To speak French or English? That is the question

The Rwandan cabinet seems to have opened a tinderbox of misplaced sentiments within the Rwandan society, which had never come to the fore in the past.

The Rwandan cabinet seems to have opened a tinderbox of misplaced sentiments within the Rwandan society, which had never come to the fore in the past.

When it was announced that the cabinet had decided to adopt English as a medium of instruction in schools and state business, little did I know that there existed passions, sentiments and the love of the unknown in the Rwandan society.

Even those people who could not as much as write an official letter in proper French, seem to be passionate about a language they have never really known. 

A francophone colleague - or at least she likes to be known as such - seized the moment and ventilated her displeasure.

Unfortunately, the forum was East African, where few, if any would have understood what she said had she decided to use the erstwhile language of “finesse”. 

Well, she did not; she argued her case in English so eloquently, in a way that would have made the Queen of England proud.

What was funny though was at the end of her vitriol, one of the East African colleagues asked why she did not argue her case in French - and her response was even more interesting; none among those present would have understood her.

“Precisely,” quipped the other fellow. Issues of language have been contentious in the Rwandan social political landscape, since foreign languages were introduced in Rwanda.

It begun with evangelisation and missionaries, the Catholics or more so the White Fathers recruited by the German administration were predominantly French, or French speaking; naturally they sought French supremacy.

The Protestants on the other hand were predominantly of Anglo-Saxon extraction; they knew little French if any, they taught in English, such that in the fifties, there were as many English speakers in Rwanda as there were French speaking Rwandans.

In post-independence Rwanda; Catholicism reigned supreme and English as a medium of instruction was suppressed, and the learning of English as a language was relegated to an inconsequential place in a faulty and mediocre education system.

English as a language and medium of instruction resurfaced in Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide. While it was embraced by not a very small section of the Rwandan society, there was bitter resistance from some quarter, though not overt.

English as an official language was resisted in different quarters in the Rwandan society, obviously for reasons known to those who resisted.

The reasons may have been frivolous, resistance unnecessary and even uninformed, but it was resisted nevertheless, in schools, colleges, state institutions and even the private sector.

Students have gone on strike, refusing to study English just as others have refused to study French. On all occasions, the resistance so to speak, has been misguided, perhaps a manifestation of poor language teaching in elementary and high schools.

Rwandans do have a pathological fear of learning languages in just the same way that young people today dread learning mathematics.

History not withstanding, those raising the storm now in the raging debate are missing the point; the issue is not whether English as a language is more important than French or which is more important than the other.

What we should be asking ourselves here is how important French is as a medium of communication, a conduit to unhindered access to information in this information age.

If you can navigate yourself through Brussels and Paris without speaking even a single word in French today, then the writing should be on the wall.

But try using French in other countries in Europe; you will be lucky if you can find your way back to where you disembarked.
One thing though that cannot and should not be downplayed, is the role of language in identity formation and identity human capital. 

Language is a crucial and extremely important component in identity formation. It is the basis of social identities which underpin identity specific human capital.

The latter is crucial in that it is the defining factor in developing the means of production of a social group as well as in defining its production and exchange relationships within the wider society, “the market”.

Thus, identity groups will always hold unto language, even when such a language yields no tangible benefits in both the present and the future.

In Rwanda, being Francophone or Anglophone may not necessarily mean a mastery of either of the languages, but a reflection of one’s perceived identity.

I have studied French for many years as a second, if not third foreign language; I speak, read and write passable French, far from perfect if there is anything of that sort, in mastering French as a language.

I have benefited in very many ways from my knowledge of French, an age above others who did not speak French, though looking back it is reminiscent of the famous adage that in the land of blind men, the one-eyed man is king. 

Even in my academic pursuits, I have come across very few opportunities if any at all, where the language could have been useful, either to me or others who would have felt at home with the language.

In today’s rapidly globalising world, French as a language is continuously finding it difficult to weather the tide of communication, which is shoring the global world to our doorsteps. Soon, it may find its place among the language of the global world, a place of irrelevance, as irrelevant as this debate is.

Like William Shakespeare “tis nobler in the mind to suffer, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?”


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