The Minister of Information and government spokesperson’s statement on language during the recent media and government dialogue provides a useful pivot for this article as it outlines official position. Hon Louise Mishikiwabo told the workshop that attracted participants from the public sector, civil society, international organizations and some foreign guests, that the French language had not been banned in Rwanda and stressed that, like Kinyarwanda and English, French is still an official language as stipulated in Rwanda’s statutes.
The only difference in policy was that English is the only language of instruction in the educational system.
In linguistically heterogeneous countries, language policies become problematic and a number of considerations have to be factored in the process.
However, there is no single formula used as framework for national language policy. Just as nations are different in all aspects, so should the criteria determining language policy.
However, certain principles have been used as guidelines to formulate policies that serve national aspirations; such as fostering national unity and harmony, national culture, development and international relations among others.
Rwanda, which is homogeneous, Kinyarwanda serves the purpose of promoting national unity, culture, identity and development whereas in countries with diverse linguistic communities like Kenya and Tanzania, Kiswahili has been promoted to serve that purpose.
Kiswahili being a neutral language and in sense non-tribal is an ideal national language choice in both countries because it does not pose the threat of domination by one of the ‘tribal’ languages in a multi-ethnic society.
A Kenyan scholar P.M. Musau in his article, Language Attitudes and their implications for Language Planning in Kenya posits that a common language like Kiswahili is crucial in Africa because African nations were arbitrary colonial creations that lumped people of different cultures and languages together.
Invariably African countries inherited the languages of their colonizers as official and or national languages.
African Scholars like Ngugi wa Thiongo have castigated the imposition of foreign languages particularly because they dominated the cultural, educational and economic spheres even after independence and advocated for the promotion of African languages, “to prevent total annihilation or assimilation of their languages.”
A renouned South African writer Ezekiel Mphahlele in 1975, criticized the apartheid regime decree encouraging “vernacular” languages as medium of instruction in secondary schools instead of English.
His support of English as a language of instruction was based on the fact that little was written in African languages which would disadvantage the learner and his belief that “English was also a language of power and exclusion from it meant being weakened when it came to articulation of it”.
In view of the above, therefore, language policy makers must be cognizant of concrete conditions of their country with a view to shape the future and destiny of their society.
From a general point of view Rwanda’s adoption of English as a language of instruction is logical given its membership to East African Community and poised to join the British Commonwealth.
I am informed by my friend Tony that the commonwealth constitute a third of the world population (over two billion human beings). The benefits of joining the august grouping are plenty, cooperation, broader markets, cultural and scientific exchange and expanded employment opportunities.
English is a lingua-franca not only for that grouping but also the most widespread language. Some have suggested that it is indispensable and can support international relations. Musau says “Through English you can peep into the rest of the world”.
From a pedagogical point of view the decision to have one language of instruction is commendable. Of course like all good things there is a cost.
For instance my colleagues (dons in universities and higher institutions of learning) whose mastery of English was wanting have been put on a crash English language programme. Currently school teachers throughout the country, have forgone their holidays, for intensive English language courses.
Pedagogically using two languages simultaneously as medium of instruction disadvantages the learner.
In 1994, it was necessary to have both languages because of the situation, with Rwandans coming from all corners of the world.
Different situations demand different solutions. I was involved in the debates then as a founder member of Rwanda English Medium Services, so no one can say the policy was arbitrary.
It was the best in the circumstances.
It has been observed that although the policy produced bilingual individuals, few mastered English or French to the same level as their counterparts in East Africa.
The policy has, however, eased the transition because learners were all exposed to English. A K.I.E (Kigali Institute of Education) Professor Ndomba (Linguistics) rightly argues that if one learns all subjects in one language one is more exposed to the language, acquires more linguistic skills and is more likely to attain high proficiency levels.
Although globalisation has made English a lingua-franca of the world, other languages like Kiswahili, French should continue to find a place in our curricula as we live in an interdependent world.