French is out of fashion in Rwanda

English replaced French as the official language of instruction in schools in 2008


Reuters/ Getty

When Governor General Michaëlle Jean visits Rwanda next week she might have to bite her tongue about the country’s new language policy. After a century of close ties to France and Belgium, the East African nation is phasing out français and embracing English. “English is becoming more and more dominant in the world,” says Arnaud Nkusi, anchor of Rwanda’s state-owned TV news. “It’s all about business. You have to move with the rest of the world.”

Jean’s trip will mark the first state visit to Rwanda from a Commonwealth country since it joined that 54-state organization late last year. But cozying up to Britain and its former colonies is only the latest chapter in Rwanda’s move to English. Many say it all started with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when members of the country’s Hutu ethnic group killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The country blames France for helping arm the instigators, and then not doing enough to stop the carnage.

In the wake of the genocide, Rwanda’s main donor became the United States. Meanwhile, thousands of exiles returned to their homeland from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda—neighbouring English-speaking countries where many Rwandans picked up the language. Then, in 2006, a French judge dropped a bombshell. He accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, of helping start the genocide because of his alleged complicity in the rocket attack of April 6, 1994, that killed Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana—the spark for the massacre. Furious, Kagame shut down the French Embassy, kicked out the ambassador, ordered Radio France Internationale off the air in Rwanda, and closed the local French cultural centre.
Two years later, in 2008, Kagame announced that English—which became one of Rwanda’s official languages in 1994—would replace French as the official language of instruction in the country’s schools. In the wake of that momentous step, thousands of Rwandan schoolteachers were fired because they couldn’t teach the new language.

According to Nkusi, there has been very little public resistance to the government’s pro-English campaign. Kagame has a firm grip on power and Rwandans are not known as protesters. In fact, most citizens are reluctant to give their opinions even in private. But during an interview with a group of Rwandan teacher-trainers, some of them open up. “French flows in my veins,” says Ladislas Nkundabanyanga. “My father taught me French and my friends all speak French.” Nowadays, though, he knows kindergarten students who don’t understand the word “bonjour.” As a result, he’s convinced the French language in Rwanda is doomed. Nkundabanyanga’s colleague, Beatrice Namango, agrees. The new policy, she says, is “like telling me to keep quiet. It’s stopping me from talking.”

The teacher-trainers’ boss is a Canadian named Mark Thiessen, from Williams Lake, B.C. He likens the slow demise of French in Rwanda to the death of Aboriginal languages in Canada. “Slowly, French in Rwanda will disappear,” Thiessen says. “It might take one or two generations, but it will.”

Nkusi says he’s partial to French, too, but he sees the language change as an economic necessity. “French is the language of the heart,” he says, “but English is the language of work.” And Rwandans are working hard to show they’re competitive in an emerging African market. Every building in the country looks like it just got a fresh coat of paint, and the GDP is growing by an average of five per cent a year. “The country’s wealth is not in the soil, it’s in the minds of its citizens,” says Nkusi. “The leadership is smart enough to know that and develop an information technology sector like India’s.”

Nkusi also parrots a popular line of Kagame’s. “Rwanda isn’t becoming unilingual,” he says, “it’s simply making room for new languages.” Rwanda’s capital only has one private French school left, but a Chinese school just opened up, too. Besides, Nkusi adds, Rwanda is now a member of both the Commonwealth and la Francophonie, the organization of French states—like Canada. Michaëlle Jean might like to highlight that, too.


French is out of fashion in Rwanda

  1. Interesting comment, that French is the language of the heart and English is the language of work.

    I don't think that Canada needs to make that momentous a decision, but perhaps the difference is part of our strength, not a weakness? The more you have to think with (particularly languages) the more you can think, period. Each language is a gift of both structure AND unique point of view. Canada's greatest wealth is our plethora of languages … we speak to each other in a bit of a babel, some days, it is true … and the more we try to learn about others through language, food, culture, point of view, the more and stronger we will build this delightful country.

  2. One of the ways to get rid of an Aborignical Language is to discourge it. Send the speakers to residential schools and beat it out of them. If that deson't work do like they do in Ontario and apparently approved by the Ontario College of Teachers , pay their teachers less then French and English teachers or history teacher….. Or do like they have been doing for years….move them off valuable land and stick them out in the boonies …Please, if you are going to quote an insult to aboringinal langauge have the dignity of calling it what it is….it certainly did not just fade away as suggest here…. It was kicked out of the First Langauge Speakers

    • I am quoted in the above article. My quote comparing the fading away of French to the erosion of Aboriginal languages was, in no way, meant as an insult to Aboriginal languages. I come from a school district in British Columbia which is home to thirteen First Nations communities and three distinct Aboriginal languages — Carrier, Shuswap, and Chilcotin. Shamefully, our region was also home to a fairly large residential school which remained open until the early 1980's. I am well aware that Aboriginal languages were "beaten" out of these students. There were many mitigating factors that have led to the erosion of these languages. My point in the interview with the reporter was to indicate that one major tipping point in the eventual disappearance of a language is when the language is no longer part of the formal education system. My point was not meant to indicate that the educational policy changes in Rwanda have been an exact parallel to what has happened in Canada over the last one hundred years. Back home, my own children are French Immersion students. While we live in Rwanda, they are receiving all instruction in an English international school. Over the time they are in school here, their French fluency will suffer greatly as they are no longer receiving French instruction. Language spoken at school and language spoken at home are the two major components of the lifeblood of the language itself. When one is taken away, the life of the language is in jeopardy. While my district back home has taken measures to continue to teach the languages of Carrier, Shuswap, and Chilcotin in our schools, it is difficult to make up for the mistakes of those who preceded us. Also, in my interview, I made no judgment at all about Rwanda's Ministry of Education's decision to switch to English as the medium of instruction. Rather, it was a discussion about the viability of spoken languages in an ever-changing world.

  3. Very smart move, Rwanda…welcome to the world!

  4. What is happening in Rwanda is not that different from what Quebec is doing with the English schools in the province….

    • or in other provinces! My son is in forced immersion here in Campbellton, NB. Even his gym class is French. His English teacher is French and it is very noticeable by the notes sent home and his report card that she should be enrolled in an English class and not teaching this subject. Her pronunciation is poor and her grammar even worse. The only time they aren't speaking French is at recess. Whatever happened to second language training? This is more like second class treatment!

  5. Speaking many languages is an advantage for africans, but we don’t see it coz all we think about is how well we gonna please our masters. A president like kagame is nothing,but a sell out, he changed from french to english without consultation with no interests on finding out what citizens really want. I speak both languages just because i have to, but i hate ’em. English & french are all oppressor’s language.

  6. Hi Bingu … what you can speak is what you can do. Speaking more than one language gives you more power, more ideas, as you probably have realized, even if you don't like that fact. You have much power, being multi-lingual! Kagame's decision will have many repercussions for years and years, of course. You personally may rail against "oppressor's language(s)", but at least you have 'em and are not otherwise trapped geographically and communicatively. (If you didn't have at least one "Oppressor's language" we would not be able to share our ideas like this!) So language is power, of course, but it is also opportunity. Some folks don't like the way opportunity comes packaged, and that judgment is their right. But that does not diminish the power of the ability to both make the judgment AND take advantage of the opportunity.

    With investment patterns in Africa being what they are, someone may ask you (sooner rather than later) to brush up your Chinese. There! Both another threat AND opportunity!

  7. Neither French nor English is these people's language. In a normal world, these would be taught as secondary languages. They would have still had their own native language. Colonialism may have brought "civilization" (ha!) to other continents, but it sure destroyed cultures, languages, and nations. English is the new lingua franca, de facto. Will Chinese ever overtake it?

  8. English is the world's language, in business, in technology, in science, medicine, and the arts. More importantly English is able to change more rapidly and freely than any other language. It adopts new words and new phrases from other languages whereas, for example, French language is controlled by a government agency. Aboriginal languages are tribal and have no future whatsoever. Their cultures are dead as they were linked to a way of living that no longer exists. Retaining their language makes as much sense as the English living and speaking as they did in the 17th century. What is the purpose of keeping a language and tradition that is only historic? You may as well argue for the return of Latin in England.
    English primacy in the world has nothing to do with population and everything to do with how English speaking nations have allowed individuals to be more important than the State.

  9. The language question is irrelevant: the only issue is whether RWANDA will continue to fall under France's orbit or that of the English-speaking world. The point of the measure is to disconnect Rwanda from the cultural control of France, which help organize the genocide.

  10. Former Governor General Michaëlle Jean is an intelligent woman and a proud Haitian.

    Surely she knows about the history of Haiti and the atrocities Haitians suffered at the hands of the French.

    "Haiti around 1800 was the world's richest colony, a slave-powered export factory which produced almost two-thirds of the world's coffee and almost half its sugar.

    The black slaves were lashed and beaten to work and forced to wear tin muzzles to prevent them from eating the sugar cane.

    If the slaves were fractious, they were roasted over slow fires, or filled with gunpowder and blown to pieces. "

  11. I hope that Rwanda doesn't become like Canada where the English spent centuries to make Canada into the great nation it is (or was) and then the French claimed it as their country.