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
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].