Published in The Republica on Nov 16, 2016.
As I observed my six- and eight-year-old children improve their Nepali at an astonishing speed while my family was in Nepal last summer, I wondered why forcing young people to speak in English “only” for their entire school lives in the past few decades hasn’t made them speak the language very fluently.
Perhaps it was the need to reciprocate their grandmothers’ absolute love, perhaps the right input of child-talk from the two little playmates downstairs, or perhaps the constant attention and praise from family members who found their accent cute. Whatever it was, I kept thinking about the thousands of English-failing students who pass all other subjects in SLC, English medium schools and colleges that sell myths to poor parents, and all the science and math teachers across the country who shouldn’t have to teach in a foreign language that they aren’t fluent in. I kept thinking about why no research, no reasoning seem to undermine the mythologies (and lies) about English in Nepalese education. Let me debunk the major ones, using current research.
The English ONLY Myth
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The mother of all myths about English in Nepal is that children can learn it quickly and effectively if they are taught in English ONLY throughout school.
A decade-long research involving 18,000 English language learners in California clearly showed that while teaching in English-only seemed to help children learn English faster in the short term, their peers in bilingual medium caught up and spoke English better in a few more years while developing far better academically and socially.
This magic thinking makes no sense—except in a few cases where teachers are fluent, schools are well resourced and students come from privileged families. But our society continues to embrace it utterly thoughtlessly.
The English EARLY Myth
There is also research showing that starting to teach English EARLY (and using it as the only medium) doesn’t benefit language learning, or learning of any subject. In a research conducted in the early 1980s in Nepal, a British scholar named Alan Davies found that when tested in tenth grade, students who started to learn English in fourth grade had no more proficiency than those who started to learn it in eighth grade! That research was completely ignored by both the governments and academe.
Research tells us to use home language in primary school so that children can develop a finer grasp of language, especially when it is taught through rhymes, songs, and vocabulary games; they don’t feel the same way with foreign languages. But because we embrace myths instead of research, English medium instruction has percolated down from college level, to high school, to middle school, and finally nursery where children are not allowed to say “susu”! This craziness has reinforced a worrying culture of treating education as a process of cramming information for passing exams rather than one of learning and creating new ideas that are useful for life and society.
The English ALWAYS Myth
Using a language ALWAYS during the school day prevents multilingual children from expressing themselves and relating well to people based on audience (classmates, teacher, other staff), purpose (arguing, joking, singing, playing), context (playground, during cocurricular activities, while watching a game), and needs (emotive, logical, interpersonal/intimate).
Research shows that learning multiple languages during childhood enhances brain tissue density, memory power, quality of attention, and the ability to understand complexity and nuance of ideas. Simply having the freedom to use more than English would enhance teaching, learning, play and social growth in school—as well as better prepare students for life, society, and careers later.
Here in New York, I ask my foreign students to form separate groups for discussing their research in their home languages, then shuffling them with local students in the next step. Doing this helps multilingual students master English more quickly, as well as enhance their academic success. My students also read news and research in other languages, then translate them to add new perspectives to class discussion and their own writing.
Imposed monolingualism pushes students out of what the Russian scholar Lev Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development” in their social, emotional, and intellectual growth into what we could call the “zone of minimal development.”
The English EVERYWHERE Myth
The next myth, spread mostly by our English language professionals, is that English is EVERYWHERE in the world, that it is a “global” language, etc. The experts “describe” (often correctly) a global situation and trend, but they are socially irresponsible enough to also not inform the public how this trend is destroying the quality of education both at home and elsewhere.
They tell us that English is the language of economic opportunity, science and technology, rich literature and popular culture, higher education, international communication, etc. But they don’t tell us that only a small fraction of Nepalis leave home or access the global job market where English is required and that many more of us learn languages other than English today (e.g., Korean, German, Japanese, Hindi, etc). Nor do they tell us that the world of knowledge is increasingly multilingual (e.g., the internet is not as English as they believe), or that English dominant countries are themselves striving to advance multilingualism through their education systems.
So, the privileged few who benefit from the English-only craze must acknowledge how English-only has become a barrier against quality education for all, how all the associated myths have allowed education to become an unaffordable commodity for most people.
If language learning is a greater objective than learning math and science, we wouldn’t need schools and colleges; language institutes would be enough. We must first find ways to prevent English-only from becoming a barrier against quality education—and indeed against learning English—for the majority. Then we can promote English as much as we want.
The English = QUALITY Myth
I’ve written about this one here before, but it must be included because it’s the most pants-on-fire lie of the list: unlike the popular perception, private schools that provide QUALITY education do so “in spite of” and not “because of” their English-only instruction.
Using a foreign language to teach/learn decreases the quality of education in many ways, as discussed above.
English-only, as scholars have pointed out, serves “sentimental” functions (aspiration, pride, competition, etc.) in societies like ours rather than logical.
Solutions to the problems created by these myths are not complex—though they may be difficult to implement.
Private schools must adopt “English Plus” policy and let students and teachers use any languages that benefit teaching/learning, even in English classes.
The government must stop community schools from switching to English-only medium; this is possible by first banning English “only” in private schools, then using other methods to improve community schools (esp. depoliticizing the teaching profession).
Sholars must have the intellectual courage to speak up against the myths, to sacrifice immediate and personal benefits and to tell the truth to power. Schools and universities must focus on knowledge and skills, making both English language learning and education motivating and inspiring.
Mass media must inform the public that English is a very, very useful language, but English-only instruction is a dangerous social experiment for Nepal. Foreign agencies—which are already staffed with experts who know the value of multilingualism in their home countries—can also help counter this myth in Nepal. They can also better achieve their mission of promoting their languages and cultures in Nepal by first fostering quality education here.
It makes no sense for an entire nation to embrace a bunch of myths and spend so many years to achieve so little, while evidently undermining the learning and teaching of all subjects for generations of its citizens. If we allow these myths to keep depriving more generations of the opportunity to develop academic, social, and professional growth through education, the “global benefits” of English-medium education will continue to be pie in the sky for most people, while benefiting a few.