What is so special about the English language? Approximately 1.5 billion people speak English around the world, of which, only 375 million are native speakers (Statista). Why have so many countries adopted English as an official language in the hope that this will provide rapid economic and social development?
Rwanda became independent of Belgium in 1962 and had Kinyarwanda as their native language with French – because of their Belgian roots – being the second language and the language of education. Following a devastating civil war in the early 1990s and the loss of nearly 800,000 people, Rwanda underwent a change in government that saw them change their official second language from French to English in 1996.
President Paul Kagame, a former member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front who seized control of the government following the civil war, received military training from the UK and American forces. This led to the Rwandan government placing a large value on having English skills. Gray (2012, p. 146) states that European languages are seen as a prerequisite to better employment opportunities by many parents. The Rwandan trade and industry minister Vincent Karega said that “English has emerged as a backbone for growth and development not only in the region but around the globe” (McGreal, 2008). Wiping out French from the education system after its long history in the country in favour of English shows evidence of neoliberal values. Neoliberalism is generally seen as the placing of value on things that were never produced as commodities, (Harvey, 2007, p.166). Where you would usually assign a value to a car or a house, under neoliberalism value is additionally assigned to e.g. culture, history and knowledge. Rwanda seems to have placed a very large value on the ‘cultural capital’ of being able to speak English. This is evident in the salary gap between professionals with and without English skills in Rwanda, as shown in Figure 1.
Source: Euromonitor International (2010, p.74)
As you can see, there is a difference of about 20/30%. In a country that does not possess the riches and wealth that Western countries such as America and the UK have, a salary gap that large will have a massive effect on the individual. Gray (2012, p. 145) states that European languages are seen as a prerequisite to better employment opportunities. This adds weight to the idea that being able to speak English increases opportunities for people in non-native countries.
Williams (2012) argued that in fact the use of foreign languages is hindering the development of African countries. Williams (2012) conducted a study in Rwandan schools to see if the use of English as not only the language children are being taught but also the language of instruction is delivering adequate levels of English proficiency. The results of this study showed that only two out of 251 Year 6 students (0.77 per cent) had achieved adequate levels of English. The findings suggest that the Rwandan government’s implementation of English in classrooms through primary education is severely hindering students’ progression. This may have further implications on the development of the country, as a whole generation of students progress through their education without actually having English skills that are good enough.
This begs the question, is a system that was put in place to develop Rwanda actually having the reverse effect? Would the native language not have been a better alternative? To put this simply, if on the first day of school your teacher only spoke a foreign language to you and all of your lessons were taught in that foreign language would you have coped better than if it was your native language? Personally, I would have been permanently confused. Kinyarwanda is the native tongue in Rwanda. Instead of using English as the mode of instruction in primary education, the native tongue would potentially be more effective as the teachers and students are already fluent. In addition to this, I believe that English should be learnt alongside the use of Kinyarwanda because as demonstrated in Figure 1, English skills do provide people with better prospects later in life. However, the solitary use of English is a missed opportunity for genuine multilingualism, which could eventually mean Kinyarwanda dies out as generations of Rwandans only learnt to speak English.
HARRY CANTRILL, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Williams, E. (2012). Language policy, politics and development in Africa. In A, Hewings & C, Tagg (Eds.) The Politics of English: Conflict, competition, co-existence (pp.164-171). Abingdon: Routledge.