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Language competition in Rwanda and Uganda

June 21, 2010

Despite the fact that the African languages in Rwanda and Uganda are marginalised in most formal domains in society, they are used far more extensively than commonly believed. This is one conclusion reached in a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Sub-Saharan Africa is characterised by a large number of indigenous languages that are not appointed official languages. In fact, Westerners often find the vast linguistic diversity difficult to comprehend.

By comparing status and use of languages spoken in Rwanda and Uganda using a quantitative model, Tove Rosendal has shown that African languages indeed have a strong position for example in media (especially newspapers and radio) and in the domains of religion and commerce - and in Rwanda even in public administration.

'This underscores the communicative value of the African languages,' says Rosendal.

Still, the imported official European languages - English in Uganda and French and English in Rwanda - are strong as well, which indicates that factors other than practical considerations must also be at play when choosing languages in the two countries. The European languages have a high status both due to their appointment as official languages and their allocation as media of instruction in education. In addition, these languages are often thought of as modern and refined.

Rosendal's thesis is based on the assumption that languages compete. The status of a language in a society is therefore not determined only by laws and formal decisions, but also by how it is used in the society. Rwanda and Uganda recently adopted different language policies.

'Unfortunately, the latest developments in Rwanda show that English has gained status, while Ugandan languages have been promoted in the Ugandan educational sector,' says Rosendal.
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University of Gothenburg

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