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Coping with English as Language of Instruction in Higher Education in Rwanda

A language of instruction is assumed to be an enabling tool which facilitates the learning of content subjects (Kyeyune 2010, Webb 2004). The current globalization phenomenon has pushed many nations to adopt English as the language of teaching and learning (Tamtam et al. 2010) even in contexts where English is a second or foreign language to learners. In principle, using English, when it is a second/ foreign language, as a language of teaching and learning might not be an obstacle to the full development of learners’ conceptual abilities, provided they are fully conversant in the language of instruction (Webb 2004). However, with reference to the African context, extensive research shows that many African learners are not proficient enough in English to be able to use it appropriately as the language of instruction (Alidou and Brock-Utne 2011; Brock-Utne, Desai, and Qorro 2004; Kyeyune 2010; Mwinsheike 2002; Rubagumya 1997; Rugemalira 2005; Vavrus 2002; and Webb 2002, 2004). Although the choice of English is most of the time supported by political, social and economic arguments (Choi and Tam 2011, Trudell 2010), research has questioned the fairness and success of education conveyed through a language that is unfamiliar to both teachers and learners. Through various studies, researchers hold that the language used for learning and teaching is crucial for learners’ acquisition of knowledge and understanding and the development of their skills, and for their ability to demonstrate their acquired knowledge effectively in assignments and examinations. If learners do not know the language used as the medium of instruction well enough, they will have problems to develop educationally (Brock Utne and Alidou 2011; Heugh 2000; Wolff 2011; Webb 2004).

Rwanda as one African country is not an exception to the above-mentioned scenario. Recent research have highlighted the mismatch between Rwandan learners’ English language abilities and the cognitive academic requirements they meet in higher education (Andersson, Kagwesage and Rusanganwa 2012; Andersson and Rusanganwa 2011; Kagwesage 2012; NUR 2010; Parliament of Rwanda 2010). Logically, if language abilities do not match with the conceptual requirement, this would lead to frustration and a request to change the medium. However, English remains the preferred medium of instruction among the students mainly due to the instrumental motivation associated with the use of English as an international language (Kagwesage 2012; Samuelson and Freedman 2010). In addition, university statistics do not highlight increased attrition or drop-out rates as a result of the language through which higher education instruction is conveyed. This intrigued the present paper and therefore, the overarching aim of the present study is to investigate strategies that higher education students use in order to cope with their academic requirements.

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(Author: Kagwesage Anne Marie

Published by Sciedu Press)

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