In spite of many impediments, English language usage in Rwanda has greatly improved since its inception as the language of instruction.
However, it would be too modest to say that its proficiency is any close to perfect. While many factors have contributed to the slow rate of its acquisition and growth, we must distinctly underscore the teachers’ hand in this.
In Rwanda, English language acts as the basic communication channel for knowledge transfer and learning from the educator to the learner at least from upper primary to university. We must concede that if the knowledge communication channel is obscured and hindered by limited English proficiency - both on the side of the learner and of the teacher - knowledge transfer cannot be effective.
One would therefore presuppose that because of this, teachers would industriously work towards achieving both linguistic and communicative competence in the language; but apparently, the opposite is true.
Some teachers gravely undermine the use of English language both in their attitude and activities. To begin with, the idea that fore fronting English undermines Kinyarwanda is farfetched and ethnocentric. Some teachers (many by the way) teach their subjects in Kinyarwanda not because they aren’t fluent in English or that the students are not proficient but because they are just stubborn.
As a matter of fact, most professors actually use Kinyarwanda or French for instruction in most universities in Rwanda. If you happen to teach English in a school, you will probably be the only one using the language.
I recently attended an interuniversity debate competition specifically organized to promote English language but the organizers and guests (who, by the way, are educators) gave their remarks in Kinyarwanda in spite of their adeptness in English.
Beside, teachers are responsible for inadequate language input due to their own limited English proficiency. The essential ingredient for English acquisition is comprehensible input through teacher talk.
The teacher should talk on a learner’s level of comprehension, that is, the learner should be able to understand what the teacher is saying. Where teachers’ own English knowledge is not on an acceptable standard for the use of English as the language of instruction, their poor usage and knowledge of the language are transferred to the learners.
Transference or code switching from Kinyarwanda to English is a hold back to the use of English. However, this is only a smaller problem compared to the fact that they do not want to learn it anyway.
Worse still, if the teachers trained to teach it are miserably lacking in competency, how do we expect a blind man to lead the blind? Obviously, poor English language proficiency among the teachers trained to teach it and language error transfer from teacher to learner, have seriously undermined the growth of English language.
Although the majority of these teachers claim that they are proficient in English; that they have adequate knowledge of ESL issues and that they do not require ESL teacher training, they still lack the confidence to teach in English.
Though some teachers may perceive their teaching of English to be successful because they support learners through differentiated instructions, collaborative teaching, code switching, immediate and correct feedback to their learners and allow learners to share their everyday experiences through the medium of English, they soon discover that learners do not understand instructions in English, that they have a limited English vocabulary, are unfamiliar with phonics and their spelling is simply despicable.
The fact is that availability and access to good English input and instruction would produce the best outcomes in English and even ensure native-like proficiency. In addition, modeling would be very effective; for example, using strategies to access meaning when reading.
The teacher should model the strategies for which the learners eventually need to take responsibility. Through modeling, the learner is provided with a step-by-step demonstration of what is required. But again, how can this work if the teacher is not competent in the language.
Considering the language barriers experienced by the teachers, the language policy of Rwanda should be strictly adhered to by academic and administrative staff.
This calls for an analysis of the needs of the teachers by using a language assessment instrument which measures their language proficiency in their English at entry level as well as their language knowledge and linguistic skills (academic language proficiency) needed to cope with their learning tasks. It will also help to design course materials that will facilitate the transition to English.
The writer is a lecturer at The Adventist University of Central Africa