Why schools should embrace Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction

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A teacher at Kimisagara Primary School in Kigali conducts a lesson. (Francis Byaruhanga)

Stanley Baldwin, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister in 1924, while addressing the congress that same year, emphasised that the preservation of the individuality of the mother tongue is essential to every type of race and if the differences are smoothed out then the great gift is lost out.  “Uniformity of languages is a bad thing,” he said.

When a child is joining school, private or public, what concerns would a parent have? 

The main language of instruction in a school, which could be English, French, or even the local language Kinyarwanda, is one of them. 

Most privately owned schools within the city put emphasis on foreign languages like English and French as the main language of instruction. This, some people argue, results in a great number of kids who can barely speak their mother tongue.

So, one may ask, how can Rwandan schools protect the local language?

Officials share their views 

Dr Christine Gasinzigwa, Director of Science, Technology and Research at the Ministry of Education, says educationists should bear in mind that Kinyarwanda is a complete and rich language.

“The role of ensuring the continuity of our local language should be played primarily by teachers, parents, journalists, authors and politicians, since they are the ones who frequently use it,” she says.

Cyprien Niyomugabo, the chairperson of Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture (RALC), says that students should be encouraged to learn Kinyarwanda  at a very young age and not merely taught to focus on foreign languages. 

 Niyomugabo says that students from nursery to at least Primary Three (P3) should use Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction so that they get the chance to study their mother tongue, and better understand other subjects too.

 “This is our responsibility. We need to detach ourselves from the mindset that Kinyarwanda is ‘archaic’ as compared to foreign languages,” he says.

 Niyomugabo adds that Kinyarwanda and other African languages in general are regarded as  ‘poor’ with very little to offer, which is not the case.

 He, however, says that other languages like Kiswahili should not be forgotten too.

 “The youth who graduated from Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges will soon be employed in the East African Community, so other languages are important too,” he says.

 There is a need to balance this out, he says, as young graduates seeking employment abroad need to be conversant with English mostly and other languages like French.

Rose Mary Mukarutabana, an expert and author in Kinyarwanda, says that generally, local languages around the world are endangered.

 She urges teachers to be enthusiastic about learning Kinyarwanda.

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It is argued that children at the elementary level understand other subjects better in their mother tongue.  

 “Teachers should make sure that we don’t fall into the endangered pit,” she says.

 Jean Damascene Rwasamirera, a historian, says parents have a role too in sensitising the youth on the use of vernacular and points out that some ‘high-end’ class people consider Kinyarwanda ‘outdated’.

 “Some parents need to wake up and realise that Kinyarwanda is not just for students who come from poor families. It’s a national language,” he says.

 He adds that focusing on foreign languages alone could trigger decaying morals, social and cultural deviation, and the dominance of ‘outsiders’.

 Dr Joyce Musabe, the deputy director-general in charge of curriculum development and pedagogical materials at Rwanda Education Board (REB), says Kinyarwanda, as a lesson, is taught with a target to improve on integrity, honesty, public speaking and expression in the mother tongue.

 She says Kinyarwanda should be used not only as a subject, but also, in teaching other subjects like Biology, Math and Chemistry to help students discuss in their mother tongue freely, reducing dropouts and repeating of classes.

Teachers share their views

 Cyriac Nsengimana, a teacher at Teachers Training College, Kirambo, Burera Disctrict in the Northern Province, says that inconsistent changing of programmes is one of the reasons behind the limited use of Kinyarwanda in schools.

 “There is need for a firm and long lasting programme put in place by the Ministry of Education. If we say that we are to use Kinyarwanda from nursery to P3 as the language of instruction then let it be so without changing the programme for at least another 10 years,” he says.

 James Bigirimana, a teacher at Groupe Scolaire Nyagasozi, Nyanza District in the Southern Province, says that most of the schools in Rwanda have no books in Kinyarwanda.

“Kinyarwanda course books are very few which affects the process of teaching the mother tongue in schools,” he says.

 Faustin Harelimana, the Secretary General of National Union of Teachers in Rwanda (SNER), warns that forgetting the mother tongue does not only cripple children’s understanding of other languages, but it has a far reaching impact on the performance of students, academically.

“The appeal to embrace the use of Kinyarwanda should be a campaign by every Rwandan. It’s not the job of journalists, authors, experts, or teachers but, the fight for every Rwandan since Kinyarwanda is for all Rwandans,” Harelimana says.

 He calls on schools to insist on improving teaching methodologies of Kinyarwanda.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw