On March 23, this year, the Minister for Education, Eugene Mutimura, decried the low level of competence in English language by graduates from our tertiary institutions during a meeting with officials from higher education institutions.
The minister, who is a known scientist and researcher, had identified a problem that needed to be addressed.
Some institutions have since formed committees to address the issue, and have devised strategies to raise proficiency in English, the all important language of instruction, international communication, science, diplomacy and business.
For English, or any other language skills to be acquired fast and effectively some conditions are prerequisite. One of the conditions is the learning environment.
I recently visited the Adventist University of East Africa at its Masoro Campus in Kigali. The campus is beautiful, with well kept gardens and imposing buildings, but what impressed me most was not the serene environment but the language policy.
Right from the entrance everyone I met spoke to me in English.
As I waited to see the dean of education, the lecturers I found in office talked to me in English. It was evident from their accents that some had grown up and been educated in Francophone environments, but all communicated confidently and effectively.
Even students spoke English amongst themselves and to their teachers. The university provides a conducive environment to perfect skills in the target language. That is an effective strategy that should be replicated in other institutions.
English has been used as a language of instruction in Rwanda since 1995 alongside French and became the exclusive language of instruction in 2008. It is hoped that after two decades of exposure to the language, there are sufficient numbers of young teachers and lecturers who are proficient in English.
As was suggested in the March meeting, instructors in our education system should demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in English. This is important for all subject teachers as one of the hindrances of acquisition of skills in English is code-switching.
In simple terms, this means the use of more than one language within a single utterance. To sustain enabling environment for English language learning, other subject teachers (except teachers for other languages) should minimise use of Kinyarwanda and encourage learners to use English in all school activities.
If it happens at Victory Nursery and Primary School in Matimba, Nyagatare District, it can work in our secondary schools and tertiary institutions.
Motivation is another factor. The benefits are many; employment locally and internationally, self esteem in work places, access to creative industry such as writing, film, music and many more.
Our artists, journalists and other professionals would benefit from the wider market if English is their language of communication. Nollywood films in English have long been a hot cake in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa.
It is hoped that, with introduction of film schools at East African University, Nyagatare and Kwetu Film Institute in Kigali, our film industry will grow and share the African market.
Over a decade ago, a group of Rwandans found me at a university in South Africa.
Most had been trained in Francophone system. They did not only have to earn their masters’ degrees in stipulated time, but also had to get a long in a city where English was the only language they could use.
They were motivated to work hard on their English lessons, and cherished occasions where they could interact with people who did not speak their mother tongue. Practice makes perfect.
The scenarios in Masoro and South Africa demonstrate that, with appropriate policies and approaches, proficiency in English achievable.
For remedy, one has to start from universities, where our teachers are trained. When universities churn out teachers whose proficiency in the language of instruction is below standard, it has a spiral effect.
If teachers who are not proficient in English are recruited as instructors in primary teachers’ colleges, the deficiency is transmitted to learners at lower levels. It is therefore imperative that appropriate approaches aimed at improving proficiency in English at all levels are redesigned.
Kigali Institute of Education (renamed College of Education, now under the University of Rwanda) had a fully-fledged department of English. It is the norm in countries where English is a language of instruction.
The department recognised that English was crucial for knowledge acquisition, development of skills and helped learners to develop educationally, and used effective methodologies to good effect.
But, for some strange reasons, English was combined with other languages like Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, and French to form one department. Subsequently, the teaching of English reverted to old methodologies when it was taught as a secondary language.
Rwandan researchers have worked on the issue and suggested recommendations. Education managers only need to own the problem.
Quality teachers, quality books, paying attention to cross-curricular approaches to teaching English, integrating Literature in language teaching, and interactive approaches have been recommended.
It is worthwhile to note that, in the context of improving standards, university leaders traditionally serve limited tenures, to allow new ideas and innovations. Change has a canny way of dealing with prejudicial attitudes.
As leadership in universities is rotational, dons in leadership positions even outside the academia, later return to their professorial chairs comfortably.
The writer is an Academician based in Kigali. The views expressed in this article are of the authors.