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PhD graduate’s groundbreaking research will shape second language teaching and learning in future
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 21/12/2018

​Dr Valentin Uwizeyimana, who is the first student from Rwanda in the Graduate School of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU), officially accepted his doctoral degree on 13 December for the groundbreaking research he conducted on using mobile technologies in language learning, in this case specifically foreign language learning.

His thesis, An Investigation into the Effect of Mobile-Assisted Language Learning on Rwandan University Students' Proficiency in English as a Foreign Language, is the first research of its kind to be conducted in Africa and to focus on the use of a range of mobile apps to facilitate foreign language learning. In the past, research conducted by scholars have only focused on the use of different apps with the purpose of teaching and learning one or another component of the target language such as vocabulary, reading or listening skills in second or foreign language learning and acquisition.

His research, by contrast, made use of a multitude of apps at any time and place with the purpose of improving the language learners' overall proficiency – all without the direct involvement of language teachers. This research will offer a solution to the challenge that learners face when the target language is a foreign language, or a language which is not really spoken in their communities.

While Uwizeyimana will obtain a PhD from the General Linguistics Department at the December 2018 graduation ceremony, his studies at SU has taken him from a Postgraduate Diploma in Second Language Studies in the same department in 2013 to an MA in Technology for Language Learning, which he completed in the Modern Foreign Languages Department in 2015. He was able to complete his doctorate thanks to a three-year scholarship, which he obtained from the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) through the Graduate School of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Speaking about his research, he says: “English is the most spoken language in the world and is a means of social mobility for many of its speakers. Because of this, English has been adopted by many countries as a national or official language. It is also often used as a medium of instruction at different levels of education, even though it is a foreign language in many countries where it is spoken and is also not understood by a large part of those countries' population," explains Uwizeyimana.

In Rwanda, Kinyarwanda, as well as English along with French are considered official languages. However, learners and students are only taught in English. Outside the classroom and lecture halls, Kinyarwanda, which is the sole national language, is used.

“According to the available literature, only 3% of the country's population could actually speak English in 2008. This number might have increased slightly since, due to different factors such as the East Africa regional integration and the language policy favouring English which was introduced in Rwanda."

The reason for the prevalence of English in educational institutions can be traced back to Rwanda's history. Rwanda was originally a monolingual country, with only Kinyarwanda  spoken by its population. In the 1900s, the country was colonised by Belgium and French was introduced. Following the genocide, many Rwandans who had been living as refugees in countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda returned to their home country. However, while living abroad, they had been using English as a common language of communication. Following their return, English became a de facto third official language of the country and in 2003 was added into the constitution as an official third language. Five years later, the government adopted a policy to use English as the sole language of instruction at all levels of education in Rwanda with immediate effect.

“The implementation of this policy became problematic since “most teachers at all levels of education had been trained in French, and the highly qualified ones were the ones who were trained abroad mostly in Francophone countries, and thus were not proficient in English, the specific language which they had to teach in," he explains.

Exacerbating the situation, is the “limited conventional teaching-and-learning materials such as printed books, journals and few computers that are available in Rwandan schools and universities".

“This means that learners are not exposed to a sufficient amount of English input, and there are very few to no opportunities for English output, in other words, there is no use of the target language outside the classroom."

Obtaining English proficiency in the Rwandan context, adds Uwizeyimana, is about more than just learning a new language: “We are a very small country in the middle of a number of huge countries that are more developed than Rwanda and from which we import goods. English and Kiswahili are the languages that are dominant in these countries, which include Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, and then French mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi that uses Kirundi, a language compatible with Kinyarwanda. So, we need mostly English not only when we are abroad, but to communicate with our neighbours for trading purposes."

The huge demand for English educators to allow Rwandans to attain some level of proficiency, explains Uwizeyimana, is also one of the reasons why he was able to obtain a position as an English lecturer at the University of Kibungo (UNIK) immediately after completing his BA in English and Kinyarwanda with Education with Honours at the University of Rwanda. It was this need that spurred him on to expand his knowledge on English language teaching and so he applied for admission to universities in the Netherlands and South Africa. He was accepted at all the universities he applied to, but the Rwandan government would only agree to fund his studies if he opted to study at an African university. In January 2013, he came to South Africa to enrol at Stellenbosch University with a scholarship provided by the government.

When he arrived at SU, he already knew that he wanted to improve his knowledge in using technology in English language teaching and learning, so that he could make a contribution to the teaching and learning of English in particular, and other languages, in his home country. He also knew that online learning via a computer would not work in Rwanda, since computers are expensive and electricity is scarce in the country. By contrast, the majority of the Rwandan population own mobile phones because they are cheap. Also, citizens in rural areas use solar power to charge their phones when there is no electricity, while university students have access to free wifi on their universities' campuses, and those located in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, have access to free wifi on buses and in public places.

“This is the reason why my study looked at how mobile phones and the apps on these devices could be used to attain a higher level of English proficiency, given the growing amount of research showing the potential of mobile technologies in language learning."

Sixty Kinyarwanda-speaking students from the University of Rwanda participated in the study. They were divided into four groups with Group 1 receiving training in the use of mobile technologies in language learning (or MTLL in short); Group 2 using MTLL without having received any training; Group 3 using only additional conventional material like textbooks; and Group 4 not using MTLL or receiving any additional material, but only relying on the classroom instruction.

“We then collected data by means of observation, a survey, an English language proficiency test, a discussion group with the participants and a semi-structured interview with a lecturer at the University of Rwanda. A careful analysis of the data showed that MTLL have a significant effect on the learners' proficiency in English as a foreign language (EFL), and that the learners have positive attitudes towards MTLL and their integration into the language pedagogy." He adds that participants were monitored to ensure that they applied what they were learning.

Uwizeyimana's research is of great importance, not only because it promotes the use of devices and applications that are already popular in Africa as far as English language learning is concerned, but also because the learning model he has developed can be applied to different languages and countries around the world. For Uwizeyimana, the fact that he even completed the research is a great feat. His research nearly did not see the light of day due to the financial challenges he had to overcome while studying in South Africa.

“Had it not been for my Masters supervisor Ms Lesley Bergman from the Modern Foreign Languages Department, Prof Frenette Southwood, the Chair of the General Linguistics Department, and my PhD supervisor, Dr Simone Conradie, I would not have made it through all my studies here at Stellenbosch University. They understood all the challenges I had to go through. They secured funding for my PhD, they provided me with money to cover my accommodation and living cost when I was broke, and they reached out to the Rwanda Education Board (REB) and the Rwandan Embassy in South Africa when I had financial problems in my second year of Masters, specifically in 2015. However, it was more than just financial support, they became my people, my friends, my parents from another country. They became my family. They are very social, modest and understanding; when I run to them, I do not call them by their titles and surnames," he says.

Thanks to their support he was also able to spend a semester at Technische Universität Chemnitz, which is one of the oldest and best universities of technology in Germany.

HIs research was presented at different academic events in Africa and Europe, is SCOPUS indexed, and has been published in the top-rated international journal, Language Policy by Springer, and in the Registrar Journal, which is one of the leading journals published from Indonesia.

After his graduation, he will return to Rwanda where he plans to help his fellow Rwandans, starting with the university students, to attain a higher level of proficiency in English, French and Kiswahili which are used as second or foreign languages in Rwanda. Furthermore, he plans to help Rwanda in terms of effective implemention of some of the country's current and future projects which involve the use of technology in education.

“I'd also like to replicate my research in other countries and contexts, so that I can provide a more tangible contribution to the scholarship, mostly in the fields of second language studies and technology for language learning."

According to Southwood, Uwizeyimana showed remarkable tenacity during the years he spent at Stellenbosch University.

“His commitment to achieving his academic goals and his insistence on doing sensible research that will benefit those in his country are commendable," says Southwood.

While it has been a fulfilling journey for him, there is no denying that it has been one filled with lots of stumbling blocks and sacrifices. He is excited to walk across the podium on Thursday to obtain his doctoral degree.

“It's the hardships that eventually motivated me, because I would sit here working on my research, then realise that there is nothing for me out there if I don't finish my PhD and do it in the shortest period of time. During those difficult moments, you sacrifice everything. You ignore and forget everything else including your family, friends and your own life at some points, and finishing the work at hand becomes your main focus. Sometimes it gets too much, you think about it, become sad and discouraged, and I personally sweat a lot in those moments, but you never give up because you are hopeful that the best is yet to come".

Photo: Dr Valentin Uwizeyimana  from Rwanda with the academics that supported him academically, financially and emotionally during the years he studied in South Africa and completed his groundbreaking research on using mobile technologies in language learning for foreign language learning. From the left are Ms Lesley Bergman from the Modern Foreign Languages Department, Dr Valentin Uwizeyimana, Uwizeyimana's PhD supervisor, Dr Simone Conradie from the General Linguistics Department, and Prof Frenette Southwood, the Chair of the General Linguistics Department.