As far as language is concerned, learners are expected to acquire four key skills. The ability to read, write, listen and speak. Once these are mastered fluency is achieved.
I would like to concentrate on the ability to speak or express oneself in a language. I often joke with friends that the ability to ask for food, forgiveness and love is a major test that proves that one has reached a significant comfort level in language acquisition.
My reasoning is that the inability to ask (or beg) for any of these three crucial needs can be fatal.
Since the introduction of English as the main language of instruction in Rwanda’s school system, a lot has been achieved but again more must be done. Like many subjects taught, this language is often left in the students’ exercise books.
This problem seems more acute at the primary level where some teachers are equally having trouble speaking English. Many children can hardly go beyond the ‘Good morning’ phrase.
Sometimes when young children see a Caucasian person passing by, they all shout “Good morning Mzungu,” regardless of the time of the day.
I reside close to a primary school and the sight of these young fellows walking by my house is so common. Being a keen reader of newspapers and magazines, I have accumulated several in my house.
Sometimes primary school kids are courageous enough to knock at my door and ask for an old newspaper to cover their exercise books (or so they claim). They walk up to me and say, “wampaye igifuniko” (give me a cover/newspaper). Their innocent faces and missing teeth are often enough to corrupt me into obliging.
The problem I often got was that in a flash, my door would be swarmed with a stampede of kids screaming for newspapers.
I soon realised their mayhem and became selective when giving out these newspapers. However, some kids were insistent with some becoming very ingenious with demands like, ‘my father said you should give me a newspaper!’
I also became wiser and devised a new trick that would tame the numbers at my door but still able to occasionally hand out the newspapers.
I soon told the kids that the new ‘password’ to getting a newspaper from me was to knock at my door, tell me your name, which class you are in, where you are coming from, where you are going and what you want (newspaper). These had to be said in English for the request to be granted.
Although this drastically cut the number of visitors, I am always happy when a nine-year-old walks up to me, greets me and can hold a brief conversation in English before I can surrender one of my treasured paper possessions.
Not only is it a sign of having acquired the language but also a major indicator of confidence at an early age.
Of course they always make mistakes but I am patient and eager to correct them.
My belief is that such small steps go a long way in helping these young fellows to practice some of the languages they are taught in class.
There are certainly many other ways in which school children can be encouraged to express themselves in a language. One of the common ways is by organising debates on different topics.
Being able to speak a language is a basic skill in language acquisition and a lot of emphasis should be placed on that. Since language is a tool of communication, it is pointless if the learners cannot express themselves in that language.