Language barrier is stiffling regional trade – language expert   

Mr Muhindo Isevahani, a language expert and the President of Teachers of French in Uganda. The East African Community has adopted French as a third language in East Africa. PHOTO/STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

The economics of language remains a neglected terrain. According to language experts, this explains why the contribution of language in business, finance and economics is not quantified. In an Interview, Mr Muhindo Isevahani, a language expert and the President of Teachers of French in Uganda, explains to Prosper Magazine’s Ismail Musa Ladu how regional trade can ride on the back of a universal language.      

Although EAC countries trade amongst each other more than with any other bloc, the region has not exploited its potential to the maximum yet. Why is that the case?

It all comes down to language barrier. Not that this is the only reason, but I am of the view that it is an important factor. This is because language barrier affects ability to efficiently trade within and beyond the regional borders. It also affects the ability to find employment, effective communication in business, and tourism.

Treaty experts will also tell you how important language is in negotiations and settlement procedures.  So as experts in this space we believe the effects of language skills on income and trade is far greater than previously known and this is why we encourage learning of universal languages like French which is widely used in EAC countries like Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which is soon becoming a member of the Community..

Speaking of universal language and its economic benefits, where does this leave our cherished local dialects?

Although I am one of those who promote French language in Uganda, it doesn’t make me a Frenchman. I am just a teacher of French. The issue here is the soci0-economic benefit that comes with that. For example how can you effectively trade inside DRC if you are not from there? Your way out could be French. We don’t have to lose our local languages and we should not allow it to die. Our point is that, these universal languages, French being one of them, are good for people looking to build a career in a global village.

Education sector is key in making all that happen without disrupting our social and cultural cohesion. And we are working with the National Council for Higher Education and National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) to enhance this program. And the rationale behind this is not mindboggling at all. For example teachers of English are needed in French Speaking countries in the continent, but to get that job you need to know French. And this is the point we are trying to drive home— cashing in on the economic side of a universal language like French.

Further, there is need for all kind of professionals, including medical professionals in French Speaking countries in Africa. Now can you imagine the advantages in terms of value a medical doctor or a nurse from Uganda or any professional has if he or she can speak French in a largely French Speaking country.   

What is the uptake of foreign language in Uganda?

It is very low. And as far as the French Language is concerned the uptake is not as deep as we would like especially at the primary and even secondary level. But we continue to engage with a view of heightening demand and once that happens we have assurance by the Ministry of Education that it will be made compulsory for primary schools. Embassy of France in Uganda as well as the Ambassador of France in Uganda are all very supportive. In the last two years, despite the Covid-19 disruptions on most economic sectors, including education, the embassy has made available to us about 59,000 Euros (which nearly Shs240, 000 million) for our activities. This support explains why French is currently being taught in some primary, secondary schools and Universities.

In Uganda, there are over 50 local languages, in addition to English and Kiswahili which are official languages. At the regional EAC level French has been added as the third official language. Of all that, which one should be the priority language and which one should be adopted for business/trade purposes?    

For those eyeing international jobs, in addition to English or any other language you know, you may need to add French to that. Ugandans need to wake up to the reality of foreign languages. These days learning many languages is an advantage -- actually it is wealth. For East Africa in general and Ugandans particularly it is handier now with nearly half the community member States being French speaking countries.

Francophone countries are learning English in addition to French, but for Anglo-phone Countries learning a second universal language remains an option but this is problematic. So as Ugandans and East Africans, we need to wake up so that we are not left behind. This is more important now, considering that East African Community has adopted French as a third language in East Africa. So do we need to be spectators or players—the ball is in our hand to decide how we want to be involved.   



The Association of Teachers of French in Uganda is asking the Ugandan business community, and professionals, to learn French and use it as a communication tool in the Africa Continental Free Trade Area.

Tsevahani Muhindo, the association president, advises Ugandans to embrace learning French because it is the most spoken language in Africa and the East African Community is considering adopting it as the third official language for communication. EAC is surrounded by Franco-phone countries which are part of the Africa Free continental.

“The moment you learn French, you become international. We need journalists, doctors, teachers, businessmen in French speaking countries. French is the most spoken language and this is a good communication tool for the Africa Free Continental Trade Area,” he says.

He added that in order to popularise it, the association is working with district education officers in Kisoro, Kabale, Arua and Nebbi  to promote the language especially among young people and they have created regional branches in Mbale, Mukono, Kisoro, Kabale,Kayunga, Gulu, Lira Masaka and Universities such as Makerere, UCU, Mbarara and Lira

Berocan Marie Rose, the secretary to the association, says for the last two years, the French Embassy has been funding the teaching of teachers of French so that Ugandans can benefit from markets such as DR Congo, which is soon joining the East African Community and the other francophone countries surrounding the region.

Additional reporting By Stephen Otage


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