What role does the language of instruction play?

A pupil takes notes during class at Rusheshe Primary School in Kicukiro District. File.

Last year, stakeholders in the education sector welcomed the move by the Ministry of Education to withdraw a policy directive that instruction be exclusively done in Kinyarwanda for lower primary.

The previous decision to use Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction lower primary stirred a long debate among parents, teachers, learners and investors in the sector.

Research by United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) revealed that using learners’ mother tongue is crucial to effective learning. 

But Edouard Bamporiki, State Minister for Youth and Culture, says that is not realistic. “We cannot teach our children in a language that doesn’t have full vocabulary. This should only happen if we have enough vocabulary to accommodate all the arts and scientific courses we are teaching,” says Bamporiki.

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Honorable Bamporiki says Rwanda wants to create an education system that is inclusive for anyone. Hence, using Kinyarwanda would be limiting it to native speakers.

But some say the Kinyarwanda policy was not organised well for it to be successful.

“For this to happen, we need a clear guideline, the same way it happened with English in 2008. Before implementing this, teachers were not trained and there were not enough materials supplied. Therefore, this is a journey that needs as much preparation as possible,” says Dr James Vuningoma, Director of the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture. 

 “This is an opportunity for us because we were very worried that parents will take their children to international schools because they are the only ones that teach all languages, hence, we would lose our jobs,” says Théogène Nshimiyimana, a teacher at Ecole Sainte Angeline les Pigeons. 

Some head teachers welcomed the change in policy, claiming that they are good in Kinyarwanda and now want to be able to compete at an international level. 

Veneranda Musengimana, the head teacher of Fruits of Hope Academy in Gisozi, says, “We are in a world where communication matters a lot. If we teach them in our mother tongue, they will complete their education with a poor command of other languages. Yet, they are not limited to the country (local market), but also to the international market,” she says. 

Most parents would be happy to listen to their toddler speak a foreign language. 

Jean Bosco Niyomungeri, whose two-year-old attends a Kamonyi District-based nursery school that teaches in French, says that he feels proud when his toddler speaks the language.

He points out that it is not a bad idea to know the mother tongue, but insists on focusing on using French and English, and learning Kinyarwanda only as a subject.

“Parents feel proud of their kids who speak French and English at an early age, and the system strengthens the children’s courage to go to school. However, parents are needed to help them learn Kinyarwanda outside school,” Niyomungeri observes. 

Some parents said that if the policy was not rescinded, they would be forced to enlist their children in international schools.

 “Many parents, including myself, had chosen Cambridge programme because we want our children to be competitive by knowing several languages at a young age,” Jacqueline Mukamunana, who has a daughter at Kigali Parents School, tells Education Times.

She says, “We appreciated the decision to withdraw the policy because, though the Cambridge programme would be better, it would in the future lead to increased school fees; a burden to parents.”

After this, many people reacted to the drastic changes in the education sector.

Gilbert Rukundo tweeted that the education sector needed diligence before changes are made.

“Education policies need not to change day in day out. Before a policy is penned, extensive research should be carried out. Go to different countries that have tried such a policy before, relate it to your country’s own vision,” he suggests.

Bamporiki says children study their native language from birth to around the age of three, so during that time, the child is still in the hands of parents. And this is why the learning of the language is mainly the responsibility of the family, to create a good foundation that teachers can build on. If Kinyarwanda is no longer a medium of instruction, the responsibility is now in the hands of parents, to ensure children grow up with a strong grip on the language.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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