Language in education issue goes beyond Kinyarwanda

Matters educational tend to arouse wide public debate. And so they should because they concern everyone, and not just for the present, but for the future of the individual as well as the nation.

All manner of people, from experts in various fields and the educated, employed elite to ordinary people tilling the land and the unemployed who did not have the opportunity to go to school, talk about these matters passionately and have strong views on any number of subjects.


The most recent topic to excite such public discussion was the use of Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction in lower primary school (P1-P3) in all Rwandan schools.


Some people see this as a serious problem and even suggest that it contributes to poor quality education.


This, of course, is nonsense. Education experts and linguists show, based on research findings that are consistent, that learners benefit from using their mother tongue in education in the early grades of primary school.

The question of language in education was brought to the fore by another national decision for common, standardised evaluation of achievement of national curriculum objectives in all schools across the country.

It appears that as long as the language policy in education remained simply on the books, there was no problem. But as soon as the curriculum was being evaluated and it was bound to reveal that it was not being implemented in some schools, there was an issue and complaints poured in.

Most of the complaints came from private schools and parents who educate their children in them.

The parents argued that they take their children to those schools to learn foreign languages. Kinyarwanda can be learnt at home, they said. They seem to disregard the research evidence and the fact that even children of first language speakers of those languages they want theirs to learn, also have to learn them at school.

The schools protested. They pleaded that they were not informed early before the nation-wide evaluation was implemented. The truth seems to be that they had ignored the language policy and so were simply caught out.

Other parents, who have their children in public schools, joined the debate. They had complaints of their own. According to them, because their children were being taught in Kinyarwanda, they were getting an inferior education.

Others blamed all this on new ministers citing a tendency among those newly appointed to cabinet to bring new policies without any regard to existing ones.

Clearly, there are some problems here. Most of them are the result of genuine ignorance, uninformed perceptions or wilful refusal to comply with regulations. Others stem from weaknesses in the adoption and implementation of policies.

Let us explain some things first and dispel some of the basis for the ongoing debate.

Rwanda has a language policy in education. The policy is that Kinyarwanda is the language of instruction in lower primary school (P.1-P.3) in all Rwandan schools, while English and French are taught as subjects.

In upper primary school (P.4-P.6), throughout secondary school and tertiary institutions the language of instruction is English. Kinyarwanda, French and now Kiswahili are taught as subjects.

This is not a new policy. It has been in operation for the last ten years, since 2009, and was confirmed again in the Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) that was adopted in 2015. It is nothing new.

The new national evaluation method was started at the beginning of this year following Cabinet approval. It works like this. It covers all classes, from P.1 to S.6. In term one, schools set their own exams. In term two, districts set them. In term three, they are set by the Rwanda Education Board. Again, there is nothing sudden or unusual.

So, why has there been this impassioned discussion? I think this is an indication that some things have not been right and need to be corrected.

It reveals a problem in the communication of policies to stakeholders. Government makes policies but the concerned departments seem to do a poor job of getting them known.

This is the excuse private schools and parents with children there have used as the basis of their complaint against teaching and evaluating in Kinyarwanda.

Or the public has not had much input in the policies because there was little consultation or none. They have not bought into them because they were not involved in the first place. They do not own them.

There are weaknesses in implementation of policies. Problems that should have been noticed earlier and corrected only appear at the end point of implementation and turn into a crisis. There is no follow up to determine level of progress. Policies are passed, launched and then everyone forgets about them.

Private schools, because they receive no funding from government, think they operate outside the supervision of the ministry of education. This is, of course, erroneous.

As the debate has shown, if this view persists, there is a danger of creating two systems of education for different classes of people, one public and mainly rural and the other private and principally urban.

Finally, the fact that language in education became an issue only when exams were concerned shows the importance we still attach to them and not so much to the entire teaching and learning process.

The heated discussion that Kinyarwanda in education has excited is perhaps a good thing. It offers an opportunity to correct these weaknesses as well as evaluate the role of the language in national life.

The views expressed in this  article are of the author.

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