What Languages Are Spoken in Rwanda?

A sign in Rwanda. Editorial credit: karenfoleyphotography / Shutterstock.com.
A sign in Rwanda. Editorial credit: karenfoleyphotography / Shutterstock.com.

Rwanda is a small landlocked country located in East Africa. Language is central to the culture and belief system of the Rwandese people. The people of Rwanda mainly speak three major languages: Kinyarwanda, French, and English. These three languages are also official. Interactions with other members of the East African community have led to the introduction of the Swahili language into the country, especially for trade purposes. The pre-colonial, colonial, postcolonial, as well as the post-genocide periods of the country have influenced the adoption and use of these languages.


Kinyarwanda is a Bantu ethnic language with more than 12 million speakers in various countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. In Rwanda, Kinyarwanda is an official language and the only ethnic language. Kinyarwanda is an ethnic language spoken by the three Rwandan ethnic groups: the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa people. The language developed as the cultural identity of these ethnic groups during the 15th century, following close interaction among the three. The language is a national language and the most widely spoken in the country, with about 93% of the population using the language. Being an official language, Kinyarwanda is used as a medium of instruction in Rwandan institutions, administration, in media, and commerce for daily business transactions.


Since Rwanda is a former Belgian colony, it adopted French as an official language. However, despite being the colonial language, only about 0.1% (mostly the educated) of the Rwandan population speak French. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 negatively affected the status of the language among the Rwandese people, leading to its slow replacement by English. The involvement of the French in the genocide triggered efforts by the Rwandese people to detach themselves completely from the French and francophone influences.


English is the third official language in Rwanda, spoken by about 0.2 % of the population. English became an official language in Rwanda in the late 20th century and was introduced in schools in 2008. The transition from French to English in Rwanda was triggered by the desire to break the influence of French and to align Rwanda with the East African community, where English is the official language. Furthermore, the use of English provides an economically viable option by increasing the number of foreign investors from English speaking countries. The language is currently used as the primary mode of instruction of Rwandese institutions.


The Rwandan government in February 2017 passed legislation making Swahili an official language in the country. The adoption of the language as an official language came following requests by the East African community for members to include Swahili as one of the official languages. Swahili is to be used in administrative functions, as well as in official documents. The language will also be adopted into the curriculum as a compulsory subject.

Significance of Languages Spoken in Rwanda

Besides serving the primary function of being a medium of communication between the residents of Rwanda, the languages spoken in the country also play other important roles. Language is used as the basic form of transmitting knowledge in Rwandese institutions of learning, therefore increasing the literacy rates. Language is also important in record keeping for administrative and commercial purposes. In Rwanda, the adoption and focus on some languages, such as English and Swahili, serve to promote the economy of the nation by improving trade and communication with other nations.


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