Children in Rwanda finally started heading back to school last fall, after months of learning from home. It was a bit of bright news for the country, given that schools had been closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. But now, many students are facing a brand-new challenge: Having to learn in an unfamiliar language.
Rwanda’s government has begun implementing a controversial language change that requires all primary schools to instruct their students in English, rather than in Kinyarwanda, the national language spoken by nearly everyone in the country. However, only 38 percent of the primary school teachers who are affected by the change know English, while even fewer of their pupils do. A 2018 evaluation of the English abilities of third graders found only 16 percent of them to be proficient. These figures are likely much worse outside the capital, Kigali, in rural areas where most families live.
The government first announced the change in December 2019. Due to the subsequent coronavirus lockdown, teachers haven’t received much training in English. But even if they had, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be comfortable enough with a new language of instruction in a matter of months.
The effects of this about-face are easy to predict, because it has happened in Rwanda before. Over the past 12 years, the government has changed the language used in primary schools three times, whipsawing between Kinyarwanda and English, with little evidence of planning, and with little to no consultation with the tens of thousands of teachers, children and local education officials who are affected by these shifts.
Until 2008, Rwandan educators taught in Kinyarwanda for the first three years of primary school, before shifting to either French or English in the fourth grade. However, that year, the government changed the language of instruction in schools completely to English, enacting the change within a matter of months, with little advance warning or planning. It was especially challenging because the country’s Cabinet bypassed normal policymaking processes to issue the directive, without consulting with the teachers and local administrators who were then tasked with implementing the change. At the time, just 15 percent of teachers understood English, so it isn’t a surprise that most teachers and students alike struggled immensely.
In 2011, the government reversed course, returning to Kinyarwanda for the first three years, before shifting to English in the fourth grade. This approach appeared to stick, and in the years that followed, the government publicly reaffirmed the importance of Kinyarwanda language skills for schoolchildren. President Paul Kagame stressed the cultural importance of all Rwandans speaking Kinyarwanda. Editorials in pro-government newspapers emphasized that Rwandans had a duty to promote their local language. The Ministry of Education lauded the scientific basis of its approach to teach children in their mother tongue, a move backed by bilateral donors like the U.S. Agency for International Development, which have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and produce Kinyarwanda textbooks.
That is why the December 2019 decision to change the primary school language of instruction back to English came as such a shock.
There are some complex political and economic dynamics behind Rwanda’s language shifts, including the government’s decision to move from French to English in the first place. Kagame’s government has long sought to distance Rwanda from its roots as a Belgian colony, and from the close ties with France that developed under the two-decade rule of dictator Juvenal Habyarimana. Kagame’s political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, took power shortly after the 1994 genocide that was sparked by Habyarimana’s assassination and has been in control ever since.
The RPF was originally founded by a group of Rwandan refugees whose families had fled to Uganda to escape ethnic violence after Rwanda’s independence from Belgium in 1962. Many of the party’s core members, including Kagame, grew up speaking English, leading some critics to view the shift from French to English as an attempt to benefit Anglophone elites.
During his decades in power, Kagame has also sought to remake Rwanda into an East African beacon of innovation and modernity—one that is aligned with its Anglophone neighbors as well as the global lingua franca. For example, Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009, despite never having been a British colony.
Yet even these explanations don’t fully explain why there has been so much back-and-forth in language policy in recent years. One might expect that Rwanda’s political continuity and relentless focus on economic development would mean that education policies would be well planned out and informed by evidence. But this has not been the case.
“It wasn’t a policy change,” one education official told me of the most recent language shift. “Those require consultation. This was a directive.”
Rwanda’s language challenges might come as a surprise to education experts. The country’s monolingual landscape would seem to put it at a comparative advantage over many other African countries. Ghana and Uganda, for example, are multilingual, so it isn’t always clear how best to develop a national education system, or what language to use when printing textbooks. Rwanda doesn’t face this issue. Nearly everyone speaks Kinyarwanda; for many, it is the only language they know. It is the common language of families, churches, markets, village meetings and radio broadcasts.
Research suggests that children learn best if they spend the first few years of their schooling grasping foundational and complex concepts using the language that is also spoken in their homes. The opposite also holds true: Forcing pupils and teachers to use an unfamiliar language without adequate preparation or support jeopardizes learning, particularly for those in poorer rural areas where exposure to the English language is limited. The government’s most recent decision appears to reject this evidence—the same evidence it had previously embraced—potentially disadvantaging hundreds of thousands of students during the foundational years of their education.
Like the language changes before it, the most recent shift also puts Rwandan stakeholders in the education sector, both at home and abroad, in a difficult position. Donors and NGOs, which are required to coordinate with the government to deliver services in Rwanda, are now asking how they can support a major change in education policy that may actually worsen children’s education and increase inequalities.
“Operating in an unstable policy environment is very challenging,” one senior Rwandan education official told me. “You have this abrupt shift and say the language is now English. But you have just had all of these resources poured into improving Kinyarwanda. Now are they supposed to shift to English? It causes a level of discomfort among donors because they can’t predict anything.”
More broadly, Rwanda’s language debacle is symptomatic of an education system in perpetual flux. Since taking power, the RPF has operated with a sense of urgency to develop the country. This urgency has enabled high economic growth rates and has allowed the government to build more classrooms and get more children in school.
Too often, though, policy decisions on education appear to be made impulsively. Previous orders are reversed, and key officials are replaced with little planning or notice. Since the RPF took power, the government has cycled through 14 ministers of education. The most recent change at the top of the Ministry of Education came just months after the announcement that English was once again replacing Kinyarwanda—a move that nobody saw coming.
“It wasn’t a policy change,” one education official told me of the most recent language shift. “Those require consultation. This was a directive.” The technocrats in charge of leading the education system are simply tasked with implementing the new language directive—not to question it.
To make matters more challenging, school closures due to COVID-19 have meant the language shift is not even the most pressing concern facing education officials today. They are also under immense pressure to reduce the Rwandan school system’s 60-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in primary schools, among the highest in Africa. Now, with the 2020 school year effectively cancelled due to the pandemic, education officials have been scrambling to absorb the double cohort of first graders as the new school year begins.
Many people I spoke with for this article said they privately hoped the COVID-19 pandemic and other pressing priorities would mean the language shift might be delayed or even swept aside altogether. But that was not the case.
Last August, I contacted the Ministry of Education to ask what the rush was to implement the change, especially during the pandemic. A ministry official responded, stating, “Teacher training and preparedness will continue throughout the school year to ensure teachers are supported as much as possible. This will allow the system to continuously refine the use of English as a medium of instruction at all levels.”
Now that most schools have reopened, children continue to study in the shadows of a policy environment where instructional languages can change from one year to the next without adequate planning or support. For teachers and students, particularly those in poorer rural areas where only Kinyarwanda is spoken, they have little choice but to adapt as well as they can.
Timothy P. Williams, Ph.D., is a freelance writer and researcher based in Boston. His writing centers on the systems that give rise to inequalities and the experiences of those that bear witness, especially children. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Conversation, and in numerous academic journals. His research includes a decade-long investigation into education policy in Rwanda, which led to the publication of award-winning papers in the Journal of Development Studies and World Development. More about his work can be found at: www.timothypwilliams.com.
Adapted from: World Politics Review