“You will give me English”

“You will give me English,” proclaimed one of my nurses, directing this imperative at me, not realizing that unlike in Kinyarwanda, you can’t really order anyone to do something like so, it’s often considered rude. But the point was taken. She wants me to teach English. This week, we had our first planning session for how my English lessons will be run, detailing mostly the times and places of meetings. 

It has been approximately ten years since Rwanda changed its language of education instruction from French to English. The legacy of this change can still be seen, blatantly so among my health center staff. At the beginning of my service, they asked if I could teach them English. As a newbie at teaching, I made placement tests and quickly learned that the levels varied so much, that having one class was nearly impossible, and that having 8 different levels was also not an option. The levels ranged from absolutely no comprehension, to practically fluent. But as you can imagine, those who had very little comprehension, also were taught in French, throughout their entire education. Those ages 25 and under, knew more English than their older counterparts. I see this dichotomy as a problem, as much of the paperwork these nurses and administrators are filling out, is entirely in English. It means that the comprehension levels are lower than required. 

It is not for a lack of ability that some of my nurses speak only French and Kinyarwanda. It’s just that the system changed, and now, the recipients of said education systems don’t have a common ground. 

English is a gift, but the way that my health center staff views my value, is that I will somehow plant information and the language of English into their brains directly, that practice is futile, that note taking will get them all they need out of my lessons. It’s been a challenge explaining the methodology behind talking hours, about hearing and listening, about the importance of pronunciation and less focus on copying directly from a chalk board. Sometimes they just laugh and say, practice ha ha. Or they’ll say, “But my level is very low, you will give me english.”

The level autonomy on the part of the students in the education system varies greatly from what I have seen in the U.S. The education system focuses much more on test taking, on grades, and of pure memorization of knowledge, less so on the creative aspects that education can provide. 

In the coming weeks, my main focus and challenge will be to encourage speaking among my staff, to practice without having to be told, about knowing that the greatest tool I can give, is my fluency. Learning a language, as I have learned time and time again, requires time and energy and it doesn’t happen simply with one hour of practice a week. 

If you have any recommendations for activities or learning experiences, feel free to email me, I’d love to hear your thoughts!