[lg policy] Africa: Jury out on language-switch trend

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 14 16:29:02 UTC 2012

Jury out on language-switch trend

Gabon says that it is considering following Rwanda's example by
dropping French in favour of English, but evidence of the success of
the radical education policy is still lacking

Facing up ... in Rwanda, it is claimed English speakers can earn up to
30% more than those who do not. Photograph: Helen Vesperini/Getty

Last month a spokesman for the president of Gabon announced that the
west African state, which uses French as its official language, was
considering following a lead set by Rwanda by switching to English.

Rwanda has claimed that economic gain motivated its 2008 decision to
downgrade French, the language it inherited as a Belgian colony. By
converting to English-medium teaching in the majority of its schools,
its leaders say it is attempting to produce a generation with a grasp
on the linguistic key to global trade and business.

Gabon's suggestion that it is about to follow suit was later played
down by President Ali Bongo Ondimba, possibly to avoid a diplomatic
rift with Gabon's close ally France on the eve of a meeting of
francophone countries. But if Gabon is serious about adopting English
it is likely to look closely at the progress of Rwanda's policy.

"If the Rwandan experience is conclusive why should we not draw
inspiration from such an experience?" Bongo Ondimba's spokesman said.

A recent report commissioned by the British Council, which is partly
funded by the UK government and has been providing considerable
support to Rwanda's English language education policy, claims that
individuals with a good grasp of English can earn salaries that are an
average of 25-30% higher than those who don't. Rwanda hopes that its
citizens will benefit from its membership of predominantly anglophone
trade and political blocs such as the East African Community (EAC) and
the Commonwealth.

But the switch from French to English in its schools has not been
easy, and there is still no definitive research on the impact of the
policy to date.

Dr John Rutayisire, director of the Rwanda Education Board, defends
the abruptness of the policy that decreed that teachers would start
using English within less than four months.

"We were not prepared to wait for the conventional 10 or 20 years to
adopt a more strategic longer plan, because the interests of this
country are more paramount than the difficulties that people can face
in the shorter term," Rutayisire said.

However, by 2011 the government admitted that the very youngest
students were struggling and a decision was made to use Kinyarwanda,
Rwandan's mother tongue, for instruction during the first three years
of primary school with lessons in English starting from year four.

The language shift has caused significant problems for the country's
50,000 teachers. Most had been educated in French and had little
exposure to the language that they were expected to use to teach
complex lessons. One primary headteacher, who was unwilling to give
his name, said: "It has been very difficult for us and we have felt we
have let down some of the children. We are slowly improving and
feeling more comfortable but it has been a hard process. When we first
heard about the change to English we thought we would all lose our
jobs. The move happened very quickly and we weren't prepared."

In the first year of the policy all teachers were put through an
intensive six-week English-language training programme, supported by
the British Council. Ongoing language support was intended to come
from an English-proficient mentor placed in every school. But the
ministry of education's plan to recruit mentors from neighbouring
countries has hit problems and it now says it intends to share one
mentor between two schools. Even hitting this target has been a
challenge over recent months.

"We are hoping we can get at least 1,000 of them. Currently we have
over 600, and we are on a recruitment drive at the moment," Rutayisire
said. "When we first advertised in the EAC we assumed that we were
going to get a lot of people applying, but what we discovered was that
in Kenya and Tanzania they also have a shortage of language teachers."

Rwanda's aid partners claim that the transition to English is
progressing. Said Yasin, director of a project jointly run by a US
NGO, EDC, and the US government agency, USAid, to improve the reading
skills of young Rwandans, says it is buoyed by the "visible success"
of the English language policy.

"English has become the dominant foreign language," Yasin said.
"Almost all officials address their foreign counterparts in English
and the business community has pragmatically embraced English. It was
a smart and pragmatic move that will serve the country well and the
impact will become even more evident as schoolchildren and university
students graduate and join the labour force."

Rutayisire believes the greater part of the school-going population
will have functional English by 2015.

That claim will be put to the test this month when the ministry of
education, in partnership with the British Council and the UK's
Department for International Development, starts assessing teachers'
levels of English. That testing will be repeated in 2015.

Rwanda's leadership have argued that the adoption of English,
alongside French, makes sound economic sense.

"Rwanda changed from French to English purely for her interests in the
global competitive environment. We have to survive and therefore we
took that stance," Rutayisire said, adding that Rwandans' mother
tongue remains central to their identity.

"Kinyarwanda is our identity and our values. We adopt English for us
to be able to compete globally, but we are Banyarwanda [people of
Rwanda] and that is number one and not negotiable."

Michael Bibby, head of the British Council in Rwanda, said: "[This] is
a very large undertaking. There is still a lot of resource that needs
to be put into the process. These English speakers, by and large, are
going to come from the education system and it will need more time for
people to come through that for the impact to show. It's a five to
10-year project. But we are very happy to be here supporting Rwanda."


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