Alice Akamahoro, now pursuing computer science at University of Rwanda’s College of Education says she had a rough time back in high school because of challenges expressing herself well in English.
“From primary to high school, we were taught in French, but in Senior Four, we shifted to using English as a medium of instruction. This was a very tough moment for me since the only language I was familiar with besides Kinyarwanda was French,” she says.
This, according to her, affected her performance so drastically that she had to repeat Senior Four to get along well.
Akamahoro, however says, although she can now speak English, she still has challenges understanding and appreciating certain concepts being taught, leave alone expressing herself well. She is afraid that this could impact her overall performance and most probably affect her chances on the job market
Jean Baptiste Uwimana, a fourth year student at University of Kigali, echoes similar sentiments.
“Starting to learn a new foreign language in O-level to me was a difficult time in my studies. To make it worse, English was just used as a mode of communication during teaching, in addition to being an examinable subject. Adjusting to it took me about one year, which cost me in many ways,” he says.
Uwimana says even at university, many of his colleagues are grappling with the same challenge.
Indeed, most of the university students interviewed by Education Times maintain that the English language barrier is the major reason behind their dismal performance in their studies.
According to Dr Alphonse Uworwabayeho, a lecture at University of Rwanda’s College of Education, English being a medium of instruction, when both the lecture and student don’t understand it well, makes the situation worse.
“This is a big problem, not only in learning institutions, but also outside when the graduates are seeking for jobs. Expressing themselves in the language that they have just been recently introduced to is a big setback which should be taken into consideration to prevent further repercussions,” he says.
Another issue, Uworwabayeho says, is the environment the leaners are exposed to, which tends to encourage speaking in the native language. On the other hand, teachers were also not well exposed to the language in their formative years, which hinders them from teaching their students well.
For Jacqulyne Irabagiza, a matron and counsellor at Martyrs School in Remera, Kigali, students themselves are not exposed to the right reading materials.
Citing an example of a student who completes high school and cannot even read fluently in English, Irabagiza notes that the mistake such students make is to only rely on their teachers.
“After school, most learners don’t take a step to get exposed to reading materials. And again, most of them are not tapping fully into the opportunities they have at school such as English clubs and libraries,” she says.
Irabagiza also points out that another reason that could lead to poor performance due to the English barrier is the way teachers and lectures deliver content to their learners.
“For instance, as a good teacher, one is supposed to engage their learners in conversations and open discussions as this improves their understanding and ability to express themselves in English,” she says.
Irabagiza adds that, even when students make mistakes, it’s a way of making them learn from their mistakes and do better in future.
Stanley Mukasa, a tutor at Akillah Institute of Women Kibagabaga, says the first step is for students to take a deliberate step by committing to read English literature more and more.
“This will help them to be more exposed thus understand better. Again, they should do more research and debates in English. This will see them through a successful education journey with English as the medium of instruction,” he says.
Mukasa adds that much as lecturers may not be very competent in English, the onus is on them to make an effort of consistently using and improving their English language skills since students look up to them.
“Cracking jokes, telling stories or even giving examples, are some of the strategies to improve in English skills and confidence in using it,” he says.
Another strategy, Irabagiza says, is for graduates to look for jobs in companies or environments that oblige them to speak English. This will improve their communication skills, as well as their ability to understand the language better.
For example, at University of Rwanda’s College of Education, Uworwabayeho says they have come up with a new programme called ‘English for Academic Purpose’, aimed at improving skills in English use for their students.
“Such deliberate programmes targeting students are another way giving a chance to practice and improve their skills,” he says.