My presentation in class on Wednesday was my last in this Master’s program (baring a thesis defense, of course). It focused on a hypothetical lesson plan for second language teaching in a foreign country. One of the advantages of such assignment that allows for creativity is the chance it gives the student to make conjectures on things that may actually become future research areas. I am a teacher of English language in a high school in Kigali, Rwanda. That country emerged just a few years ago from a brutal civil war that tore the country into many ethnic parts. It has now adopted a policy of English language (over French and Kinyarwanda) in order to forge a more united country free of a colonial past, and with a view to a more globalized future.
What problem does such a job pose for both the student and the teacher, even beyond the usual problems of language acquisition? Socio-cultural attitudes of parents still hung up on ethnic and cultural identities and resistant to change? Government bureaucracy and a typical political gamesmanship that might deny funding for much of the initial experimentation that could amount in success? A problem of communication between teacher and student? (It’s hard enough for students to be learning a new language. If the teacher offering guidance for such teaching does not even share the linguistic identity of the students, the baggage of his “otherness” might be a little hard to overcome). What else? There are actually far more positives to the experiment, one of which is the delight of sharing cultural similarities and differences while at the same time sharing the knowledge of a connecting international language. Cultural exchange is after all always an learning stimulant.
I have good memories of my first major teaching experiences in the Nigerian middlebelt as a Youth Corper. Students delighted in their ability to communicate in Hausa and Berom even in our English classes. It was a battle that I struggled with all through the year, frustrated that the purpose of English education is defeated when students choose instead to resort to local codes at every moment of convenience. Other linguists working in the area of Second Language Acquisition have argued that there are positives in this model of acquisition where the pressure to always be right is taken off the shoulder of students and they are allowed to subconsciously acquire the second language. The problem in the application was the reluctance of the students themselves to even try since their mother tongues provided an easy alternative. (But then, a prominent educational research in Nigeria, particularly the Ife Six-Year Primary Project of 1989, showed that students taught in their mother tongues performed better in learning other subjects).
I find Second Language Acquisition extremely fascinating, and the prospect of teaching English in another country equally enticing. Rwanda presents a fascinating example of such intervention because it combines education with social work. A country willing to ditch a dividing legacy of multilingualism for a second foreign language presents a fascinating study. One of the best rewards for teaching – as I have realized from my years of involvement – is not just in the knowledge that the teacher brings into the class, but the ones he takes out of his interactions with his students. I believe that in the next century, the language of the world will not be this English language as we know it, of course, but something richer, encompassing the form and world-view of all the peoples through which it has passed. There is something to enjoy in the process of bringing that to existence.