Emphasis needed for international languages

For some reason, almost every day of the year is ‘World’ something day. In fact if I had my way, then I guess my birthday would be ‘World Ssenyonga Day.’

For some reason, almost every day of the year is ‘World’ something day. In fact if I had my way, then I guess my birthday would be ‘World Ssenyonga Day.’

While surfing the World Wide Web (Internet) recently, I came to learn that the 26th of every September is supposed to be the European Day of Languages. A day (I believe) is for commemorating the numerous European languages.

Since there is no day for African languages that I know of, I will take it that the western dominance of most aspects of life has not spared even the language sphere. Africans and Rwandans in particular find themselves in a dilemma of languages.

Many of us have what we call a mother tongue. A language we acquire from our parents or environment without much formal schooling.

However, due to the injustices of imperialism, neocolonialism and now globalisation, we are compelled to take on another language (foreign) which is often romantically referred to as the official language or international language.

Here, the scope often revolves around six languages; English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian. Portuguese and German are also common contenders.

It is obvious that most of the international languages are European. That is why this day of European languages became of interest to me.

In Rwanda, the policy is that both French and English should be promoted in schools and used concurrently in many other spheres. 

In other words, a learned or even educated person is expected to be able to effectively utilise both English and French in their day to day business as well as Kinyarwanda.

Unfortunately, this has proved to be quite a tall order for both students and even their teachers. A quick survey around schools in Rwanda will reveal a huge disparity from what the policy makers envisaged.

Many school going children do not have mastery of either French or English. This is largely due to the extreme dominance of Kinyarwanda in their lives.

More so, there is a developing dislike for French in many schools. Many students have mistakenly perceived the sour relations between Rwanda and France as marking the end of the French language.

It is common to hear a student saying that there is no need to learn French because “abafaransa twarabirukanye” literally meaning we chased away the French.

This is a very dangerous attitude which teachers must address by providing the necessary clarifications. There is a difference between the French language and the French people.

French just like English, is an international language and is therefore of much importance not just to students but anyone else. Globalisation has made it imperative for us in the developing world to master European languages that are international so as to fit in the global village that the world has become.

Much as Kigali may be having a strained relationship with Paris, numerous benefits await a person who can fluently use the French language even if he/she does not leave the borders of Rwanda.

Having to learn English, French and Kinyarwanda at the same time is no small feat for students to accomplish but that does not mean it is impossible. 

Teachers should constantly remind their students of the advantages of learning English and French. And this should not be limited to passing examinations.

A language is a tool of communication more than anything else. Therefore the principle motivation for students to master any language should be for communication purposes.

Some students tend to neglect learning English for example if they are studying in the francophone system. They fail the English exam and then during their vacation year, they enroll at one of the numerous language schools in the city.

After a period of about 3 months they would have acquired a basic level of English. What they forget though is that they had over 10 years to master the language but instead opted not to.

In most cases, the English or French taught in the language schools around town is what is technically called Functional language literacy.

Such language skills are for basic communication not fluency or mastery in a language. Of course it is better than illiteracy but put against the fact that one was in school for years and chose to neglect the language reveals a blown opportunity.

Therefore as the Europeans go about celebrating their language day, I urge language teachers to put more emphasis on these languages.

We should not just teach the students how to pass exams but also appreciate the role that the language plays in the modern world.

ssenyonga@gmail.com

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