Kinyarwanda under threat of extinction

Sunday February 11 2018

Primary pupils on assembly. Many Rwandan

Primary pupils on assembly. Many Rwandan parents prefer their children being taught in English or French to the detriment of Kinyarwanda. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NATION 

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The ongoing debate about Kinyarwanda being under threat of extinction has revived calls for the government to review current policies and adopt new measures aimed at preserving the country’s national language.

Last week, the Rwandan Academy of Language and Culture (RALC) raised the alarm about Kinyarwanda being in danger of dying out should current generations continue favouring foreign languages over their mother tongue.

“It is a shame to find staff in banks, hospitals, or other public spaces speaking English or French in a country with a common national language,” said James Vuningoma, the executive secretary of RALC.

His comment sparked heated debate on social media and in local mainstream media outlets, with many commentators faulting government policies aimed at preserving the language.

“Most parents send their children to English or French-speaking schools, and in many educated, rich families, Kinyarwanda is not spoken at all. This is because they think foreign languages prepare their children for a better future,” said Sylvere Rwabuhihi, a Kinyarwanda teacher, in the south of the country.

She suggested more government investment in teaching and researching Kinyarwanda.


The lack of use of Kinyarwanda was a major topic at the recent National Dialogue (Umushyikirano).

“If we do not teach Kinyarwanda, and if those who are taught the language do not play a bigger role, we will end up having a completely distorted Kinyarwanda,” President Paul Kagame told those who attended the dialogue.

Recommendations were made for parents, government organs, civil society and religious organisations to work together in preserving and developing Kinyarwanda.

“The government should consider prioritising the national language as part of higher education,” education experts said.

In 2008, the National University of Rwanda, now University of Rwanda closed the department of literature and African languages, where Kinyarwanda was taught due to low enrolment numbers. According to experts this was a big blow to the study of the national language.

“It left a huge gap in the preservation of Kinyarwanda especially on the research side,” said Alphonse Kabano, a linguist and university lecturer.

Some educationists suggest adoption of Kinyarwanda as a medium of teaching in the lower grades, if the national language is to be passed on to younger generations.

A recent report by Soma Umenye — a USAid-supported project — found that majority of Rwandan children have difficulties reading and writing, both in Kinyarwanda and foreign languages.

The project recommended teaching in Kinyarwanda as mastering the mother tongue helps in learning foreign languages.

Unesco recommends teaching in mother tongue for the first three years of formal schooling as it gives those children an advantage over those who are taught in a foreign language.

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