Published in Republica on February 21, 2019
Whether they start a Multilingual Tuesday program or one called Matribhasha Mangalbar, it is high time that private schools advanced multilingual competence among their students
A colleague who is the principal of a prestigious private school in Kathmandu called me recently to share good news. “We have now implemented a one-day-a-week multilingual policy in our school,” he said. “Our students are very excited, and so are we.” Another colleague, also a principal, said that he has convinced management and started communicating with parents about implementing what he prefers to call “Matribhasha Mangalbar”—or mother-tongue Tuesday.
It is high time that our private schools provided the resources, or at least began by creating the environment to honor the fundamental reality of our multilingual, multicultural society, to improve the quality of teaching and learning, and, most importantly, to prepare future generations for greater success in life and society. Deliberately promoting, if not systematically teaching, multiple languages has many benefits, as I will discuss in this essay.
Private schools have historically viewed English (only) as a means of advancing “modern” education, creating “access” to knowledge of science and technology, contributing to Nepal’s entry into “global” economy, delivering “quality” education of or for the “elite” and so on. The idea of defining private schools by using English “only” for instruction in all subjects was, unfortunately, outdated in educational scholarship by the 1990s, exactly when Nepal’s private schools exploded in quantity, with a good number of them improving their quality as well and many others helping to increase access for the broader population.
The socially regressive ideas about education, as I indicated with quotations above, go as far back as the establishment of Durbar School, which had elements of all the above. It also meant to provide formal education exclusively for the Rana and Shah families, barring the rest of the public from attending it.
Since the opening up of Nepali society to the outside world in the 1970s, English-only instruction started taking a strange place in people’s imagination. In the words of Alan Davies, a British linguist who studied the issue in Nepal back in the 1970s and 80s, English started serving a romantic rather than a rational function, promising people a lot more than it was actually able to deliver in reality.
With the increasing democratization of society and liberalization of economy after the early 1990s, the reasons given for using it became ostensibly more rational. Even language scholars to this day continue to harp on such facts/claims as English being an international lingua franca, the language of science, a vehicle of opportunities in a globalizing economy, and so on. Unfortunately, that focus leaves out another set of facts: teaching all subjects in English only is educationally counterproductive, it advances an unrealistic (even delusional) view of the English in society, and it prevents generations from developing proficiency in other essential languages.
Yes, there is a method within the scholarship of language teaching called the “English-Only” approach—however old and outdated. In fact, English-only instruction may be necessary in situations where the instructor can’t use her students’ language, or if her students don’t share a local language. But then, in Nepal, English is not a link language of the community, so it usually makes teaching and learning worse.
Then there is also an approach called “English immersion” where students are put into an environment where they encounter a community of speakers, instruction, and resources all using English only. But an artificial environment where all parties are forced to speak an outside language makes the immersion practically upside down.
In reality, along with educational researchers and policy makers, managers and teachers of private schools seem to increasingly recognize that English-only instruction is educationally counterproductive. In recent years, educators have consistently pointed out that it is not an effective practice. It is certainly not acceptable in the twenty-first century, in a democratic society, or in a country whose constitution considers the diversity of language and culture as key to the nation’s identity and progress.
Similarly, the real challenge no longer seems to be that private schools don’t know about the benefits of helping students develop all languages or even don’t want to invest their time and resource to do so. The most significant obstacle is that most private schools are afraid to change the status quo, to make the risky paradigm shift. English-only instruction constitutes their very identity, their main product in the market. In fact, public schools have been adopting it in order to bring back students.
The question is—at least as some English-medium schools seem to begin asking—how to practically make the change. How could private schools convince parents to keep their children in an “English-medium” school if it is no longer so? How could they avoid potentially disastrous results of market competition? Where will they find a different method for “teaching” English? Some might also ask.
The answer to these questions lies in will power. If the questions are honest, there is no need for private schools to be afraid to shift toward, say, an English plus policy, especially if they do so collectively. The society is likely to start demanding it anyway.
In some ways, private schools are as much a victim of the terrible idea of English-only instruction in all subjects as they are culprits. That is, even if they gave life to this idea, they are somehow trapped in it themselves. Yet, they must take steps in the right direction now, especially in the aftermath of a major social revolution.
The change that private schools must make in their language policy has nothing to do with criticisms of them. If anything, my suggestions here would help to counter proposals for abolishing them that are being floated in policy discussions. In reality, private schools have served an important role in Nepal’s education. For all their weaknesses, one cannot deny their creativity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, flexibility, rapid change, variety of support, and innovation in education.
For courses other than English language, English-only instruction is “only” appropriate where teachers are fluent in English and students can also understand the instruction at grade level.
So, for the sake of promoting common-sense language policies, English-only instruction of all subjects should be gradually banned through government regulation, with the exception of schools where teachers and students are native or native-like speakers of English. Similarly, no schools should be allowed to punish students for using home languages; this is an outright violation of children’s right to free expression and detrimental to the development of their languages. Also, all schools must be responsible to teach and promote home language at the highest level of fluency, complexity, and nuance possible.
All that may sound like too much demand and restriction. But with a little pressure from the right places, schools can easily catch up and create a positive educational culture that fits the times. And they will benefit from the change.
After the social changes of the past two decades, most stakeholders understand that home languages have a special place in a person’s life. Family and social lives are difficult without fluency in them, as anyone can see from observing the relationship of children with their grandparents if they don’t share fluency in a home language.
Language(s) of the community, which may be in addition to a home language, are also necessary for people to be engaged in society and culture, profession and service, informal and lifelong learning, everyday transactions and negotiations, and citizenship and civic participation in a democracy. So, schools that try can easily convince parents that they are responsible to allow and foster the development of multilingual communication skills, refinement of social and emotional skills, and appreciation of students’ culture and identity. It is not hard for parents to understand that suppressing all of these critically important abilities, instead of growing them, has not been good for education at all.
Private schools can also quickly convince parents that reading, studying, writing, or communicating in a new/foreign language has always made all those activities ineffective. Parents won’t take time to realize that forcing a student to do all those things in all the subjects and all day and every day in school has been a logically lazy idea all along. They can see that it was professionally irresponsible and ethically wrong.
In place of English-only instruction, there are educationally far more productive options for private schools to adopt. For example, research and experiments done in California, Michigan, and other states in the US have shown the benefits, especially after the first few years, of replacing English-only (or even immersion programs) with bilingual education, in which students learn the subjects in an additional language besides English. More diverse and fluid policies involving local languages have been found to greatly motivate students in the US and other parts of the world.
Similarly, by using plurilingual instruction, schools can seek to develop a repertoire of multiple languages among students. According to Canadian scholar Angelica Galante, this approach has been used in Canada, Uganda, Spain, and Mexico. Plurilingualism also shapes the language policy of the Council of Europe. Plurilingual and bilingual approaches foster translingual communication, which involves more spontaneous combination of and negotiation across different languages.
Likewise, open language policy (where teachers can make choices as needed) would help students develop much better social skills, emotional intelligence, and academic communication abilities than English-only instruction. Each of the above approaches also helps foster multicultural competence.
Children must develop both English and their home languages, as well as other shared language(s) of the larger community or country. It is time for our English-medium schools to rebrand themselves as English-plus or even multilingual schools, to use creative approaches for change, to catch up and move forward with the society and the world.