The costs of switching to English
French was the official language in Rwanda until 2008, when the government decided to transition to English in a bid to increase Rwanda’s viability in the global market. The government at the time stated that English, not French, was key to ensuring economic success and establishing Rwanda as a tourist destination, IT hub, and business center in Africa following the violence of the 1990s.
Choosing English and aligning with the Anglophone world for economic reasons seems pretty innocuous, right? It makes sense—English is the most spoken second language in the world and the primary language for international relations and business. But observers note that there were historical wounds that contributed to the decision, and critics allege that there were political motives at stake.
Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009—becoming one of only two countries in the Commonwealth that weren’t former British colonies—under the pall of diplomatic intrigue: Rwanda was still a member of La Francophonie (the international alliance of French-speaking nations), but an official Rwandan commission in 2007 accused 33 prominent French officials of being directly involved in the 1994 genocide and relations soured soon afterwards. In addition, Rwandan officials suggested that colonial-era ties to France and Belgium contributed toward the ideology that resulted in the 1994 genocide, and the government wanted to eradicate ethnicity-based identities, according to researchers Beth Samuelson and Sarah Freedman.
Many Tutsis who lived in exile in Anglophone countries (e.g., Uganda) during the Hutu-Tutsi violence of the 1990s came back into power after the violence slowed, and they brought with them an English-speaking culture and an English-based power structure, wrote Canadian PhD student Izabela Steflja last month. Steflja writes that despite Rwanda’s nominal efforts to foster a unified Rwandan identity—based on English (the language of 4% of the population), rather than French (~8%) or Kinyarwanda (~88%), the native language that straddles both Hutu and Tutsi peoples—are misguided and serve only to reemphasize existing power conflicts.
As for education on the ground, Rwanda gave up trying to teach young children English last year, choosing instead to teach children in Kinyarwanda for a few years before switching to English. Critics decried the instability in the education system while others praised the attempt to preserve Kinyarwanda, the first language of about 15 million people. But some commentators have questioned the quality of English-language education in the country, especially because there is a dearth of teachers fluent in English.
The group I work for in South Africa doesn’t normally deal with issues related to Rwanda. But one of our focus countries, Mozambique, a country with a Portuguese colonial past, has also joined the English-speaking Commonwealth of Nations. Mozambique hasn’t adopted English as an official language—an fact made abundantly clear as I tried to Google Translate my way through the Mozambican Constitution last week—but I’m curious to see whether it’ll follow the example of Rwanda and ditch its colonial past (… to adopt another colonial language) in the name of economic advancement.