Rwanda's education U-turn sparks debate on mother tongue instruction

A student's notebook in a fifth grade classroom in Rwanda. Photo by: GPE / Alexandra Humme / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Global education donors increasingly push mother-tongue education programs as one way to address low learning levels in low-income countries. But a growing number of countries — most recently Rwanda — are moving in the opposite direction and choosing to teach in English, even when most teachers and students don’t understand it.

Last week, Rwanda’s Ministry of Education announced that from next year, English will replace Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction in all schools, reigniting a long-standing debate over language preference in the country, and also within the global education community.

“In all of the world’s rich countries, the vast majority of kids are learning in their mother tongue.”

— Ben Piper, senior director for Africa education, RTI International

The new policy overturns a 2015 reform that mandated teachers deliver lessons in Kinyarwanda for the first three years of primary school, and switch to English in year four. The government changed the language of instruction from French to English in 2008.

The decision has taken the global education community by surprise, including donors. The U.K. Department for International Development recently funded the purchase of millions of Kinyarwanda textbooks that were set to be distributed to schools. DFID was unaware of the policy change and is currently in discussions with the Rwandan government about it, according to a spokesperson for the department. No one from the Rwandan government was available for comment.

Education experts said they fear the switch to English could further reduce the country’s already poor learning levels and increase inequality by favoring the children of Rwanda’s Anglophone elite. Other Twitter users have accused the government of disparaging Rwanda’s cultural identity by promoting English over the country’s national language. However, some parents and school officials are happy with the switch.

The news from Rwanda highlights ongoing tensions between global education academics and politicians over the language of instruction. While not an issue in high-income countries — which tend to be linguistically homogeneous — in many African and South Asian countries, multiple local languages are spoken often alongside colonial European languages. Deciding which language children learn in can be controversial.

In the face of dire global learning levels, especially across sub-Saharan Africa, education donors and agencies have started to push for mother-tongue instruction, arguing that “Children learn to read most effectively in the language they speak at home — their mother tongue,” according to the World Bank’s ‘World Development Report’ on learning. Children taught in their mother tongue will find it easier to learn other subjects later on, and are also more likely to attend school, according to the bank.

While many countries have embraced the approach for at least part of a child’s school career, 40% of the world’s children are being taught in a language they don’t understand, according to the United Nations. Furthermore, a number of countries and regions, most recently Rwanda, have gone in the opposite direction. Two Indian states — Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka — are in the process of switching away from their home language to English as the medium of instruction. Pakistan has also seen some provinces transitioning to English-medium schooling.

In the midst of this debate, some education researchers have begun to question the evidence behind mother-tongue instruction policies, and say more research is needed.

The politics of language

Last week’s abrupt statement by Rwanda’s Ministry of Education, which “endorses the use of English language as a medium of instruction in lower primary,” has been interpreted as a political move, rather than an educational one, by insiders who spoke to Devex anonymously.

This is not unusual for Rwanda, according to education researcher Timothy Williams, who said major decisions like language are often borne out of a reaction rather than planning, and new directives are often introduced from outside of the sector, which can leave education stakeholders scrambling to know how to respond. Rwanda’s latest reform appears to be no exception, Williams told Devex, since it was made after a closed meeting with headteachers from private primary schools.

“The language change will require teachers to use a language they themselves are still learning … while students will be trying to learn and taking examinations in a language that many don’t understand. The way it is implemented, it is really hard to see how this change advances the government’s stated commitment to equity and education quality,” Williams said.

The U-turn away from mother tongue is also likely to stem from pressure from parents, many of whom were reportedly against teaching in Kinyarwanda in the first place. This is a common barrier to implementing mother-tongue instruction, according to Ben Piper, senior director for Africa education at U.S. research institute RTI International.

Parents want children to learn the “language of broader communication,” such as English, to help them access the global economy, Piper explained, who has worked on evaluations of mother-tongue programs in Kenya and Uganda. Examinations and higher education also often take place in European languages, which results in parents pushing for their children to learn in those languages from the earliest age, he said.

“We run the risk of selling mother tongue because of its potential benefits in lower primary education without being assured of its benefits in upper primary.”

— Ben Piper, senior director for Africa education, RTI International

Is mother tongue always best?

Piper said that while teaching in a learners’ home language, or one close to it, has been shown to help children learn to read, the evidence is from relatively small, constrained samples, so more research is needed.

“We don’t yet have enough evidence about how to implement these programs within complex language heterogeneous contexts with language mismatches in large portions of many sub-Saharan African countries,” Piper said.

His work shows that mother-tongue instruction is not always feasible or helpful. For example, an evaluation of a USAID-funded mother tongue reading program in Uganda that developed reading materials in 12 local languages showed a positive impact on literacy achievement in 9 of the 12 languages. The researchers concluded that language complexity — the number of additional symbols, syllables, and grammatical complexity — was more predictive of success or failure compared to other factors such as socioeconomic status or implementation fidelity.

Further, his research in Kenya found that while mother-tongue instruction led to improved reading fluency and comprehension in the local language, it had the opposite effect on children’s’ numeracy skills. This was likely because teachers were not given mathematics books in the mother tongue and so may have struggled to teach, or wasted time, translating mathematical terms themselves, Piper concluded.

Other implementation challenges include ensuring teachers actually speak, and know how to teach, the mother tongue of the community he or she is working in, and that there are good quality teaching materials available in that language.

However, another study from Cameroon appeared to show more significant gains. Test scores more than doubled in reading and math and attendance also improved among children taught in Kom, their mother tongue, rather than English. The study followed children from 12 schools who were taught in Kom for the first three years of school before switching to English.

According to Rajesh Ramachandran, from the Alfred Weber Institute for Economics in Heidelberg, Germany, who co-wrote the Cameroon paper, while the study has limitations — the sample was tiny and the schools were not randomized — the findings are “statistically significant,” he told Devex. If backed up by other, more robust studies, then it could “suggest a radical redirection of educational funding in Africa” toward local language instruction, according to the paper.

Tricky transition

Having been taught in Kom for the first three grades, the test group then switched to English. By the time they reached grade 6 — when the study finished — the test scores showed very little difference in attainment between the groups, suggesting that “three years of local language instruction might be too short for students to be able to effectively transfer into learning in the second language,” according to Ramachandran.

However, teaching in Kom — as with other lesser spoken indigenous languages — for longer would require investment in developing textbooks and other materials, something which governments are unlikely to agree to, he added.

For Piper, what happens once kids switch to another language of broader communication is the biggest unanswered question in the mother tongue debate.

“We run the risk of selling mother tongue because of its potential benefits in lower primary education without being assured of its benefits in upper primary,” Piper said and called for more longitudinal studies over time.

But this is an implementation challenge, not a problem with mother-tongue instruction itself, according to Piper. “In all of the world’s rich countries, the vast majority of kids are learning in their mother tongue,” he said.

Update, Dec. 11, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify a quote by Ben Piper, senior director for Africa education, RTI International.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.

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