Rwanda : Back to school and the dynamics of the language shift

On January 12th, most Rwandan schools opened after a long holiday. Students however, this time start the year with relatively new changes in the general education sector that some would prefer to call reformation.
Students going back to school.
Students going back to school.

On January 12th, most Rwandan schools opened after a long holiday. Students however, this time start the year with relatively new changes in the general education sector that some would prefer to call reformation.

There are two major changes/reforms in the Rwandan education system: The language of instruction will slowly be changing to English, and Social Studies will be introduced in primary schools.

This is time saving and child friendly, as it reduces the burden of teaching and learning so many subjects in primary school. Pupils at a tender age would do well, if taught what they can manage to grasp.

So many subjects only confuse and bore learners, hence not permitting them to study well. This is a positive change, which is practiced all over East Africa and in other parts of the world.
The biggest issue that is causing much anxiety and panic is the language shift.

‘When are we starting to use English in national examinations? I used to neglect English because I knew that French was there for me as an alternative. I wish we could be given the chance to go to countries like Uganda for some three months or so, so that we master the English language, Jean Paul Nsabimana,” a senior five student, asked himself a number of questions while on his way to school.

Such ill-informed cowardly learners have to be helped to adopt the new changes—they need to know the secret behind learning a new language. One of the worst issues that stand on the way to learning English is phobia.

It is mainly due to the kind of attitude a particular learner has towards the language he or she is to learn. Many people like Jean Paul, start to learn a foreign language only to spend years and years with a pointless struggle, or to give up almost instantly.

In schools, the situation is different, since it is compulsory for students to learn the foreign language, and many students have language classes daily. They should hence be able to learn it.

However, despite the efforts of the education system, few students learn to speak a foreign language by the time they complete high school—be it French or English, a thing that must change.

Nonetheless, the government and the Ministry of Education in particular, has to take the new policy shift seriously by availing enough textbooks, for learners and teachers to use in the teaching and learning process.

Students learn best when they have enough time to read for themselves after or before the teachers’ explanations. This can only be achieved if schools have a variety of textbooks. In other countries, students have various of textbooks from many different publishers and authors.

Varying authors, provide sufficient material for learners to study.

Therefore, we need many and a variety of Social Studies books for our children and teachers, to accustom themselves with the new subject.

Similarly, we need more English books to help the same people, to move forward. Remember in teaching language we cater for more than one aspect listening, reading and writing which is why every student must have a book.

Indeed, learning a foreign language can be a frustrating task. Most people know the feeling when you sit over your homework and cannot make sense of the sentence in front of you.

But remember, it takes time to learn a new language and you need to be persistent.
This is a very important point often neglected by language learners.

You need to dedicate most of your time to learning English if you are to master it.

Another important aspect is that learning a new language is hard work. There are those few who derive pleasure out of the process but most will simply want to get to a level where they can start using the language.

In any case, you absolutely must master the vocabulary. Grammar is something you can gradually learn yourself from sentences you have memorised (although some people prefer to memorise grammar too), but you absolutely have to learn the words of the new language.

There is simply no way around this. There are no shortcuts here.

Therefore, the secret rules of learning foreign languages are time, persistence and hard work. Motivation is perhaps the best trick to get you going but you will simply need to bite the bullet and keep going once your motivation runs out.

The other unfortunate thing that we have to do away with is politicising the language shift as some self-styled Rwandan politicians in foreign lands labour to put it.

There is nothing very political in changing from French to English as a language of instruction.

Rwanda is trying to embrace a language that will help it to meet the big Millennium Development Goals. We therefore need the English language to help us transfrm our country into a successful economy.

Of course, the fact that Rwanda is not on the best terms with the original language users, raises scepticism leading to the feeling that the shift is political—it could only act as a motivating factor but not the cause. We therefore have to get facts right so that the so-called politicians do not take us at ransom.

Our mother language is Kinyarwanda. We must above all identify ourselves before we talk of foreign languages.

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