Why are language subjects privileged in Rwandan school curriculum?

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Dr. Emmanuel Sibomana, Wellspring Foundation Director of Policy and Planning

Resolution 9 of the 15th national leadership retreat recommends the improvement of “the quality of education at all levels, and a review of the teaching methods of languages in primary and secondary schools with emphasis on English proficiency”. Now some questions one could ask are “why give a prominent role to language in the curriculum enactment?” And “why does English stand out of other languages taught as school subjects in Rwandan schools?” “Does it really deserve that place?”

Vygotsky, one of the key learning theorists, indicates that Language is the main vehicle or tool of thought. He claimed that young children develop higher order thinking skills through cultural mediation and interpersonal communication with more knowledgeable adults or peers. In other words, the development of mental concepts and the appropriation of procedural knowledge depend on social interaction and verbal exchange. Thus, without adequate language means and strategies which are geared to formal education, learners cannot be expected to take advantage of opportunities schools normally offer. This explains the relevance of all languages at the individual’s disposal, including those that may not be found in schools.

This being the case, it can be argued that multilinguals have more advantages compared to monolinguals because, all things being equal, they can interact with more people from different linguistic and social backgrounds. In this way, they have a bigger pool to draw from in their intellectual development. Thus, it is important that Rwandan children learn as many languages as possible provided that these are taught effectively, which justifies the abovementioned resolution. Thus teachers of Kinyarwanda, English, Kiswahili and French are equally important for Rwandan children. Indeed, learning to communicate fluently in multiple languages increases job security and provides opportunities in uncertain economic times like the ones we are living in.

If languages are all important, then why does English seem to enjoy a special status according to the resolution and the Rwandan community at large? There are good reasons for this.

Though all languages are linguistically equal as they all facilitate communication and interactions between people, some have an additional social and economic value. This is the case for English in Rwanda and in the world today. English is increasingly being used as a global language to facilitate communication between people from different social and cultural backgrounds. It is associated with power, prestige, decent jobs and many other advantages and has a powerful position in the global economic, media, academic and entertainment spheres. The inability of any educated person to speak English is therefore perceived by many as a defect. Indeed, proficiency in English is generally regarded as a sign of education and many job adverts have proficiency in English as a requirement.

Another reason is that English has an added advantage in the education sector both in Rwanda and globally: it is used as a medium of instruction. The place of the medium of instruction is so central that it is a key determining factor of quality education. Some of the reasons for this include the fact that the medium of instruction facilitates connection between the learner and the teacher, the learners need to understand what the teacher is saying, learners need to be able to use the language to express what they know (in tests, assignments, exams, etc.), and teachers need to be able to communicate and facilitate the acquisition of knowledge by learners. Thus, proficiency in the medium of instruction by both teachers and learners is a condition for successful learning. Research has extensively indicated that limited proficiency in languages used as media of instruction is the main cause of low education standards and high drop-out rates in African classroom.

In Rwanda, learners at all levels of education are still lacking in literacy skills, especially in English, very few learners (usually the elite) have access to English in their communities and a great majority of teachers and other professionals in Rwanda (including university graduates) have limited knowledge of English. This implies that the approaches which have been used to teach English have not yielded the expected results. Thus, the resolution of the leadership retreat is timely and education officials and stakeholders should give it due consideration especially now that the ability to communicate in official languages is one of the basic competences of the competency-based curriculum.

About the Author:

Dr. Emmanuel Sibomana serves as the Director of Policy and Planning at Wellspring Foundation for Education. Prior to joining Wellspring Foundation, Dr. Emmanuel was a full-time lecturer at University of Rwanda-College of Education where he taught linguistics courses

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