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  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 8:40 am on June 6, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , french, language policy, , rwanda   

    The costs of switching to English 

    French was the official language in Rwanda until 2008, when the government decided to transition to English in a bid to increase Rwanda’s viability in the global market. The government at the time stated that English, not French, was key to ensuring economic success and establishing Rwanda as a tourist destination, IT hub, and business center in Africa following the violence of the 1990s.

    Choosing English and aligning with the Anglophone world for economic reasons seems pretty innocuous, right?  It makes sense—English is the most spoken second language in the world and the primary language for international relations and business.  But observers note that there were historical wounds that contributed to the decision, and critics allege that there were political motives at stake.

    Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009—becoming one of only two countries in the Commonwealth that weren’t former British colonies—under the pall of diplomatic intrigue: Rwanda was still a member of La Francophonie (the international alliance of French-speaking nations), but an official Rwandan commission in 2007 accused 33 prominent French officials of being directly involved in the 1994 genocide and relations soured soon afterwards.  In addition, Rwandan officials suggested that colonial-era ties to France and Belgium contributed toward the ideology that resulted in the 1994 genocide, and the government wanted to eradicate ethnicity-based identities, according to researchers Beth Samuelson and Sarah Freedman.

    Many Tutsis who lived in exile in Anglophone countries (e.g., Uganda) during the Hutu-Tutsi violence of the 1990s came back into power after the violence slowed, and they brought with them an English-speaking culture and an English-based power structure, wrote Canadian PhD student Izabela Steflja last month.  Steflja writes that despite Rwanda’s nominal efforts to foster a unified Rwandan identity—based on English (the language of 4% of the population), rather than French (~8%) or Kinyarwanda (~88%), the native language that straddles both Hutu and Tutsi peoples—are misguided and serve only to reemphasize existing power conflicts.

    As for education on the ground, Rwanda gave up trying to teach young children English last year, choosing instead to teach children in Kinyarwanda for a few years before switching to English.  Critics decried the instability in the education system while others praised the attempt to preserve Kinyarwanda, the first language of about 15 million people. But some commentators have questioned the quality of English-language education in the country, especially because there is a dearth of teachers fluent in English.

    The group I work for in South Africa doesn’t normally deal with issues related to Rwanda. But one of our focus countries, Mozambique, a country with a Portuguese colonial past, has also joined the English-speaking Commonwealth of Nations. Mozambique hasn’t adopted English as an official language—an fact made abundantly clear as I tried to Google Translate my way through the Mozambican Constitution last week—but I’m curious to see whether it’ll follow the example of Rwanda and ditch its colonial past (… to adopt another colonial language) in the name of economic advancement.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 5:51 am on November 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: aimer, , , french, , i love you, ich liebe dich, , je t'aime, love, lust, romance, wo ai ni   

    The language of love 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I love my parents, my brother and my friends. I love Duke and our basketball team. I love my law school, UCLA. I love walks along the Eno River in North Carolina at dawn. And I love the opportunities that my family and my education have afforded me.

    I used the same word—“love”—in all of those sentiments, but I didn’t mean the same thing. To be sure, love is a complex, multifaceted idea in any language. But the unique English colloquial use of the word spans many different meanings, from appreciation to liking to lust to romance. To non-native speakers, the protocols around its use are often perplexing. Hell, even for native English speakers, finding the appropriate moment to say “I love x” can be difficult.

    So let’s try to sort these out. Professing unconditional love to one’s family is common in Anglophone cultures. To tell your friends that you love them is fairly common, too. Saying you love abstract or inanimate things, like a university or a leisurely walk, is a common idiom in English, even though the feeling cannot be reciprocated. “Love” is also thrown around flippantly in situations where reciprocation is either unwanted, unspoken or unexpected. We have different situational terms to describe love, such as “platonic” or “unrequited.” “Love” can also be used as a euphemism for physical relations, from the phrase “making love” to the clever substitution of “love” for a certain four-letter word in clean versions of explicit songs.

    But in English-speaking romantic relationships, the moment when someone looks at his or her partner and says “I love you” is a watershed—a fantastically significant event after which everything supposedly changes. Commitment! Soul mates! Indeed, to say “I love you” requires the courageous expectation that the statement and sentiment will be reciprocated. As any soap opera viewer knows, the seconds after that first “I love you” can be agonizing: Will she or won’t she?

    But imagine for a moment that you’re having a whirlwind romance in Paris. You’re at your favorite café waiting for your date. You’re nervous—it’s only the second time you’ve met up—but after you share the obligatory bisous in greeting, you start to feel at ease. Then your date leans over the table, smiles and says, “Je t’aime.” Hold up. Did the L-word just get pulled out?

    Sort of. “Aimer” is used for both “like” and “love,” so its use isn’t surrounded by the sort of momentous protocol that the English verb is. “It is an important phrase for a relationship,” Duke University French lecturing fellow Christelle Gonthier told me, “but a couple can use ‘Je t’aime’ when they’re just starting to go out. In France, there’s not so much restraint as far as feelings go.” This was baffling to me, especially since the epic misplacement of the “I love you” moment is a running motif in American culture.

    Now close your eyes again and imagine that you’re on the hot streets of Bombay, holding hands with your significant other. It’s been a few months since you started dating, but you haven’t yet experienced the “I love you” turning point. Keep waiting, my friend—it’s not going to come.

    In Indian cultures, love can be expressed through actions, but it is almost never explicitly spoken. If it is expressed verbally, it will likely be in English. I didn’t even know how to say “I love you” in my first language, Kannada, until I looked it up online about two years ago. Most of my Hindi, Marathi and Bengali-speaking friends don’t know how to say the phrase, either. I have never felt unloved by my family—it’s just that the explicit articulation of that familial love isn’t part of our style. Sometimes silent demonstrations are more powerful.

    Other languages guard love, too. In Chinese, “wo ai ni” is a well-known phrase, but its use is rare. Germans save “Ich liebe dich” for exclusively romantic situations, preferring “Ich habe dich lieb” (roughly, “I like you”) for platonic relationships. To many cultures, love is an intensely personal and important emotion.

    It’s different here. Despite how puritanical America can often seem, our non-romantic use of the word “love” is laxly enforced. We’re no steamy Latin culture, but it’s heartening to note how freely we distribute “love.”

    To me, the permissive use of the word “love” in English doesn’t devalue the idea. It strengthens it through reinforcement. Even if we aren’t often open with our feelings, maybe the repeated and free use of the word “love” will eventually shift something in our collective consciousness. If the casual use of hateful speech can create pernicious environments, then why couldn’t the casual use of “love” do the opposite?

    After all, who ever said that putting more love into the world was a bad thing?

    A version of this post ran in The (Duke) Chronicle on 2/10/11.

     
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