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Int Rev Educ (2011) 57:457–475

DOI 10.1007/s11159-011-9214-z

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma

in education: African options for the 21st century

Hermenegilde Rwantabagu

Published online: 15 September 2011

 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Abstract This paper addresses the dilemma of language in education in African

countries with particular reference to Burundi. African languages are still mar-
ginalised by colonial languages such as French and English. Looking at other
African countries in general and at the case of Burundi in detail, an analysis is made
of the adopted policies aimed at promoting the use of the mother tongue as a basis
for knowledge acquisition and cultural integration. Burundi has gone through a
series of educational reforms both before and after gaining independence in 1962,
with French and Kirundi competing as curricular teaching languages. After the
integration of Burundi into the East African Community in July 2007, English and
Kiswahili were added to the curriculum, complicating education policies. This
article places particular emphasis on the contextual challenges that tend to impair
the full implementation of the adopted policy reforms. The paper concludes by
advocating for a multilingual approach in which the indigenous mother tongue
serves as the basis for the acquisition of other languages in the curriculum.

Keywords Burundi  Language in education  Mother tongue as medium

of instruction  Marginalisation of African languages  Maintenance of African
languages  Keeping African cultural heritage alive  Colonial legacy 
Post-independence policy

Résumé Tradition, mondialisation et dilemme linguistique dans l’enseignement :

options africaines pour le XXIe siècle – Cet article aborde le dilemme de la langue
d’enseignement dans les pays africains, en se référant en particulier au Burundi. Les
langues africaines sont aujourd’hui encore marginalisées par les anciennes langues
coloniales telles que le français et l’anglais. En étudiant d’autres pays africains en
général et le cas du Burundi en particulier, l’auteur analyse les politiques adoptées

H. Rwantabagu (&)
University of Burundi, B.P. 2206, Bujumbura, Burundi
e-mail: hermerwanta@hotmail.com

458 H. Rwantabagu

visant à promouvoir l’usage de la langue maternelle en tant que base pour

l’acquisition des connaissances et l’intégration culturelle. Le Burundi a traversé une
série de réformes éducatives tant avant qu’après l’accession à son indépendance en
1962, le français et le kirundi se trouvant en concurrence en tant que langues
d’enseignement. Après l’intégration du Burundi à la Communauté d’Afrique de
l’Est en juillet 2007, l’anglais et le kiswahili ont été ajoutés aux programmes
scolaires, compliquant ainsi les politiques éducatives. L’auteur insiste sur les défis
contextuels, qui entravent parfois la pleine application des réformes stratégiques
adoptées. Il conclut en plaidant pour une approche multilingue, dans laquelle la
langue maternelle autochtone sert de base à l’acquisition d’autres langues prévues
dans le programme.

Zusammenfassung Tradition, Globalisierung und Sprachdilemma in der Bildung:

afrikanische Optionen für das 21. Jahrhundert – In diesem Artikel geht es um das
Sprachdilemma im Bildungsbereich in afrikanischen Ländern, unter besonderer
Berücksichtigung Burundis. Afrikanische Sprachen werden noch immer durch die
Kolonialsprachen, beispielsweise Französisch und Englisch, marginalisiert. Mit
Blick auf andere afrikanische Länder im Allgemeinen und das Fallbeispiel Burundi
im Besonderen werden die politischen Strategien analysiert, die beschlossen wur-
den, um den Gebrauch der Muttersprache als Grundlage für Wissenserwerb und
kulturelle Integration zu fördern. Sowohl vor als auch nach 1962, als Burundi die
Unabhängigkeit erlangte, führte das Land mehrere Bildungsreformen durch, wobei
Französisch und Kirundi im Lehrplan als Unterrichtssprachen miteinander kon-
kurrierten. Nach der Eingliederung Burundis in die Ostafrikanische Gemeinschaft
im Juli 2007 wurden Englisch und Kisuaheli in den Lehrplan aufgenommen, was die
Bildungspolitik noch komplizierter machte. Ein besonderer Schwerpunkt dieses
Artikels liegt auf den kontextuellen Herausforderungen, die die vollständige Ums-
etzung der beschlossenen Reformpolitik tendenziell behindern. Der Artikel schließt
mit einem Plädoyer für einen mehrsprachigen Ansatz, der die indigene Mutterspr-
ache im Lehrplan zur Grundlage für den Erwerb anderer Sprachen macht.

Resumen El dilema de tradición, globalización y lengua en la educación: opci-

ones africanas para el siglo XXI – Con este trabajo, el autor aborda el problema que
presentan las lenguas en la educación en paı́ses africanos, refiriéndose especı́fica-
mente a Burundi. Las lenguas africanas siguen estando marginadas por lenguas
coloniales como el francés y el inglés. Con la mirada puesta en otros paı́ses afri-
canos en general y en Burundi en especial, analiza las polı́ticas adoptadas para
promover el uso de la lengua materna, como punto de partida para la adquisición de
conocimientos y de la integración cultural. Tanto antes como después de haber
alcanzado su independencia en 1962, Burundi experimentó una serie de reformas
del sistema educativo, en cuyos currı́culos competı́an el francés y el kirundi como
lenguas de enseñanza. Tras la integración, en el 2007, de Burundi en la Comunidad
Africana Oriental, se sumaron al currı́culo el inglés y el suajili, complicando las
polı́ticas de educación. Con este artı́culo, el autor pone especial énfasis en los retos
contextuales, tendientes a obstaculizar la implementación completa de las reformas
de polı́ticas adoptadas. Finalmente, aboga por un enfoque multilingüe, donde la

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma in education 459

lengua materna originaria sirva de base para la adquisición de otras lenguas pre-
vistas en el currı́culo.


The problems of universalism and particularism in education have fascinated

comparative educationists for a long time. While Jullien de Paris was aware of the
spatial and temporal circumstances that influence education systems, Michael
Sadler and Isaac Kandel insisted respectively on ‘‘local realities’’ (Kandel 1933,
p. 23) and on ‘‘the living spirit of nations’’ (Holmes 1980, p. 1) that determine and
explain education policies and their outcomes in a variety of cultural contexts. They
all believed that education should be accessible to every deserving citizen and that it
should be relevant to the learning requirements of a changing world.
In the wake of the Second World War, the world has increasingly become a
‘‘global village’’ in which advances in science and technology have enhanced
intercultural communications and exchanges, while at the same time posing the risk
of standardisation of human civilisation and the domination of peripheral cultures
by hegemonic central ones.
Within the African context, upon the achievement of independent nationhood,
political leaders have prioritised the consolidation of the symbols of unity and
oneness within the centralised new nation-states, as well as integration within
worldwide economic and political processes, to the detriment of local identities and
particularisms (Bamgbose 1991).
In all evidence, the imported European languages have overshadowed African
languages and have become the preferred mode of communication in most domains,

460 H. Rwantabagu

particularly in education (Prah 2009, pp. 88–89). In this perspective, education

systems have become increasingly selective and oriented towards the modern world
while language policies became ‘‘Eurocentric’’ in nature.
The dominance of languages of foreign origin on the educational scene puts at
stake the move to provide for the basic educational needs of all. In addition, the
right of all citizens to participate in the policy-making processes of their country and
the empowerment of local communities as advocated by current democratising
movements in Africa are at risk when their cultural base and their means of
expression are weakened.
As Adams Bodomo (2006, p. 5) underlines, if development is seen in its broader
and comprehensive dimension, the language factor weighs in heavily as a tool for
the appropriate transformation of the socio-cultural, political and economic systems
of a society. It is indeed through the enrichment of local languages that the majority
of the people can be empowered by accessing information in such vital domains as
health, agriculture and environmental protection and thus become genuine actors in
the determination of their destiny.
This paper addresses the dilemma of language in education in African countries
with particular reference to Burundi. It attempts to analyse the inherited situation
marked by the marginalisation African languages by the languages of worldwide
communication, such as French and English, in education. Taking Burundi as a case
and with reference to other African countries, the paper examines the adopted
policies aimed at promoting the use of the mother tongue as a basis for knowledge
acquisition and cultural integration. Particular emphasis is placed on the contextual
challenges that tend to impair the full implementation of the adopted policy reforms.
The paper, which relies on available literature, concludes by advocating for a
multilingual approach in which the mother tongue serves as the basis for the
acquisition of other languages in the curriculum, following Carole Benson’s (2004)
interdependence theory whereby knowledge of language, literacy and concepts
learnt in the first language can be accessed and used in the second language.

Problem identification

The advent of a Western type and style of schooling in Africa de facto imposed a
novel conception of education. In this perspective, Western cultures and languages
assumed to be ‘‘richer and more civilised because, having evolved from the Greek
and Latin literary heritage’’ (Treffgarne 1978, p. 22), they gradually marginalised
and dominated indigenous cultures and languages which were thought to be ‘‘crude
and heathen’’ (Spencer 1971, p. 544).
All through the colonial period, the education system designed for indigenous
peoples was characterised by a pervasive attempt at cultural alienation. Nowhere
was this more reflected than in the adopted language policy in education. Indeed,
despite variations in intensity, the language of instruction policy was Eurocentric in
nature in the sense of ensuring the supremacy of English or French as the dominant
channel of communication, knowledge acquisition and cultural production. As
Robert and Anthony Arnove have pointed out, ‘‘language policies are central to an

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma in education 461

understanding of how colonial powers attempted to use schools to assimilate,

acculturate and control colonized populations’’ (Arnove and Arnove 1998, p. 2).
In this respect, the post-1945 era has been marked by the adoption of Eurocentric
language policies by the various colonial powers in Africa, where English, French
or Portuguese acquired the status of quasi-unique languages of instruction from the
elementary level onwards. In the case of Burundi, French was elevated to the status
of the unique medium of school from grade one, while the curriculum adopted in
1954 was simply metropolitan (Rwantabagu 2008, p. 14). This trend has continued
beyond the achievement of independence in 1962.
In this perspective, education has been a factor of alienation rather than of
integration. Instead of promoting the creative and productive intellectual resources
of the people, schooling has fostered the emergence of an elite, cut from its social
roots, prone to imitation rather than imagination.
In a recent study on the evaluation of the use of Kirundi, the national language of
Burundi, Denis Bukuru (2008) was alarmed by the very marginal status of the
language in almost all sectors of public life, including formal education, as
compared to French and English.
Indeed, the steady maintenance of the official language of foreign origin, be it
English, French or Portuguese, as the principal medium of the transmission of
knowledge has, to a great extent, negatively affected the efficiency of African
countries’ education systems. Heavy reliance on languages which are unfamiliar to
the majority of children in their daily experience is one of the major causes of semi-
literacy, school failure and of massive educational wastage. This situation puts at
stake efforts deployed, everywhere, to provide a basic package of education to all.
In this perspective, Adama Ouane (2003, p. 67) has noted that ‘‘studies conducted in
16 African, Asian and Latin American countries have shown that language policies
inherited from the colonial era have been a failure’’.
Besides, the marginal function of African languages within the school system
only helps to perpetuate the traditional rift between the school and the community,
thus estranging the young generations from the cultural heritage and the productive
processes of their own environment. For, as Laurentius Davids (2010, p. 1) has
noted, ‘‘language is central to any discussion of development in Africa and the
promotion of African languages at all levels of education is fundamental to this’’.
Education reforms and innovation attempted in many African countries during
the last 40 years or so have been guided by attempts to make school systems more
Afro-centred, rural-oriented, serving the interests of the majority rather than the
privileges of a minority.

Proposed policy solutions: national languages as media of instruction

General trends

The 1976 Lagos Conference of Ministers of Education of African Member States

adopted a three-pronged strategy for the reform of education in Africa, particularly
at the basic level. The main components of the strategy were: the provision of basic

462 H. Rwantabagu

education for all, within a framework of lifelong education; the full integration of
schools into the development processes of the country; and the promotion of cultural
authenticity and African personality through education.
To achieve these ideals, the education system ought to be guided by the
principles of unity, balance and adaptation, following the patterns of traditional
African education. This means that schools should, in the words of the authors of the
UNESCO Report Learning to Be (Faure et al. 1972), strive to respect and develop
the multiple dimensions of human personality: the moral, the spiritual, the mental as
well as the socio-cultural aspects of life, taking into account the specific
circumstances of each community.
It is within this attempt to achieve unity in the education system itself and
harmony with the environment as a whole that policy-makers have been trying to
incorporate the practical and cultural aspects into existing school curricula.
Particular emphasis has been placed on the learning and use of African languages in
schools and colleges, as they embody the deep feelings and mental structures of the
people. Those languages are also the rightful vehicle of African culture and
authenticity as well as potential channels of science and technology.
In this respect, the African Ministers of Education, assembled in Lagos in
February 1976, had this to say in relation to the achievement of their stated reform
These pressing requirements must be satisfied by the full and complete
restoration of the national languages of instruction. Whilst they […] ensure for
the present and the future the reconciliation that the African needs with his
environment […], they place the educational effort in a new dialectical
relationship which ensures the dissemination of culture and knowledge in
society (UNESCO 1976).
Concerning the role of national languages in relation to modern life and to the wider
world, it was added that:
An approach of this kind should lead to the revival of the national languages as
vehicles of scientific and technical progress; it will enable our societies, freed
from all the effects of foreign domination, to contribute in their own unique
way to the fruitful dialogue upon which the full development of the various
civilizations depends (UNESCO 1976).
A similar call was formulated within the 1997 Harare Declaration (ACALAN 2011).
An African proverb is more explicit in that respect:
If we have to acquire knowledge to the point of becoming ignorant of
ourselves, then it would be better not to acquire any knowledge at all.
This Fulani proverb echoes a major preoccupation among African education
decision-makers, for the last forty years or so, as to how school education,
considered to be a factor of alienation of children from their own milieu and from
themselves, could be used to help the young to take root in their own culture.
It is in this perspective that UNESCO’s Dakar Framework for Action, while
recommending the provision of quality education for all that satisfies the basic

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma in education 463

learning needs, placed particular emphasis on ‘‘the use of mother tongues as

languages of instruction’’ (UNESCO 2000, p. 26). This, it was felt, would make
educational programmes sensitive to cultural and linguistic diversity (UNESCO
2000, p. 19).
Besides, it is through the use of a familiar language at the primary level that the
Millennium Development Goal (MDG)1 of universal primary education can be
achieved (Dokotum 2010, p. 2). It has been emphasised in this respect that learning
to read is most efficient when students know the language and can employ
psycholinguistic guessing strategies (Benson 2004, p. 2).
It was in addition noted that mother-tongue utilisation in early school learning
lays the foundation for future linguistic acquisitions (Ouane 2003, p. 67). This view
is confirmed by Victor Webb (2002, p. 195), when he says that research in Africa
and in other parts of the world shows that cognitive development is achieved faster
if the mother tongue is the language of learning in primary education. In this
respect, observations made in Nigeria (Benson 2004, p. 7), Tanzania (Brock-Utne
2005, p. 7) and Ethiopia (Mekonnen 2009, p. 189) have indicated that the use
respectively of Yoruba, Kiswahili and regional languages yielded better outcomes
than the recourse to English as teaching/learning medium.
This insistence entails giving prominence, in the curricula and in various out-of-
school activities, to the teaching of the intellectual, aesthetic and moral traditions
and values of each people. This, it is felt, would have an important part to play in
fixing children and young people in their cultural environment, thus restoring the
natural links between the material, artistic, and spiritual spheres of life – links which
are under threat of being broken in a rapidly changing world.
In this perspective, countries with different levels of linguistic and cultural
diversity and colonial backgrounds such as Mali, Burundi, Ethiopia, Madagascar
and Tanzania have built innovative language policies aimed at strengthening the
role of national languages in the school system into their general education reform
packages. In this respect, following a study he made on curriculum development in
ten English-speaking African countries, Hugo Hawes (1979, pp. 76–81) noted a
clear trend: the increasing use of mother tongues or local languages as a medium of
instruction, particularly in lower grades and ‘‘a consequent movement towards the
development of expertise in curriculum development and materials production in
those languages’’.
On the whole, as Birgit Brock-Utne and Ingse Skattum (2009, pp. 15–47) have
noted, Tanzania has been the most enterprising of all with primary school teachers
being trained in Kiswahili, the national language. But, they add, in most states of the
region, whatever progress has been achieved in mother-tongue teaching has not
managed to challenge the supremacy of either French or English within society and
at the upper stages of the school system.

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that all 193 United Nations member states and at
least 23 international organisations have agreed to achieve by the year 2015.

464 H. Rwantabagu

The case of Burundi: language in education – colonial legacy

and post-independence policy

In line with the 1924 Phelps-Stokes Commission proposals in favour of promoting

the education of natives in their own environment, the Franck Commission’s report
of 1925 recommended for Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo that school curricula
should be adapted to the local environment and that teaching should be conducted in
indigenous languages. By and large, a strong mother-tongue education option
gradually became a dominant factor.
The 1948 Education Reform was a ‘‘watershed’’ separating two eras. It is with
this reform that the idea of preparing an intellectual elite began to emerge. The
curriculum and the structural orientation of education became gradually ‘‘metro-
politan’’ i.e. Belgian. This implied the gradual use of French as the sole medium of
instruction from the early grades of elementary school (Rwantabagu 2008, p. 20).
As has been observed in many African countries, the achievement of
independence, far from reversing the language education trends of the late colonial
period, did in fact reinforce them.
Indeed, by putting the emphasis on it within the curriculum, the 1961 Reform in
Burundi consecrated the supremacy of French as the central channel of instruction.
The mother tongue, Kirundi, was used in the first grades, but played the role of a
‘‘transitional bridge’’ to French which was the target medium of learning. The 1973
Reform was to tackle the imbalances created by post-1948 policies, by making
education more adapted to the local environment. The intensive use and teaching of
Kirundi stood high on the reform agenda.

The 1973 reform and the Kirundisation programme

The 1973 reform had the dual aim of ‘‘ruralisation’’ and ‘‘Kirundisation’’. On the
one hand, it intended to make the content of education practice-oriented and
relevant to the local environment which was mostly rural in nature. The final stage
of this process was the building of a community school which would be engaged in
intensive cooperative activities with the local population.
On the other hand, the Kirundisation programme aimed at using Kirundi, the
national language, as the unique medium of instruction at primary level and as one
of the major subjects at the secondary stage of education and in teacher training
The Kirundisation programme was designed in the spirit of improving the quality
and efficiency of the education process. By using the mother tongue and concepts
that are familiar to the child’s experience, his or her school achievement would be
enhanced, while the educational wastage rate would be reduced.
In this respect, several authors have stressed the positive impact of a mother-
tongue medium strategy on the intellectual achievement of children and young
people. The result tends in turn to maximise educational efficiency and to ensure
equality between rural and urban children (Mekonnen 2009, p. 197).

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma in education 465

In this sense, it is argued that an endoglossic prominence of the national language

as mother tongue primary language in education and national life at large enhances
full popular participation at all levels while the empowerment of endogenous
knowledge constitutes a basis for social advancement.
Besides, one of the major objectives of Kirundisation was the revival of a
national culture which had been eroded by the influence of western cultural patterns.
Kirundisation was to help in adapting the youth to the rural environment where the
majority were destined to earn their livelihood. Besides, it was through the same
medium that a mass literacy campaign would be conducted in the country.
In the initial plan, French would be gradually introduced as a school subject,
from grade four. Its teaching would be intensified in grades five and six, so as to
equip pupils with adequate linguistic competence to cope with French as medium of
instruction at secondary school level.
At the institutional level, the Bureau d’Education Rurale (Bureau for Rural
Education) was set up in 1973. The major role of the Bureau was to implement the
education reform through curriculum development, the preparation of a Kirundi
grammar, of textbooks, readers, teachers’ guides, the translation of relevant
materials from French into Kirundi and the organisation of in-service training
programmes for primary school teachers (Ministère de l’Education Nationale 1973,
p. 12).
Within the structure of the Bureau for Rural Education, the Kirundi unit was in
charge not only of the development and teaching of the language itself, but also of
supporting the work of other units such as the Mathematics unit, the Environmental
Studies unit and others.
It should be pointed out that, due to the scarcity of local experts in Applied
Linguistics, there was initially a heavy reliance on expatriate linguists. This may
partly explain why, for a long time, teachers’ guides were written in French whereas
the lessons were to be delivered in Kirundi.
Still at the institutional level, the creation of a Centre for Applied Linguistics
within the University of Burundi was proposed at the beginning, as a focal
institution for research on Kirundi and its teaching. This project never materialised
for reasons which are not entirely clear. Nevertheless, substantial individual
research on the language has been carried out within what was to become the
Department of African Languages and Literature at the same university.
From the 1973–1974 school year on, the Kirundisation programme was
implemented all over the country, except in some private urban schools. The
Bureau has been responsible for the production and the distribution of readers and
textbooks as well as the monitoring of the evolution of the programme. Great
emphasis has been put on the in-service training of school inspectors down to school
head teachers and finally to primary school teachers.
Contrary to the initial plan, the Kirundisation programme has been confined to
the first four years of primary level, grades five and six continuing to use French as
the medium of instruction. The ‘‘freezing’’ of the programme at grade four was not
only due to the ‘‘lack of terminologies for teaching various subjects at that stage’’,
but also to the lack of commitment on the part of policy-makers (Bukuru 2008,
p. 40).

466 H. Rwantabagu

Challenges to the Burundi Mother Tongue Programme

Any policy encounters obstacles of some magnitude in the process of its

implementation. Whether in societies with one indigenous language such as those
of Burundi and Somalia, or countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, where Kiswahili
has been accepted by the whole population as the national language on top of scores
of ethnic languages, or in multicultural states such as Benin, Nigeria and Zambia, a
set of common factors tends to impede the smooth implementation of a policy
aimed at substantially boosting the role of African languages in the school system.
Hence, as Maurice Tadadjeu (1998, p. 2) has remarked, the use of African
languages in education has followed both a positive trend in the formulation of clear
policies at the national level and a negative trend in the sense of a lack of actual

Normative inconsistencies

Foremost among the conditions which are unfavourable to the full success of an
indigenous language policy is a lack of deep-seated commitment among the
population, the elite and policy-makers in particular. A large proportion of those
who are in a position to influence change towards a national language policy,
including teachers, still believe, despite lip-service to the contrary, that a more than
marginal use of African languages in the education system can only serve to ‘‘lower
educational standards’’ and isolate the country from international exchange.
A number of factors rooted in the historical situation continue to impede the
reorientation of education and must be understood as providing the sources
from which the international networks derive much of their strength.
Resistance to change of this kind in developing countries is easy to
understand; elite groups having received part of their education overseas
tend to reinforce the general respect accorded to overseas educational patterns
and have themselves tended to resist local adaptation (Thompson 1979, p. 51).
In certain situations, A. R. Thompson adds, there may be open or concealed
resistance to change if new course structures and qualifications will reduce the
possibilities of eventual study or employment overseas. This concern compounds, in
the African context, policy dilemmas and ‘‘popular attitudes to language uses and
loyalties’’ (Limage 1999, p. 13).
Language, being a central factor in the acquisition of culture, knowledge and
power, is bound to be a controversial issue in education. The Kirundisation
programme has raised issues and conflicting attitudes both during its conception and
its implementation, due partly to the way in which parents’, teachers’ and
administrators’ minds were not prepared for it, for it was ‘‘imposed’’, as it were, top-
down, without due debate and consultations at the grass-roots level and among all
stakeholders. Indeed, as Carole Benson (2010, p. 7) reminds policy-makers, ‘‘the
bottom-up model is the most promising in terms of commitment and sustainability’’.
Hence there have been doubts as to whether the policy was not a ‘‘strategy by
foreign advisors to keep our education system down’’, whether children’s

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma in education 467

competence in French would not be adversely affected, thus lowering the level of
performance at higher levels. The conflicting attitude toward Kirundisation has
manifested itself through the fact that the elites, the educational leaders (including
official advocates of the reform) have been sending their own children to the French
or the Belgian school or to some other private schools where uniformly the sole
medium of teaching was French from the nursery upwards.

The institutional rigidities

The above normative factor is related to and influenced by the selective nature of
the school system and the character of professional and promotional opportunities
that exist in society in general. As long as the mastery of such tongues as English
and French is a requisite for upward mobility in the formal school system and in
the employment market, any far-reaching policy changes at the lower levels of
education seem likely to be either hesitant or even illusory (Rwantabagu 2008,
p. 8).
Greg Burnett has made a similar observation from the South Pacific perspective:
Exam-oriented access to secondary school and the maintenance of one’s
position is based heavily on English language competence (Burnett 2005,
p. 98).
To this should be added the attitudes of policy-makers in many countries on the
continent such as Mozambique (Lafon 2008, p. 238) and South Africa.
In the case of the latter, despite the 1996 School Act which is clearly in favour of
multilingualism (Webb 2002, p. 93), ‘‘government decision-makers and senior state
administrators seem to be in favour of using only English in public domains’’ (ibid.,
pp. 26–27). This remark is indeed in line with Adama Ouane’s observation that ‘‘the
majority of African countries are prisoners of their past with regard to their
decisions concerning language policy’’ (Ouane 2003, p. 4).
The reality is that the higher levels of the educational–professional network are
not independent, but rather under the binding forces of an international system of
cultural and economic dependencies. In this respect, a case in point is the
discrepancy that has been arising in Tanzania, between the use of Kiswahili in the
lower levels of education and the continued reliance on English as the medium of
learning in secondary schools and at university. The cost of the dilemma in the
country has been a visible deterioration in ‘‘educational standards’’, provoking
second thoughts about the value of Kiswahili as a reliable unique channel for
teaching, in a world where the bulk of scholarly and scientific literature is still in the
English language.
Elaborating on this issue, A. R. Thompson said:
Educational systems are profoundly resistant to change for reasons that stem
from inertial factors within both the systems themselves and the societies they
serve. A further set of factors derives from the international context in which
new nations find themselves (Thompson 1979, p. 34).

468 H. Rwantabagu

Commenting further on this point, Roger Dale and Ann Wickham say:
If the cultural imperialism model, with its stress on the direct contribution of
education as just one more way of meeting the needs and interests of
international capitalism, is valid, then not only is there little or no flexibility or
autonomy available to developing countries in designing their education
systems, but neither is there any obvious way of bringing about any but the
least significant changes in those systems short of a change in the whole
capitalist world systems whose demands determine their shape (Dale and
Wickham 1984, p. 3).
In Burundi, the structural organisation of the school system is such that primary
education is not an end in itself, but a preparation for the higher stages of learning.
Since French has remained the chief medium of instruction in high school, technical
institutes and tertiary institutions, Kirundisation at the primary level became a ‘‘lone
star’’ that had to fight an uphill battle on its own.
Indeed, the primary school certificate examination has at all times been
dominated by French and Mathematics, the latter being set in the French language.
This is the reason why, despite original official policy, teachers in grades five and
six have had to use French as the teaching medium.

Organisational constraints

The often-cited organisational constraint on the Kirundisation programme is that

Kirundisation was introduced without any preliminary linguistic research regarding,
inter alia, the translation of concepts into Kirundi and the transition from Kirundi to
French at the primary level. In this respect, there has been a lack of preliminary
experimentation and regular evaluation.
Textbooks and readers have been in short supply or were only made available
after the introduction of the programme. Teachers’ guides were written in French
whereas the teaching itself was to be conducted in Kirundi. There has been a glaring
lack of ‘‘Kirundisation’’ in teacher training institutions, that is, student teachers have
not been systematically prepared to implement the programme. Indeed, up to now,
Kirundi as a subject remains a simple subject within teacher training programmes.
According to a senior researcher, the Kirundisation programme was launched during
a period when Kirundi was very insignificant within the education system and in the
minds of teachers. ‘‘Teachers have always preferred to teach in French, not having
been prepared to use the mother tongue in the classroom’’ (Rwantabagu 1998,
p. 120).

Multilingual contexts

As the case of Zambia may illustrate (Brock-Utne and Skattum 2009, p. 31), the
multilingual situation that prevails in most African countries has proved to be a
major stumbling block to the adoption and implementation of a sustainable mother
tongue policy in education and teacher training. In such context, Laurentius Davids
(2010, p. 4) has noted the challenges related to the existence of mixed classrooms

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma in education 469

with different language speakers and the lack of suitable qualified teachers (for the
various languages). To this, Okaka Opio Dokotum (2010, p. 3) adds the daunting
task of ‘‘designing and producing materials that take into consideration the cultural
context of learners’’.
Within the multi-lingual states of sub-Saharan Africa, the renewal of national
cultures may prove to be controversial at the political level. These young nations are
strongly committed to the ideal of forging national unity, while they are intent on
promoting cultural authenticity. There is a sense in which linguistic diversity may
be played down in reality, as long as it is perceived to entail the ‘‘reawakening of
tribal self-awareness’’ and to pose a threat to national cohesion (Kamwendo 1999,
p. 227).
Commenting on the initial obstacles facing the world’s emerging nations, Isaac
Kandel wrote:
Many are confronted by the serious fact that they do not have a common
language, oral or written, and must also develop a common cultural heritage.
The most difficult of the needs that the newly-independent countries are called
upon to meet is to develop common objects of allegiance and community of
ideas and ideals out of the tribal loyalties of their people (Kandel 1965, p. 45).
In this respect, Nicholas Hans (1967, p. 216) said that ‘‘consciousness of a common
language and traditions is not sufficient to generate the sentiment known as
nationalism’’. While this implies that linguistic and cultural diversity are not
necessarily a threat to national unity, the presence of a diversity of languages and
cultures within a nation-state raises substantial problems for policy-makers,
particularly in education. On the one hand, the various groups’ demands for the
preservation of their identity ought to be satisfied. On the other hand, leaders have to
strive, through schools, to develop patterns of communication which transcend
communal divisions.

Current trends in Burundi

In the light of the above constraints and as a response to the wishes expressed by
parents and the community at large, the government ordered in 1987 that the
‘‘Kirundisation programme would have to undergo some revision’’ (Bukuru 2008,
p. 39). Within the revised programme, Kirundi has retained its position as the
medium of instruction for all subjects up to grade four. What has changed is that the
number of periods for Kirundi has been slightly reduced to give room to more
periods allocated to French (see Table 1, with periods prior to 2006 given in
brackets for Kirundi and French).
Indeed, it was decided to introduce the teaching of French from grade one. The
present situation may be summarised as follows:
Grades one to four: The medium of instruction is Kirundi while the latter is also
an important subject in the curriculum. Most teachers’ guides have been translated
into Kirundi while others like those for Environmental Education are still in French.

470 H. Rwantabagu

Table 1 Weekly time allocation per subject in Burundi Primary Schools (since 2006)
Subject/periods per week Grade 1 Grade 2 Grade 3 Grade 4 Grade 5 Grade 6

Kirundi 8 (10) 8 (10) 5 (7) 4 (5) 4 (4) 4 (4)

French 6 (10) 6 (11) 8 (11) 8 (12) 8 (13) 8 (13)
English 2 2 2 2 2 2
Kiswahili 2 2 2 2 2 2
Mathematics 7 7 6 7 6 6
Environmental studies 4 4 5 5 5 5
Civics 1 1 1 1 1 1
Physical education 2 2 2 2 2 2
Art and music 2 2 2 2 2 2
Practical activities – – 1 1 1 1
Religion 1 1 1 1 1 1
Total 35 35 35 35 35 35

Source Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education 2006

At grade one, only oral French is taught and explanations are given in Kirundi
(Ministère de l’Enseignement Primaire et Secondaire 1990, p. 20).
Grades five to six: At this level, the medium of instruction is French which
remains a major subject in the curriculum. The time allocated to French as a subject
increases while that put aside for Kirundi dwindles. Only subjects such as Religious
Education and Morals are taught in Kirundi.
For the Primary Education Certificate Examination, at the end of grade six, the
Kirundi paper is allocated 10 points while French is weighted with 40 points, out of
100. The rest are attributed respectively to Mathematics (40 points) and
Environmental studies (10 points). The last two papers are set in French. It appears
that despite official policy statements, Kirundi de facto occupies no more than a
minor position in the primary school curriculum. But, on the whole, elementary
school graduates today are more competent in their mother tongue and more
knowledgeable about their culture than in the past.

New challenges and opportunities: English and Kiswahili in the curriculum

The integration of Burundi into the East African Community, in July 2007, has
created new perspectives as far as language policy in general and in education in
particular is concerned. Indeed, while Article 137 of the Treaty of the East African
Community states that English is the sole language of official transactions,
Kiswahili has always served as a sub-regional lingua franca that enhances trans-
territorial communications and interactions between the different national commu-
nities at grass-roots level.
In the light of the new geo-political alignment, the political authorities at the
highest level in Burundi have in fact imposed the teaching of English and Kiswahili
as new disciplines within the primary school curriculum. These languages were

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma in education 471

Table 2 Weekly time

Subject/periods Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4
allocation per subject in
per week
teachers’ colleges (since 1998)
Kirundi 2 2 1 1
French 3 3 3 3
English 1 2 3 3
Mathematics 4 4 6 6
Biology 1 1 3 4
Physics 1 1 3 3
Chemistry 1 1 3 4
History 1 1 1 1
Geography 1 1 1 1
Civics 1 1 1 1
Physical education 1 0 0 0
Education subjects 6 6 1 2
Teaching methods 9 9 3 2
Source Burundi Ministry of Art 1 1 3 3
Primary and Secondary Religious education 1 1 1 1
Education 1998

introduced within a difficult context where 95% of the teachers had no knowledge of
Kiswahili whatsoever, while almost all of them had very limited competence in
English and even less in how to transmit it to primary school learners. The
production of textbooks and other teaching materials has not followed the trend,
making the pedagogical situation even more precarious for teachers and learners
alike. On the whole, it may be said that the introduction of the two languages into
the primary curriculum was done without proper planning in terms of material and
human resources. Table 2 shows the number of periods allocated to each subject in
teachers’ colleges.
As Table 2 indicates, the current teacher education programme has not been
adjusted to the present situation by including Kiswhili among the taught subjects.
With regard to printed and non-printed materials, a study conducted in 2009
(Mivuba 2009, p. 40) has revealed that in most provinces, a low percentage of
teachers have access to an English textbook. This is the case in Kirundo (25%),
Muyinga (28%) and Karuzi (33%). The same percentages prevail with regard to
pupils’ access to readers in English. By and large, a similar scenario is observable in
the case of Kiswahili, a language that is unfamiliar to 95% of teachers and for which
the rate of access to a textbook by pupils ranges from 8.33% in Muyinga Province to
58.3% in Kirundo Province. This situation is evidently detrimental to the quality of
learning and to language acquisition among pupils.
The evident acute shortage of teaching and learning materials is still aggravated
by the fact that, according to a recent study (Mivuba 2009, p. 65), 78.9% of the
teachers have not been prepared to teach the new languages.
According to the same survey, children do show a tendency to confuse, both at
home and at school, the four languages i.e. Kirundi, French, English and Kiswahili,

472 H. Rwantabagu

particularly the last two. Hence, for teachers, the simultaneous introduction of four
languages at the junior elementary level within a non-favourable pedagogical
environment renders the young learners incompetent in all languages with obvious
implications for performance in school examinations, both in language and non-
language subjects.
On the whole, the non-professional way in which a four-language policy in
elementary education was adopted and implemented is putting at stake the process
of achieving universal education for all as a human right, in other words consistent
and relevant education, in a changing world.

Concluding observations: the way ahead

The existence of factors which are not favourable to the consolidation of African
languages in education should be taken as a challenge for action. The possession of
one’s language and culture is at the same time a right and a privilege and members
of the younger generation should not be denied their native rights and advantages, as
provided for in article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948).
Indeed, as F. M. Bustos has emphasised, ‘‘the biggest challenge facing all
educational and cultural systems consists in finding the means of participating in
and reacting to the world’s cultural movements while preserving their own identity’’
(Bustos 1994, p. 192).
In this perspective, he adds, African languages should, as a matter of policy,
constitute the backbone of the whole system of socialisation and knowledge
acquisition at all levels. Their adoption is therefore not a mere replacement of one
medium by another. It represents a fundamental shift in the orientation of our
education systems in line with the vital needs of African societies. The latter need to
reawaken from the slumber that cultural alienation and mental stultification have
plunged them into. Indeed, if the distinguished Africanist Yves Person was right,
many languages of the West coast of Africa may be dead or disappearing over the
coming decades for lack of users as the new generations, encouraged by their
‘‘enlightened’’ parents and bewildered by the pseudo-brilliance of modernity, turn
their backs on their own tongues and think in terms of excelling in European
languages (Lefebvre and Mignon 1980, p. 44).
During the 1977 Second World Festival of Black Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, a
colloquium entitled ‘‘Black Civilisation and Education’’ was held. In the session
devoted to the link between
African languages and Black civilization, participants strongly defended the
position of African languages as tools for teaching and for mass literacy as
well as for the expression of cultural identity. It was emphasised that African
languages should play a key role in enabling our cultures to expand and to
integrate the new scientific and technological data, as well as in ensuring the
renaissance of the African cultural civilization (African Cultural Institute
1977, p. 25).

Tradition, globalisation and language dilemma in education 473

Indeed, as African poet and statesman Léopold Sédar Senghor has reminded us,
culture is growth and this entails that our school systems should aim both at cultural
authenticity and openness to foreign influences. This, he said, will be ‘‘the
humanism of the new millennium’’ (Senghor 1976, p. 10).
In this respect, the wise option open to education policy-makers, in the African
context, is to work out a flexible, complementary language policy aimed at
empowering the people and enabling the full and intelligent participation of all the
forces of the continent. This is only possible with the full integration of national or
regional languages in education and in all spheres of national life, including science
and technology.
On this issue Pai Obanya (1999, p. 26) has commented by saying: ‘‘All human
languages are capable of coping with their immediate realities and can expand their
repertoire to cope with new experiences.’’ African languages, he adds, have proved
that this is possible as they have done over the years through coinages and
The empowerment of African languages as autonomous media of schooling and
other higher functions requires a great deal of study and research by interdisciplin-
ary teams of linguists, sociologists, psychologists, comparative educationists and
curriculum development experts, on language modernisation, lexicographic enrich-
ment and the like. Indeed, as Marcel Diki-Dikiri (2008, p. 278) has emphasised,
‘‘the efficient use of African language in various spheres of life requires ‘the
adaptation of terminology to modern realities’’’.
In the specific context of Burundi, a complementary kind of accommodation
between the mother tongue, Kirundi, and the official international language, French,
needs to be established. This implies the adoption of a constructive form of
bilingualism, the mother tongue serving as the base on which French and other
languages would be built. The preferred policy, as it was formulated at the
November 2010 National Seminar on a Language Policy for Burundi (Ndayishimiye
Bonja et al. 2010, p. 7), stipulated that Kirundi would be intensively learnt and used
as medium from grade one to lay the foundations for the teaching and the use of
French from the senior primary level, where Kiswahili would be introduced as a
subject while English would be taught from the junior high school stage.
To be successfully implemented, this approach requires a body of teachers who
have acquired competence in both Kiswahili and English in terms of content and
methodology. The whole process should be backed by an ongoing research and
evaluation programme so as to shed light on inconsistencies inherent to inter-
linguistic transfers and interferences, with problems of transition from one medium
to the other.
Today, there is indeed a need to recognise once and for all that cultural diversity
is a necessary condition for the vitality of nations and the survival of humanity. In
this sense, giving prominence to African languages and cultural values within the
school system, within the context of globalisation, would contribute to the building
of a new International Cultural Order in which inherited hegemonic and
inegalitarian structures would give way to a system based on interdependence
and complementarity between cultures and nations, as we face up to the challenges
of the 21st century.

474 H. Rwantabagu


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The author

Hermenegilde Rwantabagu is Professor of Comparative International Education in the Faculty of

Education at the University of Burundi. He holds a Masters and a Doctorate in Comparative International
Education from the University of London and a Diploma in Peace Studies from Uppsala University in
Sweden. His research interests include Moral and Peace Education in Post-Conflict Contexts; Language
Policy in Education and Higher Education Change, in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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