While attending a talk on campus (at Stony Brook University) this afternoon, given by Elana Sohamy, an Israeli scholar, I had a moment of despair.
The title of her talk today was “multilingual testing” and the backdrop of her presentation was the monolingual regime of language testing and its effects on multilingual language users across the world.
As teachers of language and writing/communication, we keep saying in theory that language learners take 3-5 or even 9-11 years to be fluent and accurate in a new language, depending on where and how they learn. But in practice, we continue to resort, very quickly and thoughtlessly, to the logic of pragmatism, of institutional policy, of the need to make sure that our multilingual students can perform in English. read full post…
Sitting down to write this post on diversity and ELT, I remember a story that scholar David Foster Wallace tells in a famous college graduation speech. Two younger fish ask an older one: “What the hell is water?” The point of the story is that “…the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
The point I want to make in this post is that while we are a nation of very diverse peoples, cultures, languages, and so on, we have to pinch ourselves to remember that we are diverse. I argue that as educators, it is worth pinching ourselves and our students—intellectually, that is—into realizing the value of diversity as a broader goal of education, especially in a country like ours and an interconnected world like today’s.
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At a dinner conversation among a few scientists and scholars from Nepal a few years ago, our host, a medical scientist, shared a whole host of “scientific” evidence about how the knowledge of the East has “always” been highly advanced and “superior” to that of modern science.
Yes, the East (though the term is old-fashioned and controversial) is a gold mine of intellectual traditions and resources. But its most visible proponents today harm more than help when it comes to doing justice to that heritage.
And, yes, there is a lot of value in the knowledge—embodied in and transmitted through folk science and philosophical wisdom since ancient times—which the East has produced. I would even go so far as to say that the South Asian region was probably one of the richest in terms of generating its own natural science as well as other bodies of knowledge. The Ayurveda (life+science) is a good example of how some medical knowledge of the time was eventually recorded and passed on in writing. read full post…
Freedom of Speech The title of an article in an American newspaper reads: “Last Week French Officials Stood Up for Offensive Speech. This Week They’re Arresting People for It.” The understandably complicated response of French government to the terrorist attack in Paris last month is an interesting case from which we can learn how seemingly universal principles and values—such as the “freedom of speech” in this case—are actually contingent on specific cultures and complex sociopolitical issues.
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I came home from school one day to find my father and uncle Padam sitting beside the beautifully decorated Tulasi platform in the front yard that my mother, sister, and I had built the day before.
Uncle Padam [speaking to my dad]: Brother, you have such great artistic skills, you know. Look how beautiful that muth is!
Daddy: [smiles and continues to smoke]
Me: No, uncle, dad didn’t build that. Mom did, and sister and I helped her decorate it.
Uncle: Hey, phuchche [little kid], don’t be a janne [knower]. Go to play.
Read full article on Republica (Oct 29, 2014) read full post…
Published in the Republica on Nov 20, 2014
Around fifteen years ago, “pharsi” started becoming “farsi” in the mouths of many Nepalis, particularly in the cities. Replacing the Nepali “ph” with the English “f” may sound more “modern,” but it is not only linguistically absurd, it can also be a symptom of an insidious social problem that I want to discuss in this article.
The process of borrowing, mixing, and developing new sounds, words, meanings, and perspectives are natural to any language (though it is sped up by globalization more than ever before). However, the attempts to “leave behind” what is natural and integral to a local language—and by implication, to thought processes, art forms, and knowledge-making—can also be counterproductive. Such attempts can signal a lack of confidence in the foundations of local languages, cultures, and epistemologies—and thereby a failure to productively exploit the resources provided by these systems. Languages and communication can be gradually impoverished, art forms stymied, and knowledge-making stuck between disappeared richness of the local and half-explored potentials of the non-local.
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[Beyond Identity Politics]
When growing up in Manipur in India, I knew Nepal as a distant land that was all our own, a nation of Nepalis, or, rather, “not India,” which was a place where the Nepali immigrants were treated by many people with insult that bordered abuse. Nepali kids were bullied at school as outsiders; families were regularly burglarized by masked men who often turned out to be neighbors (and the police didn’t care); and anyone who needed to cross state lines had to carry “movement certificates”. Because of such experiences Nepal was our romanticized homeland.
But when I eventually returned to Nepal, while the society was generally nice to my kind of families, I quickly found out that it was not for many others. People didn’t have to be “foreigners” to be marginalized. The national identity based on the ideals and ideas of the mainstream, the privileged, felt frustrating. I started recognizing the paradox of my father expressing his Nepali identity back in India by chanting mantras in Sanskrit: there was not much Nepali about those texts written in ancient India, but the dominant group where my family belonged had adopted the Hindu, caste-based, and class-shaped “Nepali” identity and taken it to India. read full post…
First article of my column/series published in the Republica on June 21, 2014.
I now teach at a prestigious university within the largest and one of the best American public university systems, the State University of New York.
But twenty-four years ago, when I first appeared the SLC, I failed.
Now, I am not about to tell you a wonderful story. Sorry, there are more stories of suicide than of success in this regard. I am instead telling my story, for the first time beyond my family, in order to make a very broad point about the SLC exam and our society.
The precise reason I failed the exam was that I went to a public school in ninth and tenth grades. I passed the exam after I went to a private school for a year and retook it. Again, before any advocates of private schools start licking their lips, let me make something very clear. In the big picture of education system where I failed—even though it was in the Indian state of Manipur where there was a similar testing system as in Nepal—the private school that helped me pass the exam was NOT a solution of a problem. The emerging phenomenon of private schools was, or it was becoming as it also is in Nepal, a manifestation of an insidious social crisis. Let me explain. read full post…
I’m not sure if this is a new phenomenon, but the word “technology” automatically refers to the “latest” technologies, and among them one or two things. In our time, it’s computers and the internet. Similarly, the one or two “latest” technologies—whatever their uses and benefits to society—are also associated with progress, efficiency, productivity and a lot of other positive things.
Now, if assumptions like the above didn’t significantly impact major social institutions, we could ignore them. Unfortunately, the tunnel vision created by those beliefs adversely affects people and societies. When people don’t think critically about the latest technology, they not only devalue anything that is no more fashionable, they also overlook any limitations, side effects, and false beliefs about dominant technology. Let us look at the effects of these phenomena in education.
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The phrase “politics of language” is all too familiar, even saturated in our society. But let me situate it in the educational context where the “political” part is rarely acknowledged. All the way from primary school (when children bring home joy when they speak in English words and sentences!) to the university (where even the national language, Nepali, is getting displaced by an all-powerful global language), language carries power. That power extends to the professions, and to society and culture as a whole. So, when someone says, for instance, that Nepali language is a shared language among all Nepali citizens, that is as much a statement of interest and ideology as it is of a fact. Or when someone says that learning English increases your opportunity in the professions, that’s not only a statement of fact (at least to a considerable extent) but also an act of embracing an ideology.
Learning a more common, more powerful language often increases one’s professional opportunities. So, for instance, good English language skills will help you go abroad for study or work, to adapt and succeed, and to be more of a global citizen. But when you choose the above examples and offer the above reasoning, you are also presenting/accepting a vision of the world where success is defined by going abroad, by speaking a dominant world language, and so on.
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