Swedish journalist Anna Tainio has worked as a volunteer in Fojo’s capacity building project at the University of Rwanda. Together with the students at the School of Journalism and Communication she has explored the joys and challenges of working in a multilingual environment in Rwanda. Anna, a former reporter with Swedish Television News departments and with Swedish Radio’s Sisuradio (Finnish language department), shares some of the insights she gained.
In 2008 Rwanda changed the official language of education from French to English. The reasons were probably political as well as economical – but that is less important for this story. However, the impact of the sudden language change was immense for the teachers and students, also at university level, and the effects are still resonating.
As a volunteer teacher’s assistant, I had the honour of working with Lecturer Paul Mbaraga during the four week long module of Broadcast Production Skills in November 2016. The class consisted of around 80 second year students at the School of Journalism and Communication (SJC). This was my first time volunteering with Fojo, my first visit to Rwanda, and my first time teaching a full module at university level.
Professor Mbaraga is an experienced journalist and a skilful lecturer. Next to him, in a classroom filled with eager students, what I had read about the different languages in Rwanda and the Rwandan education system became real.
Some students had an excellent command of English, some not so, many spoke a rapid French with each other – and everyone of course knew Kinyarwanda, the local bantu language.
The students, aged around twenty, had most likely been taught in Kinyarwanda when they attended primary school. After that teaching would have continued either in French or in English, perhaps with francophone teachers who themselves would have had to switch to English. Finally, at the university all teaching, exams and materials are in English.
I, myself, am fluent in English, speak hardly any French, and have lately acquired some 10-15 words of Kinyarwanda. As for the language requirements of lecturers in Rwanda, I thus have all that is required.
In this learning environment Mr Mbaraga, who is Kinyarwanda and French speaking, and also has a very good command of English, elevated the lectures and heightened all our learning most crucially.
“Generally, we use English as our studying language but a few times there comes some occasions in which we /…/ use Kinyarwanda, but that is only in cases when the lecturer is willing to explain something in the way that every student in class understands it the way it should be understood”, commented one of the students.
Being a language nerd, a great fan of bilingual radio and a former employee of such a radio department in Sweden – which is a very monolingual society, albeit with a lot of influence from English – I felt an irresistible need to explore what the young Rwandans in the classroom thought about multilingualism. Would it not have been easier just to “do university”, or radio, solely in Kinyarwanda? I discussed this issue with students in groups, one-on-one, and also conducted a very small survey.
“I think you can be a good witness of how bad our English is since you have been with us for almost a month. But /…/ we always strive to improve our English levels. That is why a lot of us choose to use it regardless of how low our level is, at least to make sure it goes to improve”, another student “B” told me.
“At the university, we prefer to use English. However, we would not prefer to use [only] one language because in Rwanda, we have citizens who don’t understand English and therefore we should practise more than one language so as to be able to satisfy the citizens at large.”, explained Student “E”.
Bilingualism became an important aspect in both of the main assignments the students had to produce during the radio part of the module. For the news story, Mr Mbaraga let the students choose which language to use. In the final assignment, a group production of a radio show, I asked the students to produce a programme with elements in both Kinyarwanda and English.
“This was tremendous”, exclaimed Student “E”. “It is better to use different languages because we communicate to people with different knowledge”, Student “C” confirmed.
Most of the students presented their news stories in Kinyarwanda, less than a quarter produced a radio report in English. Everyone I heard from praised having the choice: the budding radio journalists could concentrate on technical aspects instead of focusing on how to use the weaker language properly. Some had started out in English, but changed languages as they could not find anyone to interview in English. Many saw it as a choice of career: if one had an interest in local journalism and staying in Rwanda, English was not as important as for those who hoped to work abroad or with the English language local media.
“Bilingualism is fine because journalists should be able to link /…/ speakers of different languages”, underlined Student “E”.
“It helps to inform some audiences who did not understand the language we used before”, said Student “C”, referring to when we used two languages in one show, for translations in order to widen the discussion.
The class spirit and students’ solidarity towards each other was obvious also regarding language use. As I could only teach in English, those who knew it explained things to others. But as a teacher, it did not always feel right having to put a student in a position of relaying my message and the requirements of an assignment to a fellow student who did not understand my English. I would have preferred to carry the responsibility of delivering information directly to each student, since they were also graded individually.
Yet, some information from teachers to students will probably always be lost along the way, be there language issues or not. But at university level we have the opportunities to adjust and correct, as occurred in one group of students: during our very tightly scheduled recording day this group entered the studio without having prepared a summary in English – despite two days of preparations and repeated reminders from the teacher. Yet, with a presenter cool enough to scribble down a summary during rehearsal and an editor who managed their timing very well, the group recorded a show of the correct length which included the requested summary. I salute people learning from mishaps, and taking advantage of opportunities!
“Every one of the group appreciated it for it showed every group member’s potential in reporting or presenting news. It was a bit hard to follow since it was our first time making a radio program especially in two different languages. /…/ We had already listened to bilingual programs and we didn’t think of it as a strange thing we were going to face,” commented Student “B”.
So, studying in English was seen as positive, albeit also recognised as a struggle. Naturally, I discussed mostly with students with good command of English. Had I not been a foreigner or had I been capable of asking my questions in Kinyarwanda, I might have received different answers as well.
Nevertheless, during my time in Rwanda I learned as much as the students I interacted with! Murakoze/Thank You SJC and all the students, au revoir & karibu tena*, soon I hope!
Text: Anna Tainio
* Welcome back – Swahili was recognised as an official language in Rwanda in 2017, alongside Kinyarwanda, English and French.