English Language Day - celebrated annually on 23 April, the date traditionally recognised as both the birth and death date of William Shakespeare - gives us pause for thought about the ways in which English is so widespread, and how best to teach it. English is highly valued in Rwanda, not least because the country is positioning itself to become the commercial hub of the region and English is generally the language of trade and commerce. Though it is one of the official languages of Rwanda, English is still new to many throughout the country; it was only in 2009 that the Government made the switch from French to English.
At Umubano Primary School, opened in 2013, there is a policy of positive bilingualism. UPS introduces English alongside Kinyarwanda as soon as the children start Nursery at age 3. One reason that parents choose Umubano Primary School for their children is because of this approach to language teaching, along with the value of having native English speakers - APIE’s Lead Practitioner and Country Director - working in and with the school, supporting language development of both staff and students.
Children come to school full of thoughts and ideas formed in the language of the home, and we understand how important it is to continue to build on that in order to smoothly add branches to the concepts that are already formed. By introducing English alongside, the children quickly become flexible in their use of both languages, able to 'code switch' appropriately depending on purpose and audience. This is done mainly by introducing topics and reading stories and poems in both languages, checking for understanding in Kinyarwanda and reinforcing their responses in English. While the students learn at different speeds, the overall effect is that the whole class moves forward in developing the fluidity between languages and begins to feel as comfortable in English as in Kinyarwanda. These results are demonstrated in the English language results in the P6 exams - in 2016, all of the students performed excellently, with 50% getting the highest aggregate (1/9) and nobody getting below 5/9.
When APIE’s CEO, Angie, visited the school last month, she was particularly impressed by this increasing language fluidity, and how confident the students were in using English when approaching her. English is supposed to be one of the hardest languages to learn - with confusing words like were, where, wear, we're - but children, when given good models and plenty of opportunity to practice, seem to make light work of it. What Angie found particularly exciting to see and hear was a debate in the P6 class about gender roles in modern society. The level of English was impressive with both formal and informal structures aplenty and the students were certainly not short of ideas or ways to express them! The teaching staff at UPS have been central in ensuring these results, and have become so confident and proficient at teaching English that this August they will be sharing their skills and methodology by delivering training to their colleagues in Government schools.
The end of term closing ceremony is always a joyful afternoon, with teachers, parents and the local community coming together to see and hear students share their learning. At the end of last term in March, everyone was so proud of the P6 students who MC’d the entire event in English. At the previous term’s closing day, pupils chose to present work in Kinyarwanda, English and French. It is this - building English language skills whilst retaining and respecting the importance of the mother tongue - that UPS does so well. With the recent re-introduction of French and soon to be added Kiswahili, as all official languages of Rwanda, we know the staff and students at UPS have what it takes to meet these challenges and have built good foundations for even more multilingual success! At the Closing Day ceremony, a UPS parent commented: “how they express themselves is good English with confidence and without mistakes; even those in P1! It was amazing!”