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Rwanda moves to English, drops French

Students adapt but teachers struggle as Rwanda starts speaking English.

The Kagame government, which blames the assassination on extremists within Habyarimana’s government, restored relations with France last year, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Kigali this past February. Still, the relationship remains shaky: In March, a team of French experts is due to release the findings of a recent investigation into the cause of the 16-year-old crash, which could spark a new diplomatic row if the report does not sit well with Rwanda's leadership.

Whatever the outcome, it will not change Rwanda’s Anglophone trajectory — or the challenges it poses to Rwandan educators.

Nearly 90 percent of Rwanda’s 58,000 primary and secondary school teachers are in need of some form of English training, said John Simpson, an adviser with the British Council attached to Rwanda’s Ministry of Education. During the upcoming holiday break, he said, teachers will undergo five weeks of intensive language instruction, assisted by more than 600 English specialists from neighboring Uganda. After that they’ll be supplied with self-directed learning materials, and have access to school based mentoring programs.

“By 2012, we hope all teachers can have at least an intermediate level of proficiency,” Simpson said. “That will be a way stage. By 2015 our goal is for them to be ‘very proficient.’”

In the interim, many expect the going to be tough, a reality that continues to spark language policy criticism. Though most Rwandans are loath to challenge Kagame’s government, dissenters say the shift to English gives an unfair advantage students among the current Anglophone minority — most of whom are children of comparatively affluent Tutsi that returned from the diaspora when the RPF seized power after the genocide. Kagame, who fled to Uganda with his family as a child, is English-speaking, as is most of his inner circle.

When asked, accounting teacher Kwitonda admits that students already strong in English have seen their grades improve since the overhaul started. Yet most French-speaking pupils have adapted well, he says — in general far better than their teachers.

Christian Kwizera, 17, is one student that, while Francophone, doesn’t mind the change.

“For us it’s not a problem,” he told GlobalPost, speaking in near-fluent English.

“It’s good to study in English. But to forget about French? I don’t know. French is a good language. We should study both. Then we can travel and do business anywhere in the world.”