Rwanda: Can Kinyarwanda Survive the Foreign Languages Onslaught?

Pupils of Kimisagara Primary School use their laptops (file photo).

Recently, during the completion of the twelfth edition of Indangamirwa, a civic education course, President Paul Kagame urged the youth to be custodians of the Rwandan culture, urging them to work hard and speak Kinyarwanda for the reason that understanding one's language is part of culture.

"I want to encourage you to learn Kinyarwanda because understanding one's language is part of culture," he said.

It's not a far-fetched notion that African languages, (including Kinyarwanda) are being affected by a certain trend that tends to have foreign languages dominate native languages of various African societies, where some opt to be fluent in other languages such as French or English, putting little or no effort in mastering their native languages.

And if there is nothing done to what is being referred to as Kinyarwada, then our native language would change into something else.

It is however important to understand that a society's language goes beyond serving as a means of communication, for it is a marker of identity, hence preserving it is protecting heritage.

Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist and professor in the fields of language and cognition, once said: "It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world."

What are the advancing causes?

According to Edouard Bamporiki, the Chairperson of the National Itorero Commission, culture is divided into three types: arts (ibihangano), heritage (umurage) and borrowed arts (ibihahano). So the reason behind language misuse, he says, is that most people consider only the first and third cultural components but not the second (umurage).

Albert Murinzi, a father of three, said at home parents with certain linguistic background do not consider it expedient to communicate with their children in their mother tongue, which should be their first language.

Such children learn foreign languages first from their parents and peers. If they learn their parents' original language at all, it is much later. English, they argue, is not simply valuable but an absolute necessity and so they are content when the children are fluent in it."

This means that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

For Doris Kayitesi, social media platforms that in most cases are influenced by western languages must be the root cause of the current low use of the Kinyarwanda language.

"Currently, young children are obsessed with a lot of social media on which little Kinyarwanda is used as a medium of communication, this adds to school systems that hardly let students use their native language hence weak knowledge of the language," she says.

In addition, today when a parent wants to take a child to school he asks for a school that teaches well English or French but it is rare to find a parent who asks: "Which school teaches Kinyarwanda better?"

Dr Modeste Nsanzabaganwa, the Director of Language and Culture Unit in Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture (RALC), told The New Times that language modification is influenced by languages of the same family that impact on its vocabularies in Kinyarwanda. These are Kirundi, Kinyamulenge and Kinyankole, among others.

Should one be a prisoner of culture?

Conversely, Kayitesi emphasises: "There is absolutely no need for one to be a "prisoner" or "slave" of their own culture. It is unrealistic for a culture to evolve, and it is crucial to remember that assimilation is also important.

Bamporiki told The New Times that they are going to teach the language from the grassroot. That is to start teaching the Kinyarwanda language from family level upwards and not to start from media as a hub of culture.

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