Why Rwanda finds it hard to learn English

Friday August 03 2012

Pupils doing an English exercise on laptops. Photo/Cyril Ndegeya

Using a foreign language eases communication among citizens of a country who come from different ethnic backgrounds.

However, in Rwanda, the story is different. All it takes one to communicate is mastery of Kinyarwanda.

The lack of interest in learning a foreign language [as Kinyarwanda is enough for communication] and the fear of being seen as arrogant, are the main reasons mother tongue is still the main language of communication.

Since 2008, the government of Rwanda has adopted English as a medium of instruction.

As a result, schools implemented different mechanisms, to either encourage or force students to speak English. For example, in some schools, to persuade students to speak English, the management copied a system used in the 1960s, whereby students were made to tie a small bag of stones around their necks every time they speak Kinyarwanda.

“Parents complained that we are negating the children’s right to speak their mother tongue”, revealed a teacher from a secondary school in Kigali, “Yet teachers cannot lead by example; students complain that they learn English in Kinyarwanda,” the teacher added.


“Our colleagues have a wrong methodology,” says Joseph Mugabo, an English teacher at Lycée de Kigali (LDK) who did his primary, high school and university education in Uganda.

Martin Masabo, the director of the school, said he had no choice but to go for Kenyan and Ugandan teachers because Rwanda teachers were failing to teach strictly in English.

This problem applies even to university students, whose courses should be taught in English, for them to stay competitive in the labour market since Rwanda joined the East African Community.

“We do not learn a lot of English. We have notes in English, but the explanations are made mostly in Kinyarwanda,” explained a graduate of Universite Laique Adventistes de Kigali (Unilak) employed at Centre Iwacu-Kabusunzu.

“We are ashamed of using the little English we get there. We leave it at school and shift back to our Kinyarwanda once at work,” she regrets.

“Our teachers did not study in the English system; they explain concepts in Kinyarwanda, although notes are prepared in English,” said a student from Kigali Institute of Education, which trains high school teachers.

“Some teachers think that it is a good methodology to use the local language that students are familiar with in their explanation. Teaching a language is more than that,” explains Prof Laurent Nkusi, a specialist in linguistics.

“By all means, a teacher must explain difficult terms in that same language, except for a word rooted in the culture, which students would not understand otherwise,” added Prof Nkusi.

Prof Wenceslass Nzabarirwa, the vice rector academic of KIE said “It used to be a problem for some lecturers, but we started an evening programme four years ago, for those lecturers who had problems expressing themselves in English. Their mentors now report progress.”

When they graduate, students take their weaknesses to the careers they choose.

Patrice Mulama, the former executive secretary of the Media High Council revealed that, “As we are using English language, we still have challenges. When only the director general of an institution understands English properly, he is obliged to rewrite all the reports for the institution’s image,” he said ,adding that “the staff prefer to write their reports in Kinyarwanda.”

Mr Mulama said, the problem doesn’t affect only one sector, it is cross-cutting. He urges people to practice more.

“I am always running after students, asking them to read books. In the library, I find them reading only class notes or soft magazines,” said Prof. Nzabarirwa.

“It’s a problem on one hand. But on other hand, where are the books to read?” wonders Prof Nkusi.

Opened on April 16 with more than 30,000 books, Kigali Public Library offers help in the area of foreign language issues.

“We have 70 visitors per day and more are asking us to open until 10 pm, so they can visit the library after business hours,” said Jennifer Turatsinze, the executive director.

“But many of them come here for free Internet, not to read,” whispered a staff member at the library.

With the prime mandate of promoting the reading culture, this heritage provides books for all ages.