Teaching a Second Language

June 2015

We focus a lot on speaking English at the holiday house in Uganda. When the girls arrived last holiday, they learned the rules of the house, the most important of which, after personal safety and hygiene, was for them to use English at all times but most especially with each other and in the presence of visitors to the house.

This was all for a good cause because, ultimately, the English language may be the single most important factor in whether our students succeed at school and at their chosen careers.

Like everybody else in Uganda and most of Africa, our students belong to a specific tribe, and along with other cultural legacies, their tribe – the Sebei – speaks a unique dialect. For many people, this ‘language’ is the first they learn from their parents and other people they interact with as children. It is only later, when they start formal education that the girls will be exposed to other languages.  In Uganda the official language of instruction in schools is English. This is also the language used in all aspects of professional and social life.

For the first fourteen years of their lives, our students were exposed almost exclusively to their local language; even at their primary schools, it was used more often than English. As a result, they joined high school last year with such limited fluency in English that they are now facing severe challenges at school. They need to master English in order to perform well in the arts as well as the sciences – the vast curriculum covers up to fourteen subjects including Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Biology as well as Literature, geography, history, commerce, agriculture, music, Art and Christian Religious Education (CRE). The English language is also taught and examined as a subject, as is, ironically, French!

Therefore, fluency in English -reading, writing, and comprehension – is critical. In order to compete with other students at a national and international level, our girls need all the help they can get to overcome their discomfort with using English.

Apart from obvious problem areas like grammatical errors and a limited vocabulary, we noticed that they are very shy and nervous when they have to speak out aloud; we have also noticed the girls giggle and make fun of each other whenever one of them makes a mistake. By default, they speak to each other constantly in their dialect, with the more proficient ones often providing quick translations for the others when English is spoken. Their teachers were also quick to point out that the language barrier was getting in the way of their academic success and limiting their participation in class.

This is what prompted the less than popular house rule regarding the use of English. We hope that by enforcing this – without any use of overt force – we will bring them to a point where they can converse casually in English and become more familiar with its use. We also introduced the peer-mentor program, whereby other teenage girls from the Choice Clubs came to the house regularly to interact with them. These volunteers are instrumental in changing the tone in the house, literally, and also doing a great job as tutors. They helped the students with their academic assignments, painstakingly using all available reading material such as newspapers for practice. Within days, a positive change became apparent.

The VF scholarship program is all about providing young women at risk of FGM with whatever they need to progress as individuals, and also make a contribution to their community. We identify the obstacles in their way and endeavor to find creative solutions to these problems.  While we do not expect immediate results, we know that we are on the right track. Eventually, it is our hope to see our girls encouraging others in their village to learn English earlier on in life, so that they too can take on education and other opportunities with confidence.

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