Africa and the unstoppable rise of English

by Gwynne Dyer

Just over half of Africa’s 52 countries speak French, but the number is dropping. This month Rwanda defected, announcing that henceforward only English will be taught in the schools. It would not be overstating the case to say that this caused alarm and despondency in France.

You couldn’t help feeling, either, that Rwanda’s trade and industry minister, Vincent Karega, was deliberately rubbing salt in the wound when he explained why French was being scrapped. “French is spoken only in France, some parts of west Africa, and parts of Canada and Switzerland,” he said. (In parts of Belgium, too, actually, not to mention Haiti, but you get the point.) “English has emerged as a backbone for growth and development not only in the region but around the globe.”

Getting very close to the regimes in African countries that have French as an official language, even sending troops to protect them from their domestic enemies, has always been part of Paris’ strategy for preserving the status of French as a world language. In Rwanda’s case, that put France in bed with the extremist Hutu-dominated regime that ruled the densely populated country before the genocide, to such an extent that Paris largely paid for the tripling in size of the Rwandan army in 1990-91.

When the Hutu regime began murdering the minority Tutsis in industrial quantities in 1994, France did not abandon it. The French president at the time, Francois Mitterrand, is alleged to have remarked that “in such countries, genocide is not too important . . .” And a principal reason that France overlooked its Rwandan ally’s ghastly behavior was that the Tutsi-led opposition in exile mostly spoke English, because its members had found refuge in English-speaking Uganda.

An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 1994, but the Uganda-based Rwanda Patriotic Front put an end to the genocide by invading the country and overthrowing the regime. Even a direct French military intervention in Rwanda (thinly disguised as a humanitarian operation) could not save the Hutu “genocidiaires,” as they are universally known. So it was not to be expected that the new, mainly English-speaking government in Rwanda would have warm feelings toward France.

Fourteen years later, more than 95 percent of Rwanda’s secondary schools still teach mainly in French, although an alternative English instructional program or intensive English language courses are usually available. Knowledge of both English and French is required for university entrance (and for most government jobs), but the government’s own statistics say that only 3 percent of the population are fluent in English. Nevertheless, the new decision ends the teaching of French in Rwandan schools.

The government defends it as a purely business decision, driven by Rwanda’s membership in the largely English-speaking East African Community (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), but resentment of France also plays a role. This is a country that has already expelled the French ambassador and closed down the French cultural center, international school and radio station.

But can an African country just switch from one European language to another like that? It can if, like Rwanda, it only uses one language domestically. Almost all Rwandans, whether Hutu or Tutsi, speak Kinyarwanda, so they have no need for a lingua franca to communicate among themselves. Only those going into higher education or working with foreigners need any other language at all — which is why only 8 percent of Rwandans speak fluent French after all this time.

This is far from typical of African countries, most of which have many different ethnic groups, each with its own language. Such countries use the language of the former colonial power as a neutral “national” language, and have such a large investment in teaching it by now that switching is out of the question. The Congo will always use French; Nigeria will always use English; Mozambique will always use Portuguese.

So Francophones can relax: Their language is not about to be vanish from the African continent. On the other hand, French will always lose out to English in situations like Rwanda, where there is a single national language and the main reason for learning a foreign language is communication with the rest of the world.

Vietnam, an ex-French colony, has long taught English as the main foreign language in its schools, and Madagascar, also formerly ruled by France, made English a national language last year.

English-speakers often assume that this world role for their language owes something to its huge vocabulary and wonderful literature, or at least to the fact that Hollywood speaks English. Nothing of the sort. The sole reason is that the world’s dominant power for the past two centuries has been English-speaking: Britain in the 19th century, and the United States in the 20th. Timing is everything, and English just happened to be the leading candidate when globalization created the need for an agreed global second language.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist.