[lg policy] Proficiency in English by college graduates is tenable

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Oct 4 10:44:51 EDT 2018

Proficiency in English by college graduates is tenable
Frank Tanganika <https://www.newtimes.co.rw/node/868255>
Published : October 03, 2018 | Updated : October 03, 2018

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University of Rwanda graduands follow the proceedings of the graduation
ceremony held at Amahoro National Stadium. / Sam Ngendahimana

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On March 23, this year, the Minister for Education, Eugene Mutimura,
decried the low level of competence in English language by graduates from
our tertiary institutions during a meeting with officials from higher
education institutions.

The minister, who is a known scientist and researcher, had identified a
problem that needed to be addressed.

Some institutions have since formed committees to address the issue, and
have devised strategies to raise proficiency in English, the all important
language of instruction, international communication, science, diplomacy
and business.

For English, or any other language skills to be acquired fast and
effectively some conditions are prerequisite. One of the conditions is the
learning environment.

I recently visited the Adventist University of East Africa at its Masoro
Campus in Kigali. The campus is beautiful, with well kept gardens and
imposing buildings, but what impressed me most was not the serene
environment but the language policy.

Right from the entrance everyone I met spoke to me in English.

As I waited to see the dean of education, the lecturers I found in office
talked to me in English. It was evident from their accents that some had
grown up and been educated in Francophone environments, but all
communicated confidently and effectively.

Even students spoke English amongst themselves and to their teachers. The
university provides a conducive environment to perfect skills in the target
language. That is an effective strategy that should be replicated in other

English has been used as a language of instruction in Rwanda since 1995
alongside French and became the exclusive language of instruction in 2008.
It is hoped that after two decades of exposure to the language, there are
sufficient numbers of young teachers and lecturers who are proficient in

As was suggested in the March meeting, instructors in our education system
should demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in English. This is
important for all subject teachers as one of the hindrances of acquisition
of skills in English is code-switching.

In simple terms, this means the use of more than one language within a
single utterance. To sustain enabling environment for English language
learning, other subject teachers (except teachers for other languages)
should minimise use of Kinyarwanda and encourage learners to use English in
all school activities.

If it happens at Victory Nursery and Primary School in Matimba, Nyagatare
District, it can work in our secondary schools and tertiary institutions.

Motivation is another factor. The benefits are many; employment locally and
internationally, self esteem in work places, access to creative industry
such as writing, film, music and many more.

Our artists, journalists and other professionals would benefit from the
wider market if English is their language of communication. Nollywood films
in English have long been a hot cake in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa.

It is hoped that, with introduction of film schools at East African
University, Nyagatare and Kwetu Film Institute in Kigali, our film industry
will grow and share the African market.

Over a decade ago, a group of Rwandans found me at a university in South

Most had been trained in Francophone system. They did not only have to earn
their masters’ degrees in stipulated time, but also had to get a long in a
city where English was the only language they could use.

They were motivated to work hard on their English lessons, and cherished
occasions where they could interact with people who did not speak their
mother tongue. Practice makes perfect.

The scenarios in Masoro and South Africa demonstrate that, with appropriate
policies and approaches, proficiency in English achievable.

For remedy, one has to start from universities, where our teachers are
trained. When universities churn out teachers whose proficiency in the
language of instruction is below standard, it has a spiral effect.

If teachers who are not proficient in English are recruited as instructors
in primary teachers’ colleges, the deficiency is transmitted to learners at
lower levels. It is therefore imperative that appropriate approaches aimed
at improving proficiency in English at all levels are redesigned.

Kigali Institute of Education (renamed College of Education, now under the
University of Rwanda) had a fully-fledged department of English. It is the
norm in countries where English is a language of instruction.

The department recognised that English was crucial for knowledge
acquisition, development of skills and helped learners to develop
educationally, and used effective methodologies to good effect.

But, for some strange reasons, English was combined with other languages
like Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, and French to form one department.
Subsequently, the teaching of English reverted to old methodologies when it
was taught as a secondary language.

Rwandan researchers have worked on the issue and suggested
recommendations.  Education managers only need to own the problem.

Quality teachers, quality books, paying attention to cross-curricular
approaches to teaching English, integrating Literature in language
teaching, and interactive approaches have been recommended.

It is worthwhile to note that, in the context of improving standards,
university leaders traditionally serve limited tenures, to allow new ideas
and innovations. Change has a canny way   of dealing with prejudicial

As leadership in universities is rotational, dons in leadership positions
even outside the academia, later return to their professorial chairs


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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