French to English – An ‘imperfect’ transition for universities

English has been the medium of instruction in Rwandan universities for over 10 years, but despite attempts to promote English in higher education, proficiency remains an ongoing challenge for both learners and lecturers.

According to Minister for Education Dr Eugene Mutimura, the level of competence in English at university level is low and there are concerns it may be affecting the teaching and learning process.

“Some of the challenges you see are that you are not able to know if the student has science skills because this student is not able to communicate [effectively],” he said.

Rwanda has four official languages: Kinyarwanda, English, French and, since 2017, Kiswahili. Kinyarwanda, widely used by most Rwandans, is the language of instruction for the first three years of elementary education. In 2009, English replaced French as the official language of instruction at higher levels of education and it is this transition that is proving to be more difficult than anticipated.


“There is need to build competence in English proficiency based on scale and on something that is measurable,” Mutimura said.

He said the ministry had designed a standardised English test which is given to individuals to assess their level of competence in order to support them to move from one level to another. He suggested that university students should do mandatory English tests before joining university, while at university and before they graduate.

He said the teaching of English and its use should be compulsory in all universities and urged lecturers to encourage their students to use the language as much as possible.

“Compulsory use of the English language at university is very important; it is only through practice that we master a language. Use of Kinyarwanda dialect and other languages at the end of the day will mean there is no opportunity to master English,” he said.

He suggested that language centres, where resources are available for students would help them to master the English language and motivate them to use it more widely.

Student proficiency

According to Dr Sebastien Gasana, a lecturer at the Université Libre de Kigali, there is still a low level of English proficiency at universities.

“Except for a few students who grew up in good families and went to good schools in primary and secondary [level]; otherwise there is limited knowledge for the majority,” he said.

“Sometimes you tell them in English and realise they don’t understand and you end up mixing local language or other languages. I think there is still a long way to go. They don’t speak fluently and neither can they write,” he said.

Professor Phil Cotton, vice-chancellor of the University of Rwanda, which uses English as the language of instruction and administration, described the teaching of English at the institution as “imperfect”.

“We are looking at radically changing that,” he said.

“There is formal curriculum time given to learning English but my concern is that if we do not reinforce those lessons outside of classes, we we will not achieve our targets.”


Cotton said learners and lecturers need to change their “mindsets” and use English in both academic and non-academic interactions.

“That is where we have a rather imperfect approach to English language proficiency and English language skills development. If the learners do not exclusively use English in the learning and teaching process, then we are not going to develop English skills,” he said.

“We need to create a culture of English; we are also working with the ministry of education with a view to introducing the Aptis testing scheme,” he said.

Aptis is an assessment tool used to test the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

According to Cotton, the university is looking at streaming students by fast-tracking those with good English proficiency and inviting them to become peer mentors.

He said assessment systems also needed to be interrogated.

“When we assess knowledge in written exams, are we assessing the knowledge or are we also assessing the ability to communicate in English?

“And when a student stands out in class in respect of making verbal presentations, again, are we assessing the ability to analyse and evaluate information or are we also assessing the ability to do that in English? These things are at the heart of the matter for us,” he said.

Support for lecturers

Cotton said lecturer English proficiency was also a challenge and the university was committed to supporting lecturers who sought such support.

Cotton said almost all university lecturers in all its colleges could speak English but might struggle to communicate complex concepts to the learners or communicate proficiently at international conferences.

“It requires a bit of honesty and a bit of flexibility on the part of teachers to say that I don’t feel confident in English, I have to default to other forms of communication at certain points in my classes when things become very complex,” he said.

It is then that the university also comes in and supports lecturers, given their levels of proficiency.

“We need to engage the hearts and minds of our lecturers; and we need to engage the hearts and minds of our learners so that our learners actually drive the demand to be taught in English,” he said.

With the support of Ministry of Education, he said the university is able to offer online tests for staff, some of whom have come forward and taken the test. “We will be progressing in English proficiency as a result of that online testing.”

Gasana said the problem could not be blamed on the universities, but universities would do well to “heed the advice from the ministry and higher learning council and implement policies and guidelines with regard to boosting English proficiency”.