A few years back, Rwanda made the bold but necessary switch from French to English as the language of instruction at all levels of the education system. The change certainly affected quite a number of people who had to make the rather tough transition but nonetheless progress has been made.
When the switch was first effected I remember pointing out that for English to work we should take time and look at the reasons why French, despite being used in schools for years, had not really resulted in a significant number of fluent French speakers. I often wonder why, even with French having been in place for years, there were hardly any French language newspapers on our streets.
For many who had viewed French as a rather difficult language, the switch to English was welcomed with open arms. It was common to hear students arguing that English was a much easier language and so everything was going to be fine this time.
What people forgot is that the challenges that face language learning are pretty much the same and switching from one language to another is not a ticket to paradise. More importantly if a language of instruction is not well understood then students will have to deal with more challenges trying to understand anything else they are taught as well as passing their examinations since it will be the same language that they use.
It is, therefore, very important to identify the major reasons why one may find it difficult to attain fluency in the language of instruction which, in this case, is English. Once these challenges are identified then solutions can be sought and targeted at these problems.
In this age one of the biggest challenges to language is the rise and dominance of social media. Every young person who can access the internet desires to be on Facebook and later, Twitter.
Even before all this, there was the issue of short messages otherwise known as SMS. This has nurtured a culture of shortening words and phrases almost taking it to an art. I have seen messages from my niece and I could swear it took me more time just trying to figure out what exactly she was trying to say.
The biggest problem with this kind of language use is that the young people of today do not seem to know where informal writings should stop. The kind of writing that is meant for SMS is likely to be found in a formal email to an important person or even in an application letter. Children must be reminded of where the lines between formal and informal exist.
The second challenge is that of a poor reading culture. This particular one has been sung over and over. To perfect a language one has to grow their vocabulary as well as their sentence constructions. There is no better way of doing this other than through reading as much as possible.
Children cannot achieve language fluency by simply sitting in class and listening to the teacher talking about verbs and adverbs. They need to discover a lot more by themselves through reading especially for fun.
Parents have a big role to play here by buying books for their children and where possible reading to them if they are younger so they can love reading at an early stage. While at school it is important for students to find time to read something that is not related to academic work.
The last challenge which is very pertinent to Rwanda is that of inept teachers. If a teacher finds English a challenge then it is obvious that the students will be getting a raw deal as well. It is very important for schools to hire competent language teachers to handle the students. An incompetent teacher is a disaster in waiting. These three problems need to be looked at critically if language proficiency is to be attained.