Recent language shift
On the 2nd of December, 2019, Rwanda’s government announced a major language shift for the third time in eleven years. Primary school children had to be taught in English from first grade on. Rwanda’s government didn’t indicate a clear planning of the implementation of this policy change. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have been closed in March 2020. Now that the children have returned to school, they face the challenge of learning in an unfamiliar language.
Policy change 2008
Until October 2008 children in first, second and third grade were taught in Kinyarwanda, the national language. For the upper three grades, teachers switched to French or English. In October 2008, Rwanda’s government modified this into English for all six grades of primary schools. Teachers had to follow a crash course and start teaching in English in 2009.
Policy change 2011
In 2011, Rwanda’s government announced that children in first, second and third grade had to be taught in Kinyarwanda again, with English a compulsary subject. From fourth grade on teachers switched into English. Their knowledge of English still was too basic. External pressure from international donor agencies contributed to this policy change. Rwanda’s government however has long sought to distance itself from Belgian colonial influences and the strong connection with France during the twenty years prior to the 1994 genocide. The government now emphasized the cultural importance of speaking Kinyarwanda and found scientific basis of the merits of teaching children in their mother tonque. Rwanda’s need to present itself as East Africa’s centre of innovation and modernity, surrounded by Anglophone neighbours, supported the idea to rebrand Rwanda as an English-speaking nation.
Research after 2011 change
Studies show that pedagogic choices of teachers are affected by their proficiency in the language-of-instruction. For Rwandan teachers who are not proficient in English the policy change has led to less participatory and inclusive teaching methodologies. Researchers also found that the choice of the language-of-instruction does not have to be an either-or decision. Children do not require full immersion in English. The development of their understanding of key concepts and their speaking, writing and reading skills can be supported by the use of Kinyarwanda.
Shock or embrace
The whipsawing between Kinyarwanda and English led to challenges. Because the 2011 shift seemed to be fortunate and was lauded by Rwanda’s government, the December 2019 shift came as a shock for the majority. In 2018 just 38 percent of the teachers had a working knowledge on English. In rural areas this percentage is estimated to be even lower. Education experts fear that the latest switch could further reduce the poor learning levels and increase inequality. On the other hand, a group of parents, especially those of children in private schools where English already was the language-of-instruction, welcomed the discard of Kinyarwanda as primary school language-of-instruction. They believe the change will lead to better opportunities in the future. They see no loss of the mother tonque since Kinyarwanda can be taught as a subject and is spoken at home.