Rwanda Changes School Language Again, Seeks to Preserve Culture, “Increase Brainpower”


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KIGALI, RWANDA – Akanyana Ange, 8, started first grade last month.

She plays in the front of her classroom during break time with two of her classmates, all in dark and light blue uniforms. She is more relaxed at school now after the government decided this month to change the official school language for young children from English to Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s mother language.

Akanyana says she struggled in nursery school because she was not used to the new language.

”I was very troubled the first six months at school being taught in English,” she says. “I was used to speak[ing] Kinyarwanda at home and everywhere, so to me it was complicated to learn courses in a new language that I have never knew.”

She says learning in a language she was unfamiliar with discouraged her in school.

“I remember that I could not spell words well, and when I pronunciated them I did it like in Kinyarwanda,” she says. “I mispronounced ‘pupil’ and felt ashamed and discouraged because I failed and colleagues laugh at me.”

Akanyana says it will be easier for her now to learn in her own language.

“I will study in my own language, the one we use at home, so it will be easier for me,” she says.

The Rwandan government decided this month that Kinyarwanda would again become the official school language during a child’s first few years in order to encourage learning. While students say they appreciate the change, others say the instability caused by frequent changes in the education system counteracts any benefits. But the larger goal is the preservation of Rwanda’s mother language and its cultural significance. Despite growing arguments that Kinyarwanda is not useful internationally, the official change is being implemented right away.

The decision to reinstate Kinyarwanda as the official language in the classroom represents the second language change in Rwandan public schools in recent years. Three years ago, the government changed the official school language from French to English because English is used more internationally, such as by the East African Community, a regional intergovernmental organization of which Rwanda is a member.

But at home and in public, most Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda. Just 8 percent of Rwandans speak French, and 4 percent speak English, according to the government.    

Rwanda has made several formal commitments to universal primary education since 1994, according to the government. But although the percentage of students who complete primary school in Rwanda nearly doubled from 2002 to 2008, just more than half of students finish it, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.

The Rwandan government decided during a cabinet meeting this month to start teaching students in nursery school and the first three years of primary school in Kinyarwanda. The government says this new system will make it easier for children to learn during their transition from home, where families speak Kinyarwanda, to school, where older grades will continue to learn in English.

“Teaching Kinyarwanda in nursery and lower primary will help increase pupils’ brainpower,” says Mathias Harebamungu, state minister for primary and secondary education.

He explained that when children go to school and encounter a new environment, like learning in a language they are not used to, they go into shock, which obstructs their education.


“Research has shown that children grasp better the concepts taught to them in their mother tongue at an earlier age,” Harebamungu says.

UNESCO studies show that students learn better in their mother tongue. According to a 2005 UNESCO report, teaching school in a foreign language is called submersion because it is analogous to holding learners underwater before teaching them how to swim. It rather suggests bilingual schooling, which teaches basic skills in the mother language, then gradually introduces a second language.

But some people think that another change in the school system will affect children negatively.

Jean Niyoyita, 29, whose child is in nursery school, says that he is afraid that the constant change in the language of instruction in schools creates an unstable learning environment.

“We have seen a number of changes in education in a very little period, and I am worried that they might affect my son,” he says.

In addition to multiple language changes, the government switched from six years of primary school to a nine-year basic education program in 2007, according to the government. President Paul Kagame announced during his 2010 campaign a free 12-year basic education scheme. Although the government sees these changes as improvements, some worry that too many cause instability.

Harebamungu tried to dismiss these parents’ fears, saying that all changes aim to fine-tune the education system, not to destabilize it.

“A change like this will help children master other disciplines better in English when they reach primary four,” he says.

But others share Niyoyita’s concerns about the stability of education in Rwanda. Angeline Uwantege, 34, a primary school teacher, says she wonders whether this will be the last language switch or just a short-term change.

”I am not sure if they will not do more changes in the future,” she says. “It is like the education system is not solid.”

Harebamungu says that this latest decision will be a long-term change and that no changes are planned for the near future.

Officials say the system will also help preserve Rwandan culture by making sure that children know the mother language.

“Many young people, especially little children, currently find it difficult to speak or write Kinyarwanda,” Harebamungu says. “This is dangerous for the country.”

He says that most developed countries in the world, such as China, Japan and Germany, have preserved their mother languages and cultures by speaking them in school.

But some say they doubt the cultural benefits of learning in the mother language. They say that because only 15 million people worldwide speak Kinyarwanda, it can’t be compared to languages such as Chinese, which has more than a billion speakers.

The decision took effect immediately and will be implemented as soon as possible in all government schools, according to the Ministry of Education. Since the academic year began just last month at the beginning of February, the cabinet decided that it is not too late to switch to Kinyarwanda this year.

Older students and those who are already in their third year of primary school will continue to be taught in English – and now for eight instead of five hours per day.

Although school will be taught in Kinyarwanda for younger students, they will still receive English and French lessons. Private schools are encouraged, but not obliged, to teach the main subjects to younger students in Kinyarwanda.