Sunday, 22 February 2015

Burundi is speaking a different language to the East African Community

The presidents of the member states of the East African Community met in Nairobi last Friday.  The leaders of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda talked about business, the potential entry of South Sudan and Somalia, and other affairs.  The details are here.

The colonial language of government and public affairs in Burundi is French, whereas in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda it is English.  Rwanda used to be French speaking, but has moved to dominance of English in the last twenty years.  Swahili, a common language in the first three countries, is less frequently used in Burundi and Rwanda.  The language gap matters because trade is easier among people who speak the same language, people can move between regions more easily, and technology transfers more easily.

Burundi is smaller than the other economies of the East African Community, so it seems unlikely that there will be a major move from them to promote French.  The language gap is primarily an issue for Burundi.  There are several solutions that could be adopted.  One is to intensify the use of Swahili.  However, Burundians would then have to be fluent in French, Kirundi, and Swahili, and probably good in English too.  Some of the time spent on learning languages may be better spent on learning other subjects, notably maths and science.

Another solution would be replace French with English as the national language.  This seems like extreme social engineering, although it was done in Rwanda.  However, in Rwanda, the leadership had already learnt English while in Uganda, and had other political motivations for the change.

A further solution would be to increase the learning and use of English, but retain French as the national language.  Such an evolution seems most natural.  In future years when Burundi's infrastructure and training has been developed further, the country could market itself as an entry point to East Africa for companies from French speaking countries, as Rwanda has perhaps closed off that source of funds.

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