28 May 2012

Rwanda: Are Our Children Really Learning English?


We publish an article relevant to the concerns of a good number of Rwandan parents with school-age children. The author for privacy reasons requested we withhold his name. Editor.

Each year, the Rwanda Education Board releases results of primary and secondary leaving examinations. The publication of these results is awaited with great excitement and apprehension by both pupils and parents. The top performing schools become the object of a scramble by pupils and parents alike. I was exceptionally blessed to register my son in one of the top flight schools of the country.

I recently attended a parents committee meeting, which is an annual gathering of all parents and guardians of the pupils, and which is taken very seriously. In fact, your kid can be sent packing if you do not sign up to the calling of the school administration. The management should be commended for instilling uncompromising disciple in our children and for actively involving parents in the education process.

After the customary pleasantries at such a meeting came what every parent wanted to hear: last year's academic performance. The school lived up to its tradition of outstanding performance at national examinations: almost all students passed with flying colors at both O-level and A-level. You could sense that every parent wished their daughters and sons would do the same or even better in the years to come.

However, despite all the excitement, all was not rosy. The question-and-answer floor brought to light some dissatisfaction among parents, especially concerning language proficiency among students. "When my son came here two years ago, he had a good command of English. But now, he can hardly speak it anymore. What do you say about this?" lamented a concerned mother.

"I also wanted to stress that issue. Our children are doing very well in science, but they fall short in oral interviews. I have discovered that some of the teachers explain English course materials in Kinyarwanda," said another parent, amid rumblings across the meeting hall.

In 2008, the Government of Rwanda took an unprecedented decision to adopt English as lingua franca of instruction with immediate effect. The ministry of education took a series of measures to fast-track the implementation of the policy, including intensive English training of teachers for primary and secondary schools, recruitment of (expensive) foreign English mentors, production and distribution of didactic materials, etc.

Yet the above-mentioned comments and concerns by parents show frustration about the sluggish progress towards full adoption of English in our education system. "We are aware of the problem. Last year, one of our top performing students missed the chance for a scholarship to a USA University because he failed an interview in English", the Headmaster said with regret.

However, it was the second part of his answer that exacerbated the disappointment of parents. "Here we offer science subjects only. Scientists are not good at languages. You should help your children practice languages during holidays", the Headmaster suggested.

The solution offered by the headmaster left me puzzled. Are language and science subjects mutually exclusive? How can a parent in rural Nyamasheke or Ngoma help his/her child acquire a mastery of English the school system has failed to provide?, etc.

The disappointment of parents over lack of language proficiency at the school of my son reminded me of yet another experience I had at the Kigali Institute of Education. A group of third-year students were engaged in a discussion in preparation for end-term exams. The discussion about some aspects of molecular biology was entirely in Kinyarwanda mixed with some English terms.

"Here we offer science subjects only. Scientists are not good at languages. You should help your children practice languages during holidays", the Headmaster suggested.

Curious, I approached them and inquired how they manage to deliver a presentation before class in English since the only language they use on the campus is Kinyarwanda. "You try to survive. You cannot fail to speak some English in front of students (umuntu agerageza kwirwanaho. Icyongereza cyo kuvuga imbere y'abana ntiwakibura)," replied one young man who will be very soon declared a fully-qualified teacher with all rights and privileges attached.

With this outlook from the premier teacher training college, I can partly understand the difficulties of the headmaster to help student acquire a good command of English. If a teacher "tries to survive" to deliver a course in English, how can we expect our children to have opportunities to perfect the language at school?

The debate on whether or not it was a good idea to shift our education system from French to English has been closed. I do concur with all motivations policy makers provided for the move. It is for the good of our children and the future generations. They will have the opportunity to partake in an ever growing family of 1.75 billion of current speakers of English, thus accessing the global knowledge and resources. The change will go down in the history books as one of the biggest radical decisions to change the destiny of Rwanda.

The mere fact that Kinyarwanda is universally spoken across the country should not be a hindrance to enforcing practice of other languages in our schools. I understand the Ministry of Education has instructed schools to make "the fastest spreading language in human history" the corporate language in schools. However, education administrators in both public and private institutions at all levels should be creative in promoting linguistic skills. A degree in education should not be the only criteria in hiring teachers, since sound oral communication is a prerequisite for an effective knowledge transfer.

So much has been done to revolutionize our education system; to make it one of the best in the region. However, the progress recorded might be thwarted by the "we have always done it this way" mentality. It does not help to produce graduates who cannot be competitive on the job market simply because of lack of adequate communication skills.

The recent in-vogue beauty contests in tertiary education institutions have not been short of drama. What a pity for the most beautiful young lady to fail to explain her project in the language of her choice to the panelists? There is so much at stake here.

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