Why Did English Miss Rwanda?



Everything is everything

This is a day and age where everything is connected, a beauty pageant led to many questioning our basic education system is working or serving our needs. We might have laughed at the lack of proficiency in English but it led us to wonder, if they can’t understand and communicate in English, which is the language of instruction, then how can they understand other subjects? Others scoffed at the apparent snobbishness of those criticizing young Rwandan ladies for speaking poor English when the event should be in Kinyarwanda. Then the rhetorical back and forth of “English does not denote intelligence” which is true, but ability to communicate is a vital skill in this communication age. The real point was lost in all this. Is the Rwandan Education system working for us as a nation? No one can expect it to be perfect but education is lagging other nations in the region, partly due to historical tragedies, but partly because we have not invested enough to change it. Our economic model of being a knowledge based economy would require only a few educated people, Google has 1,000 employees and the GDP of 20 African countries. What of the rest of Rwandans? There are no shortcuts, we have to develop by expanding our knowledge base, language is the key to that.


Actions not edicts

When we changed to English, what did we really do to help teachers learn the language? We just declared that teachers would now speak English or lose their jobs, so they often lied that they speak English. Let me tell you now, today as we speak, majority of teachers even university teach in Kinyarwanda. It was collective rebellion, they would all not learn so they could not sack them all. I would have expected 2,000 English teachers to join from EAC countries so every primary school has at least one fluent English teacher. I would have expected free classes to teachers, teaching materials, linking with radio programs to teach it, apps to help teachers learn and teach in English. Testing for teacher’s proficiency was barely done, so things carried on much as they did before. Right now we have the effects of this was academic corruption because you see students graduating in English who cannot speak a single sentence in it. Foreign campuses set up retail education, selling degrees for a buck. Rwandans will tell tell you “I have to do Master’s so I can actually learn” a degree is just to get you in the door. There is no shortcut to development that bypasses education, we need a major investment in teaching. The first priority was classrooms and schools, now we need to look at what and how we teach.


All languages have merit


To switch to English does not mean that Kinyarwanda has no merit, nor does it mean that French has no merit. The modern fact of Globalization means we are gravitating towards English, it gives you access to 70% of the Internet, 3 million books, 10m songs, its imprint is impossible to deny mainly because of America and not UK directly. Other countries like Croatia, Slovakia, Burma, Thai, all teach in their local languages. These nations have many books in their language and have translated most of the most important books known to man into their languages. Rwanda can eventually teach in Kinyarwanda but we would need to expand the canon of Books. We should use all the linguistic skills we have available, even French should be encouraged more, it gives us access to that world. Google translate allows me to read anything in French, Spanish, Arabic, instantly, so languages are not going to be the barrier we once thought they would be. Many departments of our universities go years without publishing, simply because they are afraid to publish in English, yet they have knowledge to share, a simple editing department can increase publishing and attracting more funding for projects. It is about empowering, using what skills you have, and using technology to bridge the gap. Above all it means investing in people, it was good to see a pay rise for teachers, now we need to invest in Education as a whole, each dollar invested in education brings back 20 in productivity. There is no easy way.


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