Following a referendum vote in Kenya in 2010, Kenya enacted a new Constitution. The new law placed Kiswahili as the national language and as an official language with English. This policy added to the older educational policy of making Kiswahili mandatory in public schools are ways of encouraging bilingualism. The fact that all public documents will now be available in Kiswahili will make great strides in making Kenyans learn the language. But there’s room to do more.
Regarding language learning methods, I have yet to come across a country that has a model more impressive that the one in Rwanda a few years back. I had a brief sojourn in the country of a thousand hills until 2006. While there, the system there inspired awe and pride in me. I was, therefore, saddened to hear that it was later scrapped when Rwanda decided to drop French as an official language.
In the post-genocide period in Rwanda, thousands of families that had fled the country returned to rebuild it. Many had fled the country in the 1940s and those under 50 in 1994, such as President Paul Kagame, had been born and bred outside the country until adulthood. The country had been traditionally francophone (French speaking) having had a colonial history with Belgium. And so, Rwandan families returned home from near and far. Many returned from near – Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. They now spoke English and are referred to as Anglophone (English-speaking). And others returned from Burundi and the DRC speaking French. Others yet returned from afar – the US, Canada, Belgium, South Africa. Something had changed. The country was no longer predominantly francophone. The new generation of Rwandans speaking English or French also spoke other languages depending on where they came from – Swahili, Lingala, Kiganda and some Kinyarwanda. In addition, the fact that the President had grown up in Uganda and came back a Speaker of English tilted the scale in favour of English. His relations with France only served to make matters more complicated. The sense of identity as Rwandan needed to be developed.
One fabulous government policy made Kinyarwanda, English and French as official languages. Rwanda was to be the Switzerland of Africa. The National University of Butare, the leading academic institution in Rwanda then perfected the policy by requiring all new university students to spend an entire academic year learning their second language. That means that Anglophone students would spend an entire year learning French before starting on studies in Medicine or Economics. And Francophone students would spend an entire year learning English before entering university,
Naturally, the students protested, led, of course, by Anglophones. English speakers the world over generally resist language learning and expect others to understand English. In their defense, I would say that English is so much easier to learn from French than vice versa. French speakers learn English faster than the opposite case. Following the protests, the government did not bat an eyelid and the programme continued.
The policy enabled the university to attract teaching staff from far and wide. So when a student finally entered university to study Medicine, he could expect to find a Kenyan professor teaching Anatomy 101 in English and a Senegalese lecturer teaching Internal Medicine in French. Likewise, a student of Economics could learn Macroeconomics under a US professor and then Taxation under a Belgian lecturer. Students were allowed to write exams in any of the two languages. A win-win situation, if you ask me
The experience, observed from the outside, was rich and fascinating. At the end of 5 years, recent graduates emerged winners. Despite the initial resistance, these were trilingual graduates and had a rare multicultural outlook. Kiswahili had also started to infiltrate the country and that added a new East African dimension to their rich experience. If you rode with them in a Kampala-bound bus, you would recognize them through their conversations based in Kiswahili, peppered with English and French remarks and often punctuated with Lingala humour. Sometimes, I swear, I heard a Kikuyu word.
Nowadays, I hear, correct me if I’m wrong, that the programme ended when Rwanda officially became an English-speaking country. What a shame! To date, there are few such examples of government sponsored efforts to create multilingual professionals. Even Kenya’s efforts to promote Kiswahili fall short in ambition and pragmatism.
The link with creativity is obvious. Creativity involves a unique world view whereas multilingualism and multiculturalism offer dual or multi-views. I’ll give you an example: Compare the Roman (the one I’m using) and Chinese alphabets to understand the way both group see things. Watch a Kikuyu using fingers to count and then watch a European doing the same. The differences are clear. That means that if you open up to another language (for many Kenyans this happens without their choice), then your creativity grows.