What should be the language of instruction in lower primary?

Even before the switch from French to English as the language of instruction in schools, many Rwandans rushed to learn English a language that had clearly become the de-facto global language. In fact, many schools were running a dual English-French system.  Outside school many English training centres are opening up around every corner and flocked by teenagers and older people who make a stopover between work and home each day. With the advantages of mastering English very clear, some parents and teachers are disagreeing with the Government policy that requires children to use Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction from nursery to primary three.
Primary school children learning how to write. The New Times/ T. Kisambira.
Primary school children learning how to write. The New Times/ T. Kisambira.

Even before the switch from French to English as the language of instruction in schools, many Rwandans rushed to learn English a language that had clearly become the de-facto global language. In fact, many schools were running a dual English-French system. 

Outside school many English training centres are opening up around every corner and flocked by teenagers and older people who make a stopover between work and home each day.

With the advantages of mastering English very clear, some parents and teachers are disagreeing with the Government policy that requires children to use Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction from nursery to primary three. 

Among other rules and regulations, cabinet resolved in February 2011 to approve the policy of using Kinyarwanda as a medium of instruction from pre-primary to lower primary level.

Brian Kasawuli, the headmaster of Alpha Community Academy, a nursery and primary school in Gasabo District compares English to money of great value.

“English is like American dollars; you can use them once in China, UK and Spain, but you can’t go there with shillings or Rwandan Francs. This is the same with English in comparison to other languages; it is a global one”.

Like Kasawuli’s Alpha Community Academy, many schools, especially in Kigali have opted to introduce English as medium of instruction from nursery because, “a child has to get a strong foundation in English, so that they enjoy the merits of this language that awaits everybody”, says a local teacher in Kigali.

The Ministry of Education insists that public schools should follow the policy in order to give children a firm educational foundation.

While offering his keynote speech at the City of Kigali education summit recently, Dr. Mathias Harebamungu, the State Minister for Primary and Secondary Education, said “teaching children a foreign language at lower primary frustrates them and make them feel ridiculous”.

He argued that children will not love what they study because it will bore them. He cited studies by UNESCO to buttress his argument. According to UNESCO, mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in education are an important factor for inclusion and quality. Research shows that this has a positive impact on learning and learning outcomes.

At this occasion, Harebamungu said, “It should not worry other schools that they do not teach in English from lower primary level.”

In another interview, Harebamungu insisted that teaching in the child’s mother tongue is not only a local issue but a universally accepted practice. “Rwanda is not doing something unique by insisting on this policy,” he said. “Not teaching children in their mother would endanger the country’s culture; any qualified teacher should not have trouble understanding this,” he concluded.

Kagure Gacheche, a Kenyan professor notes that people learn best when they are taught in a language they understand well. According to UNESCO, one of the biggest obstacles to Education For All remains the use of foreign languages for teaching and learning.

Professor Laurent Nkusi, a linguist and long serving Rwandan lecturer, told Education Times that early age is a period where children can learn quickly and have less of an issue to understand two languages simultaneously. The linguist says however, that the mother tongue merits a great emphasis given the culture aspects it carries.

The Rwanda Education Board (REB) allows English at lower primary level only as a subject. Students have eight periods of English per week, followed by Kinyarwanda with seven periods. All other subjects are taught in Kinyarwanda.

Facing competition from their peers

From the point of view of giving children a strong foundation Brian Kasawuli believes that, “students cannot rely on Kinyarwanda at school; they should study it as a subject just to keep tabs on their culture, given that they learn enough of it at home. As for schools, they should focus much more on English, an international language”.

In Alpha Community Academy, Kinyarwanda is accorded a period of 25 minutes per day in nursery and lower primary level, while the upper primary levels get a 45-minute period per day. At school, lower level pupils are allowed to speak Kinyarwanda, while for the upper level, it is prohibited.

In his assessment, Kasawuli finds that “there is no harm in using English from an early age. It becomes hard for a kid to catch up when they start English a bit late”.

The principal of Kigali Parents School, Charles Mutazihana said, “We can understand that scholars have found that, it is wrong psychologically to have children starting with foreign language; we shall comply with the directive of the ministry, though it will take time to change the current practice in the children’s minds.”

Diane Muhimakazi, the headmistress of Shammah, a nursery school in Kimironko, Gasabo district says, “parents oblige us to ensure that have their children perform well in foreign languages, mostly French and English so that they can compete with other children once in primary school.”

Joyce Musabe, the head of Department of Curricular, Materials Production & Distribution at REB, told Education Times that the materials they have designed will help children learn both Kinyarwanda and foreign languages.

“We cannot even rely on their parents and maids to teach them Kinyarwanda, which is why we prepared a decent curriculum for them,” she said.

Parents speak out

Most of the parents who spoke to Education Times say English is an indispensable language, which they would like their children to study intensively at an early age so as to make them global citizens.

“I cannot speak a single word in French because I studied it late; we should not deny our children their right to know an important language like English at an early age,” says Jocelyn Mukandanga, a civil servant with a child in a kindergarten.

“When my three year old child speaks English, I feel happy that she is able to do what I could not do at the same age,” she adds.

On his side, Isaac Mutabazi, a mechanical engineer, says that English based schools are for the “well off” and regrets that he cannot afford to have his children studying in such schools. He does not think that one can start studying English late and make it.

However, Ibrahim Kwihangana has a different view. “I sent my two children to an English based school, because it has become a fashion. But I am now paying the cost.  They refused to greet their grandfather because he could not speak English,” he says, shaking his head.

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Should children in lower primary school be taught in Kinyarwanda?


Mbanda Jacques
, Taxi Moto cyclist.

It’s easier to grasp whatever they are being taught in the language they understand and that’s Kinyarwanda. Teaching them in a foreign language only confuses them.


Hitimana Jean, Carpenter.

Not necessary, Kinyarwanda is their native language, weather they learn it at school, or not, they will learn it. Its better they start learning foreign languages that will help them in the future.

Rulinda Ivan, Mechanic, Gatsata.

Yes, Kinyarwanda should come first in whatever our kids learn because it is our first language.

Pastor Akayezu Vene, Kanombe.

Yes, children should be taught Kinyarwanda until at least primary 5, this will help them understand their mother language better.

Maan Matt
, Lawyer.

Yes, our children should be taught in our local language, this will give them a sense of loving and respecting their culture before embracing foreign languages and cultures.

Mutesi Jackie, Teacher.

Children should be taught in foreign languages from year one, this will give them a chance to learn and be fluent in those languages.

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