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Bilingual nation: Rwanda pushes to parler English

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Just 12 months to learn fluent English doesn't seem like much to law student Jean Paul Kayitare.

But that's exactly what Rwanda's National University expects of him and his fellow 4,500 classmates. "We have only one year," says Mr. Kayitare. "After that we must follow lectures in both languages."

In an effort to become a bilingual nation, Rwanda has implemented an ambitious - and controversial - crash-course program for college students to learn whichever language they are currently unfamiliar with - French or English.

Rwanda's government is planning to adopt both as official languages. By doing so, it will be able to join the East African community -which includes English-speaking Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. At the same time, it could use its French to further commercial relations with the Francophone world.

If Rwanda's linguistic policy succeeds, it will set an African precedent. So far, Cameroon alone has tried to forge a bilingual society out of its colonial past as a shared French and British territory. However, like oil and water, the two languages have never really mixed there.

Rwanda might then become the first country in Africa where the traditional rivalry between Anglophones and Francophones dissolves.

The National University in Butare is proving to be a catalyst of sorts for the policy. There, the effort to cater separately to both French and English speakers failed - largely for economic reasons. It was simply too costly.

"By 1995, we had 385 visiting lecturers," says Jean-Bosco Butera, the dean of students at Rwanda's National University. "We realized we simply could not afford to have two streams of training."

French became Rwanda's official language in the 1920s, under the Belgians. When a revolution by the country's largest ethnic group, the Hutu, overthrew both the Belgians and Rwanda's traditional rulers, the Tutsi, in 1959, French remained the language spoken in the civil administration, courts, and schools.

However, in the wake of this last decade's ethnic violence, 200,000 Rwandans fled to neighboring Uganda. There, these emigrants had no choice but to learn English.

A number of Rwandans, namely those in the financial sector - are now pushing for English as a national language. But not everyone is thrilled by the notion.


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