English is an important world language, and we all know that if we can make our children proficient in it by the end of high school, they’re more likely to enjoy greater professional success in the future. However, the idea that we should teach “all” subjects at “all” levels in English in order to make them proficient in this language is just an absurd belief that we’ve come to embrace and promote as a society, a belief that comes out of a combination of ignorance, snobbery, and dishonesty. In fact, this absurdity is further sustained by an even uglier, more dangerous assumption that using English as a medium of instruction will automatically improve the quality of education.
As I will argue in this essay, it is extremely important that we garner the moral courage as a society and start confronting the above myths. Acknowledging their absurdity can help private schools provide better education than they do today. Facing the reality can help community schools not have to put on the same funny hat in order to claim that they too can dance well (instead of improving the educational dance itself). And starting to correct our misunderstanding will help us as a society to finally focus on real and complex challenges against quality education.
The snake oil made from defining the quality of education in terms of its medium, as well as about teaching a language by requiring it as a medium at all levels, sells well without much marketing today, but private schools are largely responsible for selling this dream. That doesn’t mean we can get away by simply blaming private schools; the beliefs are so well ingrained in the social psyche that most private schools wouldn’t even survive if they tried to teach in Nepali and redefine quality in other, real educational terms (which most of them must do). Other stakeholders have allowed private schools to thrive upon the bogus idea, so they too are responsible for undoing the damage.
Let us unpack the absurd assumptions one by one. First, the “quality” of teaching and learning in private schools comes from the chain of accountability among schools, administrators, teachers, students, and even parents—and not from the “medium” of instruction. Administrators and teachers in our private schools are usually more committed to educating our children than their counterparts in community schools. That said, beyond a certain number of private schools in Kathmandu and a few other major cities, the rest of them do a terrible job of educating students other than producing high percentage of passes in the SLC exam. They can improve education itself if they shed the bogus “English education.”
Second, teaching all subjects in a foreign instead of local language significantly hampers how well teachers convey the ideas and students understand their teachers. No research, no common sense, no sanity can justify that all science and math and social studies teachers across the country, many of whose English is not fluent, must teach their subjects in English; nor can any educational reasoning justify why students who don’t use and develop English fluency outside school have to read/write and explore all knowledge in that language.
Students would go beyond the “what-like-what-like” English of most of our private schools if they could focus more on what to say in the first place. If all schools focused on the quality of education, students could learn enough English from the English course, from other sources such as watching movies (if they can afford), and from being in various professions when they grow up. It is far more important for teachers to teach and students to learn at full capacity than to do it in English.
Third, in a country where English mediates few people’s personal, social, and professional experiences, the practical relevance and productivity of education is decreasing due to the increasing gap created by the medium between formal education on the one hand and social, cultural, and emotional lives of our children on the other. When a student learns algebra, she should learn how to conceptualize and solve problems by using a certain type of mathematical thinking, regardless of the medium.
Even when she learns about society, culture, politics, and other issues about, say, England, the medium in which she learns those ideas should be less important than the effectiveness, relevance, and value of her learning. Of course, learning the English “language” should involve understanding the contexts and cultures from which its words, idioms, and discourses come. But being forced to learn every single subject at every level in a foreign language can severely undermine the social value of education.
Fourth, if requiring English as the “only” medium of instruction and communication in school didn’t have severe “side effects” to the students’ learning and to our society’s interests at large, then we could sit down to talk about the many, significant, long term, and attractive benefits of learning English. Unfortunately, when our experts start defending the myths, they not only disregard the side effects but also fail to go beyond a few superficial platitudes or outdated nonsense about the benefits of English.
They just repeat, for instance, that English is an international language (English only?); that most of the internet is in English (not true); that you need English to be able to text on your cell phone (oops, there are apps for that); that English proficiency increases opportunities (yes, but it’s English plus knowledge and skills); and that English helps you network with people around the world (which doesn’t need twelve years). Scholars and teachers must first give up on empty reasoning like the above so that they can start educating other stakeholders about how to improve secondary education across the board.
Finally, it is urgent that we start confronting the myths because we have crossed limits and entered a farcical social juncture whereby community schools are beginning to switch to English medium in order to convince parents that they too can deliver “quality” education. Many so-called educational experts who prescribe English medium as a solution to the problems of community schools buy into the following absurd syllogism: 1) private schools are “by definition” English medium; 2) private schools provide better education to our children, therefore, 3) in order to improve the quality of their education, community schools must also start teaching in English.
But as discussed above, this farcical act won’t last because simply putting on a funny hat and telling people that the hat is “why” one is dancing well can only work where the best dancer in the village also puts on a funny hat. The trick may look easy to pull off in the beginning but it won’t be easy at all when one begins to dance.
In fact, if community schools put on the absurd hat of “English education,” they could actually start dancing worse than before—especially if they believe that the hat is doing the job.