KIGALI, RWANDA – Akanyana Ange, 8, started first grade last month.
She plays in the front of her classroom during break time with two of her classmates, all in dark and light blue uniforms. She is more relaxed at school now after the government decided this month to change the official school language for young children from English to Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s mother language.
Akanyana says she struggled in nursery school because she was not used to the new language.
”I was very troubled the first six months at school being taught in English,” she says. “I was used to speak[ing] Kinyarwanda at home and everywhere, so to me it was complicated to learn courses in a new language that I have never knew.”
She says learning in a language she was unfamiliar with discouraged her in school.
“I remember that I could not spell words well, and when I pronunciated them I did it like in Kinyarwanda,” she says. “I mispronounced ‘pupil’ and felt ashamed and discouraged because I failed and colleagues laugh at me.”
Akanyana says it will be easier for her now to learn in her own language.
“I will study in my own language, the one we use at home, so it will be easier for me,” she says.
The Rwandan government decided this month that Kinyarwanda would again become the official school language during a child’s first few years in order to encourage learning. While students say they appreciate the change, others say the instability caused by frequent changes in the education system counteracts any benefits. But the larger goal is the preservation of Rwanda’s mother language and its cultural significance. Despite growing arguments that Kinyarwanda is not useful internationally, the official change is being implemented right away.
The decision to reinstate Kinyarwanda as the official language in the classroom represents the second language change in Rwandan public schools in recent years. Three years ago, the government changed the official school language from French to English because English is used more internationally, such as by the East African Community, a regional intergovernmental organization of which Rwanda is a member.
But at home and in public, most Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda. Just 8 percent of Rwandans speak French, and 4 percent speak English, according to the government.
Rwanda has made several formal commitments to universal primary education since 1994, according to the government. But although the percentage of students who complete primary school in Rwanda nearly doubled from 2002 to 2008, just more than half of students finish it, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.
The Rwandan government decided during a cabinet meeting this month to start teaching students in nursery school and the first three years of primary school in Kinyarwanda. The government says this new system will make it easier for children to learn during their transition from home, where families speak Kinyarwanda, to school, where older grades will continue to learn in English.
“Teaching Kinyarwanda in nursery and