Kinyarwanda – language of the people

Denyse Umuneza, 34 years old, from Kigali born in Kicukiro, Kinyarwanda teacher, translator and interpreting between French, English and Kinyarwanda, mother of three daughters.

While in Germany the whole educative system is in German, often even at the highest levels of education in university, the Rwandan Government wants its people to grow up trilingual. The language of instruction in Rwandan schools and universities is English. The heritage of colonialism now gives the Rwandan youth a striking competitive advantage. On the other hand, stands the marginalisation of the Rwandese national language: Kinyarwanda. I talked to Denyse Umuneza about the advantages and disadvantages of such an educative system.

Which role does Kinyarwanda play in Rwanda?

Kinyarwanda is the language of Rwanda. Kinyarwanda is the Rwandan mother tongue, one language for all Rwandans. We are lucky that we all speak one language, because in other African countries there are many different tribes in one country and therefore many different languages spoken. But in Rwanda we are very lucky, because wherever you go, we speak Kinyarwanda and we can understand each other. It is a good way to feel like one people, if you speak the same language. To speak Kinyarwanda is very important to value the country and to value the culture. To learn the culture and history of Rwanda is only possible through learning Kinyarwanda. Only people who speak good Kinyarwanda can get to know the culture and the history.

How do people learn Kinyarwanda?

They learn it by speaking it. But in school they do the subject, there they learn the writing. People in Rwanda don’t really go for Kinyarwanda classes, I don’t think so. It is only foreigners and people who grew up outside Rwanda and came back after the genocide that want to learn Kinyarwanda.

Are there classes of Kinyarwanda at school? On spelling, pronunciation, grammar etc. ?

It depends on the school. There are private and public schools. The public schools teach in Kinyarwanda from primary one to primary three (from the age of 6 to 8). The private schools  have the subject only once or twice a week, you even find children who don’t know how to speak Kinyarwanda because they don’t know the language well enough. But there are still some international and private schools that don’t follow the local programme and only teach in English or French. When I went to primary school we studied in Kinyarwanda until Primary four, then the language of instruction changed to French. I think that it is very important to learn Kinyarwanda when you are still young.

In my opinion it is important to have the whole primary school taught in Kinyarwanda, so the children can master their mother tongue very well. Then it will be easier for them to switch to another language. For example, the sciences: it is easier to learn basic knowledge, like the parts of the body or different plants and how they grow, first in your own language. My children go to an international school so they learn everything in English and French since nursery. It is strange for them to learn everything in English. I see them struggle to understand everything taught in sciences and even for us it is difficult to explain it to them sometimes. They bring homework in English with stuff that we don’t know. I think to start learning in Kinyarwanda in primary school and then start learning in other languages would be better.

If Kinyarwanda is this important in the whole country, why is Kinyarwanda not the language of instruction at school?

I think the common belief is, that as the children already speak Kinyarwanda at home with their families and friends they already know how to speak Kinyarwanda, and therefore don’t need to learn Kinyarwanda in school. The belief is that it is needed to include other languages in education. Another aspect is that there are few schoolbooks in Kinyarwanda. For example, sciences. In schools you only find books teaching sciences in English or French. They have no time to translate it to teach the subject in Kinyarwanda, so they teach it in English. Also learning in other languages prepares the pupils for studies in other countries after school.

When the whole school system was changed from French to English in 2009, they changed the language of instruction from one day to the other?


Did the teachers already speak English?

No. It was a progressive change. They had some trainings for the teachers. It went parallel. Teaching in English and the training for the teachers. They had some staff from Uganda and Kenya to help the teachers. There was a lot of training in English for the teachers.

Were there any difficulties for the teachers to teach in a language they did not know?

Yes of course! Mostly in primary, where everything had to be taught in English from primary one to primary six. It is easier to teach things in the language that you feel comfortable with. Suddenly the teachers had to translate everything they knew from Kinyarwanda to English. But there was a lot of help from the staff from Kenya and Uganda. So they struggled but they managed to do it.

What inspired you to become a Kinyarwanda teacher?

After school I decided to become a translator but, there was no work. There were many people speaking both languages. I did some work you know, some jobs, short time of course. When going to the field, I met some people that where interested in learning new words in Kinyarwanda. When translating and interpreting, I taught them some Kinyarwanda. I thought that maybe people are interested in learning Kinyarwanda, so I started with few of my clients. My first student was doing some research here and we did Kinyarwanda. She connected me to the university that sends students from the US for one year to do some research and I started working with them.

You wrote that teaching book in Kinyarwanda, when did that idea evolve?

I started teaching Kinyarwanda 2010, I just got some books online, I was using them a lot, they are all about grammar, bible expressions, very limited, old fashioned words, you know. Also the books were only on Grammar. Most of my students asked me: “Where can we find books only for conversation?” And I said: “There are no books really.” So they said to me: “You need to make books, you need to make books”. Last year I’ve decided to do that conversation book and CDs. It is the basic Kinyarwanda to be able to communicate. Furthermore, I am planning to do a book for grammar with vocabulary that we use nowadays.I found that people are very interested in those books I’ve made. Makes me to work more, more, more. I just made few books in the beginning to see if my students like them and give me some comments what I can add. It is not in the bookstores yet, I am planning to publish it this year. Now it is only for my students. I always encourage other people who teach Kinyarwanda to make more books. People can learn on their own even with books and materials.

In Rwanda people don’t read much, that means also that people don’t write because no one will read it. Maybe this is related to the culture of Rwanda. Before, Kinyarwanda was not a written language. This written Kinyarwanda is recent. Bevor, people used to learn things through story telling. That was very famous. There are more books in English and French than in Kinyarwanda. Even in schools here, the majority of books are in English and French, not in Kinyarwanda. So we need to make more books in Kinyarwanda. Not only on languages but also on other stuff like history and stories, so that our children can read in Kinyarwanda. In Rwanda you can’t find a faculty at the universities on Rwandan culture or Kinyarwanda.

Do you think that Kinyarwanda should be promoted more?

Yes of course! I think it should be promoted. And I am still insisting on this teaching system. Because if you are not learning Kinyarwanda properly at school, there is no opportunity to learn Kinyarwanda at all. Students don’t come to me to learn it properly. It would be better if they would start in school with teaching in Kinyarwanda. Also they should really emphasize on Kinyarwanda even in international and private schools.

The parents should push their children to learn Kinyarwanda. Because here in Kigali there are many parents who don’t speak Kinyarwanda with their children at home. They think it is better to teach their children other languages like French or English. I speak Kinyarwanda with my children. I see how people nowadays struggle to learn Kinyarwanda. So many people say, that it is very hard for them to speak Kinyarwanda. I don’t want my children to be the same when they are grown up. They are Rwandans, it’s their mother tongue, they should be able to speak their language!

Some of their friends only speak French and English. I am very happy that they speak both, French and English, but it is very important to me that they speak Kinyarwanda. But when they play with their friends they prefer playing in another language because they feel ashamed of talking in Kinyarwanda because it is more fashionable to speak another language.

But the problem is also that inside Kigali, there are a lot of people who speak several languages but outside Kigali – its only Kinyarwanda. So people in Kigali don’t take their children outside in the village anymore to visit their relatives or to see their country because they know that their kids will not be able to communicate with their relatives, because they speak different languages.

I always encourage parents to speak Kinyarwanda to their children. Otherwise their children won’t learn the culture and history of Rwanda. Because they don’t feel this love of the country if they don’t speak the country’s language. A lot of Rwandan history and culture is taught through Kinyarwanda. There are so many things they will never know. It’s very bad. It’s very bad. I really want to do something about it. I don’t know what, but whenever I get the chance to talk to the parents I tell them: “Please give your children the opportunity to speak the language to understand Rwanda, to love the culture, to love their country, to love their people. How should they love their people, their family, their relatives if they don’t speak their language?“

I worked in that international school. Forty nationalities were represented. I saw parents pick up their children speaking to them in their own language not in English. I found that very interesting. The children speak English at school, but their parents speak Russian, Japanese, whatever their language is, to them. They don’t want them to lose their identity, even if they’re in a foreign country. So they keep speaking to them in their languages which is very good. In the school they do not forbid to children to speak other languages than English. In the classroom English is the medium of instruction but outside they can communicate in their own languages. It is allowed. But here in private schools, they don’t allow kids to speak in Kinyarwanda.

It is forbidden?

Yes! I have a five-year-old, always when she is talking in Kinyarwanda in school they tell her “Non! Pas de Kinya! Pas de Kinya en classe”. It is a French speaking school. They tell her not to speak Kinyarwanda in school! It is forbidden. They take Kinyarwanda as something bad. You know? Something bad you cannot be proud of, in which you can not speak out with other people. It’s very bad. So, the “Kinya” – was is even this “Kinya”?! – it’s really very bad. I always give comments to the school and parents that they should include Kinyarwanda and explain why they should teach Kinyarwanda, but they don’t care. Anyway.

But it is very good that they changed at least the teaching system in public schools. Also, they are encouraging people to write books in Kinyarwanda so that children will be able to learn in Kinyarwanda. That is very good, the government is doing very good things! But the problem is the parents, it is not easy to change their mind, cause all they have in mind is that their children need to learn English to get a good job, to go outside for studies. It is a lot to do to change the parent’s mindset. To remind them of the good thing we have, we speak one language and encourage all our people to learn our language, starting with our children. And preserve our culture.


Information on the interviewee:

After choosing the language path in secondary school, Denyse studied translations in University and now works as a translator and interpreter for French, English, Kinyarwanda and Swahili. Denyse wanted to learn English and French to be able to understand the song texts of her favourite singers Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. In times when she was a girl and there was no internet to simply search for the song texts, she had a little book where she noted the texts of the songs. She is very proud to speak all those languages but still wants to continue to learn more languages because she loves to get to know new cultures and to be able to communicate with people. In her opinion the best way to get to know a culture is through language, this is why she is concerned that less children speak and learn Kinyarwanda.


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