Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. März 2006

3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Eric A. Anchimbe (University of Munich)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

English in Burundi: A non colonial heritage

Déogratias Nizonkiza (University of Burundi)



This paper analyses the expanding role of English in Burundi and the impact this has on the society, which is exclusively francophone, given that the country was colonised by Belgium (1919-1962). There is no doubt that English today is gaining more and more ground even in countries that have no historical link with Britain. The paper is based on a survey conducted in one of the language centres - Bujumbura English Language Centre, situated in the capital of Burundi and reputedly the best in the country. The survey revealed that the number of people enrolling in English language programmes at the Centre increased tremendously in the last ten years (1996-2005). The learners, it was realised, come from various sectors, including adults, youths, important personalities, workers, and students. This is proof that present day Burundians need English or are somehow forced to use it to cope with its spread across the world. The increasing need for translators and interpreters supports this view. The growing importance of the language could also be attributed to the presence of multinational peace- keeping forces in the country after the 1994 tragic massacres blamed on ethnic cleansing. These forces are mostly from English-speaking countries, predominantly South Africa. An important outcome of this is that English in Burundi is fast moving from a foreign language to a second language.


1. Introduction

Burundi like many other African countries passed through colonialism, which brought about a number of changes in its national linguistic and social life. Indeed, the colonisers initiated many transformations in all sectors of national life. Since language is the primary tool for communication, it played an important role in this colonial transformation, particularly in establishing and maintaining first contacts. Today, many Burundians speak French - the ex-coloniser’s language – which also happens to be the official language of the country. But English is also spoken even though it is not a colonial legacy. This is the outcome of the many changes initiated in the postcolonial period. Besides French and English, Burundians also speak Kirundi, the main native national language that has official status within the country. Although it is a major language even within the educational curriculum, less attention is paid to it in this paper whose major focus is the spread and vitality of English in French-speaking Burundi.

Anchimbe (2005:1) truly observes that English has in the last few decades become the dominant “medium of worldwide linguistic interaction whose intra- and international functions keep increasing everyday.” The language has spread far beyond the borders of its original speakers and is fast becoming a major functional and mode of communication of the upwardly-mobile in many areas and for many people who have no historical attachment to Britain or the USA. Fishman (1996:628) notes therefore that,

The world of large-scale commerce, industry, technology and banking, like the world of certain human sciences and professions, is an international world and it is linguistically dominated by English almost everywhere, irrespective of how well established and well protected local languages, and identities may otherwise be.

Burundi has not been spared this irresistible incursion of English. Many Burundians are therefore attracted to English, which they now use in their everyday activities. Since it was not inherited from colonisation, as French was, one can say that its presence in the country is the outcome of transformations and innovations in postcolonial Burundi. Even though English is still generally treated as a foreign language, it is gaining more and more ground, and may soon become a dominant second language almost equal in strength to French. At present, it is taught at different educational levels in the regular school system. Moreover, in the last ten years, many private language centres have been created that teach English to youths and adults alike. English classes are held in the evening to give workers and all others interested in learning the language an appropriate time to do so conveniently, and as the statistics below show, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of those enrolling in these centres in the past ten years.

Besides tracing the vitality of the language in Burundi, this paper seeks to provide answers to questions like, why is there a rush for English in a dominantly French-speaking country like Burundi? What potential impacts would the extensive acquisition of English by Burundians have on the society and its francophone institutions in the future? The answers to these questions will be provided with the help of a survey of Burundians’ attitudes towards, and reasons for, learning English. This survey was carried out at the Bujumbura English Language Centre - one of the most reputed English language centres in Burundi. However, it is important, first of all, to provide a brief overview of the linguistic situation of Burundi.


2. Linguistic situation of Burundi

Situated in the Great Lakes region of Africa, Burundi is a small country of 27.834 km 2 with a population of over 7 million. It shares boundaries with Rwanda in the North, Tanzania in the East and South, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the West. As hinted at above, Burundi, just like many other African countries, is multilingual in nature, but at the same time has an official bilingual policy with French and Kirundi as official languages. The East African lingua franca, Kiswahili is also used in the country but predominantly along Lake Tanganyika and in the Bujumbura area. Kirundi, according to SIL classification is a Bantu language in the same way as Kiswahili with which it competes as common languages of wider communication. French is basically used for education, administration, politics, and other activities limited to the formal domains. As an official language, French is used inall official transactions and is also the medium of instruction in education. From the third grade in primary school to the university, all courses, except Kirundi and English, are taught in French. English on the other hand, is taught as a discipline from the 6 th form in public or government owned secondary schools and even earlier in some private schools. Today some private schools teach English at the primary school level. The Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Burundi was created in the 1980s. Students from this department graduate with the degree of ‘Bachelor of Arts’. English is also taught as a foreign language and for academic and professional purposes in other departments, faculties and institutes of the university. Today, the Department of English is the most populous of all the departments of the faculty of arts and social sciences – up from one of the least populous ten years ago.

After more than a decade of inter-ethnic and political upheavals, it can be claimed that Burundi today has no well-defined language policy. Moreover, the intervention of the international community resulted in the deployment of peace keeping forces whose major language of communication is English. This further alienated the people from French, the official language, and awoke interest in English since the multinational organisations stationed in the country predominantly use English. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the description of the languages spoken in Burundi and their statuses reveals that:

Il ne serait pas exagérer de dire que le Burundi actuel n’a pas de politique linguistique, sinon la non-intervention. En effet, aux prises avec des conflits ethniques incessants depuis l’indépendance, les dirigeants politiques qui se sont succédés ont eu bien autre chose à faire que de s’occuper des questions linguistiques.

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Burundi has no linguistic policy today or simply does not interfere in the matter at all. In fact, having been involved in cyclic conflicts since independence, the politicians who have ruled the country were preoccupied with other issues rather than setting in place a language policy. (My translation)

In the absence of a consistent language policy, the people still carry on with daily life in languages accessible to them especially Kirundi, which is the mother tongue of over 90% of Burundians. For some people, English is spoken in Burundi predominantly by European expatriates and pockets of Africans from Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania resident in Burundi. The following excerpt from the UN report on Burundi in 1999 holds this view.

Quant à l’ anglais, il est parlé par quelques Européens et certains Africains anglicistes (d'origine rwandaise, congolaise ou tanzanienne). En raison de l’ouverture du pays au marché international, surtout vers le sud, l’anglais se répand de plus en plus dans le monde des affaires en tant que langue véhiculaire (Nations Unies, 1999).

As far as English is concerned, it is spoken by a few Europeans and some Africans of the Anglican Church from Rwanda, Congo, and Tanzania. English is spreading more and more particularly in the south in the world of business, following the fact that Burundi is open to international trade. (United Nations 1999, my translation)

Since 1999, much has changed in the quest for English by Burundians. The role of the language has expanded tremendously, aided by several factors, some of which are discussed below.


3. The expanding role of English in Burundi

From being the language of a handful of expatriates and pockets of other Africans settled in Burundi, English is today a powerful force that bears with it prospects of international success, given the ethnic insecurity that followed the 1994 massacres, employment avenues in the international peace keeping missions and NGOs currently working in the country; it fuels prospects of migrating to western countries; and links the international workers to the local population in the social affairs they now have engaged in. No part of the society seems to be left out; everyone seems to see a dream in the language. This explains why enrolments at the English Language Centre surveyed for this paper, included children, workers, youths, ministers, and athletes. Tables 1 and 2 recapitulate the constant increase in the number of people who enrolled for English language classes during the past ten years (1996-2005) and the rate of increase per year within this period respectively. This ten year period is very important due to the changes that took place in the country. In 1996, there were only 240 learners of English enrolled in the Centre. This number tripled in 2005 with 731 learners. The number of learners has been on a steady rise and may hit the thousands in the next few years.

Table 1. Enrolment into Bujumbura English Language Centre between 1996 and 2005











































































Before 1996 when the English Language Centre gained more prominence and similar centres were created, the teaching of English had basically been in the hands of the American Cultural Center. Given that admission to the American Language Center was expensive, and the programme itself was directed predominantly toward American English and culture, many people were not attracted to it. The programme resembled what Anchimbe (2005) describes as the American political empire spread through American English, and which is readily seen as an American philanthropic and educational presence worldwide.

Table 2. Estimates of Yearly Increase between 1996 and 2005


Number of learners




















































The period 1996-2005 could be classified according to three levels of attachment to the language. In the first period, i.e. 1996-1998, there was a normal quest for English. The level of insecurity created by the genocide was still high and many people were caught in the Diaspora. The second period 1998-2004, recorded a significant rush for the language. During this time, many people displaced by the unrests were gradually returning home and taking up life anew. Hopes of migrating to other regions of the world, especially Europe and the USA were high due to the sense of insecurity and poverty. English therefore promised to be a source of survival should such migration ever come to pass. The third period, 2004-2005 and beyond, witnessed a very significant quest for English, particularly due to the presence of international workers in the country whose main language is English. These levels of attachment were reflected in various aspects of national life – education, commerce, professional career, technology, and politics as well as social life.

3.1. English and education

English, as said earlier, is taught at school as a discipline and is the medium of instruction in the Department of English Language and Literature of the University of Burundi. Even though English is not yet used in the system of education in Burundi, except for the fact that it is taught as a foreign language, it is extensively used in the systems of education in neighbouring countries, particularly in Rwanda, which also happens to be of French-speaking colonial heritage. This is one of the factors accounting for the tremendous upsurge in interest in English in Burundi. This is because mobility and trade within the Great Lakes region could in the long term depend on the languages that go with economic strength. Moreover, the University of Butare in Rwanda adopted an English-French bilingual system of education in 1995. The introduction of English was compelled by a number of issues prominent at the time. The first of them was coping with returning refugees who had been displaced by the civil war. Many of these refugees had sought refuge in mostly English-speaking countries like Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa, and in the course of time, acquired English. To cope with this particular linguistic heterogeneity, English was introduced in the educational system – and is now spreading to other non-English speaking countries of the region. In an interview with Lingua Internazionale (2004), the Rwandan minister of education reveals the extent to which the government is promoting the acquisition of English:     

Le gouvernement a mis en place des cours accélérés de Français et d'Anglais pour les étudiants de première année à l'université, dans le but de les rendre bilingues, et tous les élèves de l'école primaire commenceront en Septembre à apprendre l'Anglais, désormais langue officielle au même titre que le Kinyarwanda et le Français.
Depuis 1995, l'université offre ce qu'elle appelle un "enseignement parallèle", dans lequel les étudiants peuvent choisir d'étudier en Français ou en Anglais ( Lingua Internazionale , 2004).

The government has initiated intensive English and French classes for first year university students to make them bilingual. The pupils of primary schools will also be offered such training as from next September, since English now has official status on the same level as French and Kinyarwanda. Since 1995, the university offers what is known as a parallel system of education, within which students choose to follow lectures either in French or English. (My translation)

Burundian students wishing to pursue studies at universities in Rwanda therefore had to fulfil the linguistic requirement, i.e. a good knowledge of the language to follow lectures in English. This explains, to some extent, the increase in enrolment in the English Language Centre, especially for an intensive English programme, and in the Department of English Language and Literature, at the University of Burundi. In the same manner, students applying to study at American, Canadian, Ugandan, and Kenyan universities need the TOEFL certificate, as proof of proficiency in the language.

The creation of private universities in Burundi that offer a bilingual English-French educational system also accounts for the increase in interest in English. This is the case of Université Lumière de Bujumbura, created in 1998, and which, to date, offers courses in both French and English. This private university offers many courses that the state-owned university does not offer and has therefore attracted many students who see in it prospects of integrating in the larger international world of business, commerce, politics and technology. Other private universities have recently been created based on the formula of Université Lumière, for instance, the Université Espoir d’Afrique, created in 2003.

Besides compelling prospective students to be proficient in English, this state of affairs has threatened university teachers and their jobs. They need to cope with the changing realities. They too are caught in the rush for English, which to them symbolises integrating with the international circles of their profession already significantly tilted to communication and publication in English. So, the learners presented in table 1 above, also included university lecturers and researchers.

3.2. English and politics

The change in the role of English in the past ten years was not limited to education, but was also observable in politics. In fact, the period (1994-2005) was difficult for Burundi as far as politics is concerned. An unprecedented crisis broke out in 1993 with the assassination of the democratically elected president, which unfortunately triggered brutal massacres and a genocide. Many people fleeing from the massacres ended up in English-speaking countries in Africa, Europe and North America. Compelled by the need for integration and exigencies of survival, these former refugees learnt English, which they brought back with them after the violence was stopped. Most of the countries involved in brokering peace between the Burundian government and the rebels, based predominantly in Tanzania, are English-speaking, namely, South Africa and Tanzania. Mediation in conflict resolution since 1996 has therefore been done in English – a reality that has forced the politicians and state advisers to go in for intensive English language classes to be able to follow. This explains why there was a significant increase in the rate of enrolment at the English Language Centre, which at that time was the only major centre in Bujumbura. Especially between 1999 and 2000, there was a 12.62% increase, and between 2000 and 2001, this increased by 2% to 14.25% (see table 2). The later period 2004-2005 saw even a more explosive increase, at 32.99%.

3.3. English and Commerce

With the recent expansion in the international usage of English, it is today “a major language of international business” and is, for instance, the language “an Iranian businessman and a Japanese businessman are likely to use to communicate” (Kitao 1996). Considering the high inflation rate that hit Burundi after the political crisis of the 1990s, many Burundians looked for better business avenues with partners in Tanzania, Uganda, and other neighbouring countries – which, as said above, are predominantly English-speaking. The inflation was aggravated by the debilitating effects of the economic crisis further complicated by the imposition of sanctions and a trade embargo on Burundi by the countries of the Great Lakes Region in protest against the military coup d’état that toppled the 1993 interim government . According to UN estimates, the inflation rate rose from 26% in 1996 to 31% in 1997. The search for business partners beyond the boundaries of Burundi therefore compelled Burundian businessmen to learn English. In addition to individual businessmen, the government, too, had to seek ways to cope with the new challenges posed by trends in trade. The same situation was observed in Rwanda in 1995. As the Rwandan minister of education, Murigande, noted in an interview with Lingua Internazionale (2004), the government was compelled by tendencies on the international market to move substantially towards English, as far back as 1995. He explains:

Si l'on considère notre position géographique et nos liens commerciaux, j'espère que chaque rwandais se rendra bientôt compte qu'il est dans son intérêt d'apprendre l'anglais, parce que 90% de nos échanges se font avec l'Ouganda, le Kenya, la Tanzanie, l'Afrique du sud, et les Emirats Arabes Unis, et qu'on ne peut faire d'affaires avec ces pays sans connaître l'anglais ( Lingua Internazionale , 2004).

Considering our geographical position and our commercial partnerships, I hope that every Rwandan realises that it is in his interest to learn English. Indeed, 90% of our trade transactions are with Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and the Emirates and it is not possible to carry out business transactions with these countries without a knowledge of English. (My translation)

3.4. English and professional aspiration

The ministry of finance in 2004 enrolled its employees at the English Language Centre for a 40 months intensive English language course. These employees account for the increase (32.99%) in enrolment at the Centre between 2004 and 2005. Many other parastatal organisations, NGOs, humanitarian missions, and regional associations have found English indispensable to the smooth performance of their duties and have therefore advised their employeees to enroll in English language classes. The presence of the United Nations Operation in Burundi (UNOB) with its officials and soldiers is, apart from implementing the Arusha Peace Accord, also extending the necessity of knowing English in Burundi. Since most of these officials and soldiers are from English-speaking countries, Burundians seem compelled to learn English to cooperate with them. Moreover, to work with this Operation or the many NGOs operating in the country, proficiency in English is a determinant requirement. So Burundians who wanted to apply for job positions need to learn English, and so found the Centre a helpful avenue for them to do so. Indeed, in the one year period 2004-2005, the English Language Centre recruited eight (8) more teachers and rented seven (7) more rooms.

3.5. Translation and interpretation services

The many sectors identified above that now use, or are made to use English, have the task of either translating documents from French into English or vice versa. Such organisations and the government in its negotiations with the rebels, in the signing of political and trade accords, need interpreters, to serve as communicative bridges between them and their predominantly English-speaking partners. This has had an impact on the number of students opting for a degree in English at the University of Burundi. Many students see English as a secure source of employment. Translators and interpreters are, therefore, perceived as a bridge between linguistic communities, both local and foreign and the growing number of English speakers in Burundi. The UNOB, for example, advertised over sixty vacancies for English-French translators and interpreters. In addition, each time there is a conference or major political event like the recent July 2005 legislative elections that brought in European observers, interpreters and translators are needed. Some are therefore hired from countries like Cameroon, which is bilingual in English and French.


This study consisted of a survey of the relevance of English in Burundi. It used statistics from the English Language Centre of Bujumbura, to establish that English is fast adopting the status of a second language through the increase in its functions and the rate at which people are learning it. Although much of the research done before now denid that English is extensively learnt and spoken, the presence of the UNOB, the humanitarian missions, diverse NGOs, and the predominantly English-speaking neighbours, show that trends in knowledge of that language are changing or have changed. This multilingual complexity is further complicated by the extensive appeal of English, has increased the rate of code mixing, code switching, borrowing and interference in patterns similar to those described by Bolinger (1975), Hymes (1974), Malmkjaer (1991), Whiteley (1971), and Wardaugh (1986).

© Déogratias Nizonkiza (University of Burundi)


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Kitao, K. 1996. Why do we teach English? In: The Internet TESL Journal 2(4).

Giglioli, D. (2004). Rivalité Français Anglais pour devenir langue dominante au Rwanda. L ingua Internazionale.

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Whiteley, W. H. (1971). Language use and social change: Problems of multilingualism with reference to Eastern Africa. Glasgow: Oxford University Press.

3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront

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