At the end of last year, the Rwandan government decided to impose English as the single official language of education and government, without any public debate or consultation with teaching unions. Since 1996 all three official languages - Kinyarwandan, French and English - have been used in education. The move is designed to allow Rwanda to request membership in the Commonwealth and to cut its ties with the International Organization of La Francophonie.
English became Rwanda’s third official language behind French and Kinyarwandan in 1996, following the return of 800,000 – 850,000 Tutsis who had fled to bordering countries at the time of the 1994 genocide, primarily to Anglophone countries such as Uganda and Tanzania, but also to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. French, Kinyarwandan and English remained the three official languages of Rwanda when the new constitution was adopted in 2003. The decision of the government to favour English over the other two official languages was introduced at the start of the new school term in January 2009. Meanwhile, the teaching of English as a subject will be enforced across the board in 2011, with French being consigned to the second cycle of secondary school, and a reduced number of hours taught. However, according to Sylvestre Vuguziga, President of the Syndicat des personnels de l’enseignement du Rwanda(SYPERWA), “Ninety-eight percent of teachers in the country are French-speaking, and union members are almost all French-speaking.” Outside the union, very few teachers have a good command of English and many are nowhere near ready to teach in the language of Shakespeare. Six months after the imposition of the reform, the President of SYPERWA is still concerned about its impact on the quality of teaching in Rwanda, as Francophone teachers will need a great deal of time to attain sufficient mastery of English to be able to teach it themselves. In this respect, the two months of intensive classes taken by some teachers shortly before the introduction of the reform are far from sufficient. “It takes several months or even years to learn a language well enough to use it in everyday life, in addition to living in an environment that requires the individual to speak only that language. However, that is not the case in Rwanda, where French-speaking teachers normally speak a mixture of Kinyarwandan and French. It is a real risk to try to learn a foreign language in a few hours of language classes and to try to teach in that same language, as the teacher must be able to find correct and varied words,” adds Sylvestre. However, these teachers must adapt because of the risk of losing their jobs, with the resources available to them and without adapted teaching material. If, as expected, the decision unilaterally taken by the Rwandan government has a disastrous effect on the quality of education, the situation could be worsened by the parents of Francophone pupils, who will no longer be able to support their children with homework they cannot understand. This rushed reform has even prompted some wealthier parents to send their children to Ugandan schools so that they can take classes taught in a less ‘broken’ English. Sylvestre concludes: “We can only hope that logic and reason will prevail, leading to a progressive reform of education. Unfortunately, damage done in the area of education is irreparable and even has long-term effects on the following generations, as culture is passed down from one generation to the next.” By Delphine Sanglan.