Language is one of the most crucial issues we have to deal with in education. How do we get it to work with us and for us and not against us, as is the case now?
In Rwanda’s quick growth, she faces the challenge of harnessing and harmonising the three major languages; Kinyarwanda, English and French and a fourth one, Kiswahili, such that they aid learning, communication and progress.
This is a question that linguists, teachers and policy-makers, and indeed everybody will have to grapple with. Opinions (both expert and inexpert) in this case are very varied and very confusing. What is clear is that we must have a way forward.
The role language plays in education cannot be overemphasised. As evolutionists say, language has been key to the tremendous development of homo sapiens from a creature at the mercy of his/her environment to the master of universe.
It plays a big role in building analytical skills. Analytical thinking allows faster learning. It is a crucial part of the development of critical thinking, creativity and innovativeness which are crucial ingredients and products of learning.
In a multilingual situation, there is the language you speak and then there’s the language you think in. The language in question is the language of thought. All communication is first processed in this language then translated into the spoken language.
For example, you will notice that when you say ‘thank you’ to a lot of people in Rwanda, the response you get is; ‘thank you too’ and not the typical ‘you are welcome’. This is a little strange to someone not familiar with Kinyarwanda.
Two main schools of thought; the first group, I will call internationalists. Here, there is the culture of relating a foreign language (English in our case) as being an indicator of intelligence (you must have heard people calling themselves Francophone or Anglophone?).
For example, the case well made by proponents of English that it is necessary to be in the 21st century as most of the progress stems out from research and publications in this language.
But some argue, in primary education, English (or French for that matter) in fact, hampers the very cause education tried to solve. The main risk is however that so many talented people lose out due to the language.
This is especially so when we pervasively use a foreign language (say English) as the primary language for education while the ability to think in it is not pervasive.
The second group; the nationalists, argue that countries such as Germany, Korea and Japan, use their local language in everything. These countries are also at the front in technological excellence, all done their native languages! This dispels the argument of the first group.
But there are other extraneous factors at play here. What these countries share is that they have a high level of determination, dedication and discipline that we frankly do not have. Aping them blindly will just not do. Until such a time that we translate educational concepts into our local languages, we are just not ready.
Nonetheless, it is very important to harness the localised knowledge, be it language or cultural teachings, as these are the skills most inbuilt and hard wired into a child.
There is also an increasing evidence that the fundamental requirement to develop an analytical thought process is the ability to visualise abstract concepts. This is where, in our case, learning by doing comes in.
if we changed the way we teach and learn, to a more practical and involving method, we might solve half of the problem. It is easier to remember what you see compared to what you hear. What you do, you remember best.
We must also remember that we are preparing our pupils and students to compete with the world. They must thus have world class education!
Sam Kebongo teaches entrepreneurship at Rwanda Tourism University College. He also is a Director at Serian Ltd that provides skills and business advisory services consultancy.