Challenges of changing from French to English

It is early morning at St Joseph Primary School, a private school in Kicukiro in the suburbs of Kigali City. Class teacher Annie Marie Mukagakwere struggles to conduct a mathematics class in English.

It is early morning at St Joseph Primary School, a private school in Kicukiro in the suburbs of Kigali City. Class teacher Annie Marie Mukagakwere struggles to conduct a mathematics class in English.

Much as she would rather not, she has to teach in English following the government directive making it the language of instruction. She looks uneasey as she struggles to construct comprehensible sentences.

On several occasions, she improvises by using gestures. Her heavy French accent further challenges her articulation resulting in an inaudible and hardly understandable math class.

Most of the pupils stare at her in bewilderment. A handful of them raise their hands to the teacher’s combination of incomplete questioning supplemented by finger pointing at the topic on the blackboard.

“The last time I used English was during my school days,” she confesses in a brief interview after class.

After undergoing a two-month training with 50 other colleagues before the start of a new term, Mukagakwere says that an English dictionary is always within her reach for quick reference and sharpening the use of the new instructional language.

Before the start of 2009, St. Joseph predominately used French as the language instruction. Seven French speaking teachers in the nursery section, unable to use English were shown the door.

Mukagakwere’s good mathematics teaching skills bailed her out.

“We kept her because she is a very good mathematics teacher,” explained Baptiste Gahamire, Director of Studies at the school.

Seven new teachers were immediately recruited for the nursery section to pioneer the building of an English foundation for the school.

“It is easy to teach the young ones but the older ones have already learnt other languages,” she said. 

The latter strongly portrays an aggressive strategy deployed by the school to comb out the intense use of French and comply with the government directive.

The privately owned school has also laid off four primary teachers, who were unable to instruct in English.St Patrick located in Kicukiro has both secondary and primary level is also privately owned.

A group of angry and seemingly insecure teachers in the secondary section, complain about the “sudden” government programme.

With an angry tone one of them says; “At the start of the term they [school administrators] told us the programme had changed. We were not given time to prepare. We don’t even have instructional material to use.”

Pascal Urayeneza, Director of Studies at the secondary school revealed that unlike secondary, thirteen primary teachers had been discontinued.

However in response to complaints that the programme was introduced hurriedly, Emile Ruberwa, am Information Officer at the Ministry of Education said that the programme had in fact been implemented later than planned.

“The programme was supposed to have been introduced in 2004. But we were not able to introduce it until 2009,” he revealed.He also said the government programme was coupled with the introduction of new subjects.

“They introduced entrepreneurship and a general paper but we don’t have teachers or teaching material,” said Urayeneza. 

However, talking to Rita Ingabire, a senior six student, moderate English, she tells me that unlike the lower classes, lessons are still being conducted in French.

According to Janvier Gasana, Director for primary and secondary education in the Ministry of Education, public schools are not laying off any French speaking teachers having difficulty with English.Instead they have designed a holiday training programme to slowly get them well versed with English.

“Teachers are not being chased but are being trained. This training will take three years. Starting in 2009, science subjects will be taught in English and by 2011 other subjects will be also be taught in English.”

Gasana said that announcements were made and recruitment is already going on for teachers from neighbouring countries. He also stated that about 50 Kenyans had been in the country since 2007. 

“We have many Ugandans in the West and Tanzanians in the East those were teachers who came to find jobs but now we are recruiting officially. We are looking for 150 teachers,” said Gasana.

But he pointed out that there was lack of teachers countrywide. About the replacement of French instructional material, Gasana said that the National Curriculum Development Centre [NCDC] is already making the teaching material which will soon be distributed to schools.

An official in the Teachers Service Commission Secretariat who preferred anonymity said that the first training of teachers in public schools had been conducted in the months of November and December. And he disclosed that they are taking on a strategy of training of trainers.

“Every centre was asked to pick  few who we will train and they train others.” He revealed that in 2007, 3,000 teachers were trained followed by another 2,780 in 2008.  In 2009 there will be holiday trainings July, August, November and December.

He stated that unlike private schools, they discontinue teachers on grounds of lack of qualifications or misconduct, but not due to lack of mastery of English.

This to many may be seen as too high a price to pay for the change from French to English. However on the split side one may argue that great achievements also come with great sacrifices.


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