Yvette Ishimwe, now a third-year student of information technology at University of Rwanda, says she could hardly communicate proficiently in English after joining university, and neither could many of her colleagues.
She says she had to take extra English lessons in her free time while in first year to be able to get along with others.
Ishimwe says currently she has improved drastically, but is quick to point out that a good number of her colleagues still struggle to grasp concepts during lectures, especially those taught in English language only.
Elie Mandela, the chairperson of the YALI Regional Leadership Centre, Alumni Chapter of Rwanda, says he remembers having classes where the teachers communicate mostly in Kinyarwanda, which he says as a student it only made it harder for him to get better at the usage of English language.
The experiences shared by these two, are just some of dilemmas most students are facing when it comes to language competency.
According to education experts, every student needs good language skills in order to effectively communicate in their entire life. However, they say this has not been realised due to many reasons, including poor background on a particular language, as well as the rampant use of slang that most people tend to use on social media platforms.
Understanding the challenge
In fact, Mandela says what is even more astonishing is that this is not only a challenge for high school students, but a huge number of students graduating from university. "Many still have an issue with communicating effectively, especially in English or French."
He says like the saying goes, 'practice makes perfect'. "When you compare the kids that are usually fluent in English or French, they come from a background where there was a mandatory use of these languages at their schools."
Mandela notes that another factor is the families such students come from create an environment where some of these languages are spoken regularly, but emphasizes that it's the school setting that plays a vital role.
"In schools where students excel in these languages, they use both in instruction by their teachers, and the same is expected of their peers as well. This is the case in most private primary schools, but it tends to be a different case when it comes to most public schools," he says.
The quality of the teachers and their level of knowledge in these languages plays a huge role as well in how students eventually perform, according to him.
For Angie Ndizeye Thaina, a Kigali-based mentor, practice plays a role on whether one will excel in a language or not.
"In my opinion, the problem is lack of practice both at school and back home since some parents are not educated. Also, lack of simple, interesting books that children can read to perfect their skills is a major challenge," she says.
Thaina points out that the teachers not following up on the students to assess their level of both writing and speaking competencies could be another possible reason many fail to excel in language use.
"Take an example where teachers themselves don't use English to communicate to students; how do you expect learners to come up with a meaningful sentence in English?" she wonders.
Dr Alphonse Uworwbayeho, a lecturer at University of Rwanda's College of Education, believes that as far as the curriculum is concerned, there are things that should be fixed, especially from the lower to higher levels.
For instance, he says teachers as well as lecturers should make more time for reading sessions in class, and also create debating clubs to help students practice speaking skills.
Prof Danson Musyoki Kimeu, the vice-chancellor, University of Kigali, says students should be grounded with the languages from the lower level. If possible, parents should as well try to talk to their children in English to improve the skills, he adds.
"By the time a student is completing Senior 3, they should have perfected their English, be able to speak and write it properly. At this level, they are supposed to have 'stopped' learning the language and now can specialise in subjects they are interested in," he says.
Kimeu adds that although it's a short-term problem, it should be handled well, explaining that this is because the change from French to English as a language of instruction affected some university students, yet at this level most of them are learning professional courses.
Thaina is also of the view that teachers should include oral exams in assessment of students.
"They should strengthen English clubs because students get to learn skills like writing application letters and essays through such clubs, which generally empowers them to get better at the language," she adds.
Just like Thaina, Mandela thinks that having debates conducted in these languages, as well as language clubs in schools to the students practice the languages.
He also suggests that incentives should be given to teachers to push themselves and their students to use English more.
"When I take an example of students from high-end private schools, the use of these languages is emphasized. I do not think we should take the approach of coloniasts that harshly punished students that used vernacular, but rather incentives and creation of avenues for the use of these languages should be promoted," he says.
On the other hand, Erick Mugisha, an education expert at University of Rwanda, says reading greatly improves one's vocabulary and knowledge of the rules of grammar, thus makes it easier for a student to construct sentences. "However, practising the language through speaking still beats everything else if one is to master any language," he says.
Steve Burora, a mentor at Youth Impact Mission, a community organisation, says the slang and abbreviations used in English, especially on social media by the young generation to some extent, has contributed to poor English usage skills in general.
Slang, according to him, has become infused into everyday communication, which could be another reason behind many students not being fluent in English language.
"Take an example of social media where teenagers and adults alike use shorthand and slang when sharing messages. This has longterm implications because students gradually get detached or pay less attention to the correct version of language use," he says.
To solve this, Uworwbayeho says since social media is not going anywhere, the best thing is for teachers and lecturers to teach students formal language use, as well as availing them reading materials that will help them practise formal language while at school.
Jean Paul Bukaba, a human resource manager based in Kigali, says grammar and wrong spellings are commonplace on CVs some fresh graduates write today.
As an employer, he says this alone can cost such applicants a job.
"These grammar glitches make their writing harder to read, and can easily turn any employer off. Although such applicant might have good ideas and content, the grammar can be obstacles to getting hired," he says.
Bukaba says the biggest challenge lies in the structure of schools, coupled with the lack of capacity by teachers to fluently communicate in these languages.
"There is no other way around this but a continuous use of the language. Therefore, an emphasis on a mandatory use of the language of instruction at the school premises could go a long way in addressing this challenge," he says.
Mandela notes that a counter-argument to expect is the need to use Kinyarwanda, but he adds that if we are to compete on the job-market with fellow East Africans and others, we need to get better at the global languages.
"Some students in university have already started tackling this challenge through various student-run organisations/clubs; these have become avenues to practice," he says.
Valens Mushinzimana, teacher
A number of students are not comfortable with expressing themselves in English because they fear making mistakes. However, this should not be a problem. In fact, they should learn from their mistakes and improve because one's confidence to use a language grows when they practise more and more.
Diana Nawatti, head teacher
To improve teaching and learning of English, I think instilling the reading culture in students at an early stage can help. However, parents should make an effort of availing reading materials to their children, especially to be used while at home.
Venuste Munyeshyaka, university student
Words such as 'tonite', '4u' are some of the abbreviations we use in our daily conversations instead of 'tonight' and 'for you'. It's easy to find yourself doing the same when handling written tasks in class if one doesn't pay strict attention.
Doreen Mwambiri, lecturer
Some students could be familiar with these languages but because they are exposed to environments which only use Kinyarwanda in almost everything, it becomes hard for them to expand their language skills.