary gap is probably partially due to small number of English speakers in Rwanda.
    I cannot understand how pupils will learn English or any other subject when the teacher’s knowledge of the language of instruction is six-week course, it seems to me recipe to totally collapse of the education system.

  4. chilewa .s. bedson says:

    Hi Heyes , To me undoubtedly see this move from French to English highly a matter of neo- colonialism strategies to most of African languages if the british council weren’t hypocrite enough they had to promote kinyarwanda but the promote their English by injecting money to pay high wages to English fluent speakers as motivation this proves to me the historical view of point that inegualities between African and Europe will never end

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