Why Learn English

RECENTLY, the Rwandan Government made a radical policy shift. It announced that the country would move from using French to English as the official language in Rwanda. As a result, the last few months have seen the growth of a number of private institutions all offering ‘Icyongereza’.

RECENTLY, the Rwandan Government made a radical policy shift. It announced that the country would move from using French to English as the official language in Rwanda. As a result, the last few months have seen the growth of a number of private institutions all offering ‘Icyongereza’.

Whenever I have a new group of students, I like finding out from my class what their motivations are for learning English.

Invariably, like the immutable hills of Rwanda, they always tell me that they want to learn English so as to communicate with the rest of East Africa, and the British Commonwealth.

Much of that communication would perhaps be restricted to business and social networking on Facebook. Indeed, this is a praiseworthy reason for it tells me as a teacher, that I have a group of students who see the need to learn English.

However, in learning English there have to be higher motivations for learning other than just wanting to communicate. Why do I say that?

Rwanda, unlike most other African countries has the unique advantage of having just one common language. That fact alone serves as a huge disincentive to learning anything new since everyone in the country can speak Kinyarwanda.

Then again, Kinyarwanda is a highly productive endogenous tongue, with an admirable capacity for accurate expression.

The added reason for wanting to learn English would therefore have to do with the learners being able to see themselves in the nature of the English world view itself.

They would want to become part of that world view, and contribute their own experiences to it. Before diving into a deeper explanation of the English world view let me define what a world view is.

A world view would be considered to be the way in which members of a linguistic community organize and conceptualize their cosmos. In layman terms, it would have to do with the way in which they think and act.

It encompasses what we sometimes call “our culture”. The layman’s definition is a tad simplistic but it will do for the purposes of this article.

Unlike Kinyarwanda, English left its origins in the British Isles long ago, and was embraced by huge parts of the globe, including what were parts of Britannia of the Seven Seas.

It is therefore current to think of English as a global language, a language that is rich, and capable of highly-defined nuance.

Due to Britain’s past political, economic, cultural and social forays into foreign shores, English was able to absorb diverse peoples, each of them in turn contributing to the pluralistic world view, inherent in the English-speaking community.

That is why for example, the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, would feel comfortable writing in English. Or why his countryman, Wole Soyinka prefers English in his bid to explain the unfathomable depths and finer points of Yoruba mythology.

And so, coming back to my inquiry into the motivations for learning English, I think that all my potential students would do themselves a huge favour if they were to dig deeper into their souls to understand their own individual reasons.

For not only do they owe it to themselves to communicate with the rest of the English speaking world, but they also would have something unique to contribute to the human experience.

And perhaps a starting point would be in trying to understand something that was said by Albert Einstein that “a human being is part of the whole called by us the Universe. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the
rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, and the whole of nature in its beauty.” 

He was right. All things are relative and related. If we understand just how interrelated we all are, then we will find that our classes of English are fun, enjoyable and above all intellectually stimulating, for in the stories of the comprehension passages we will find mirrors into our very being.

In the comedy that is a Midsummer’s Night Dream we will read about the lengths that we can go in the search for love. We will find in the writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow the strength that can help in the midst of sorrow and in the poetry of Langston Hughes we will understand all about the audacity of hope long before it existed.

As a country, Rwanda does not owe its fame to its size but to its unique experiences. The will to survive and even thrive in spite of the past, the gracefulness of the Rwandan ballet that reminds us beauty can transcend adversity, the curves of a traditional basket, and the genteel feminine gait of a Rwandan belle should be interpreted in written form.

The stories of the thousand hills, of Mukaneza who wakes up early to feed her six children, and of Munyakazi who has to toil for a pittance under the scorching Kigali sun need to be heard.

For by doing this then, English will not be reduced to the level of a lingua franca, but will become a vehicle in which we convey the dimensions of our own consciousness, and hence our shared humanity.

John Weru is the Principal of Virunga Communication Centre, jonweru@yahoo.es