International illusions

November 29, 2017 01:30 AM Shyam Sharma


One can only hope that Nepali scholars and policymakers will come back to their senses and start informing the public that English-only instruction is dangerous.

Thousands of Londoners kept dying every year during the early 1800s after the city started draining sewage into the Thames River. This happened because a “scientific orthodoxy” that cholera was caused by “vapor” from the dead, rather than being a waterborne disease, prevented the city from fixing the real problem for decades. 

One can hope that Nepali scholars and policymakers will similarly come to their senses and start informing the public that English-only instruction (EOI) is a dangerous social experiment that needs changing. Note the emphasis is on “only”, the culprit in this case.
In the past two essays here, I wrote about the historical and political backdrop and then the dangers plus alternatives of EOI. In this one, I argue that Nepali education must teach other “international” languages as well, if we are sincere about English as a language of international communication and economic opportunities, and not international illusions.

As a bonus, that sincerity could help open gates of new opportunities for our educational institutions and for society. 

Forcing students to use a language in which they can’t express their ideas and emotions is a violation of children’s rights and it should be stopped along with corporal punishment. But let us start by pretending that “rights” involves a debatable perspective. Does the economic logic of EOI hold any water? Not if we look at how much economic opportunity other “international” languages offer. Not if we look at the minority that benefits from EOI. 
Millions of Nepalis engage in economically productive “transnational” communication by using Hindi as well as (khas) Nepali. Nepalis using Hindi internationally make up a far larger segment of our “global” economy than all Nepalis in English-speaking countries combined. We should teach Hindi. 

Those who leave South Asia must learn Arabic and Chinese, Korean and Japanese. These “other” languages offer far more economic opportunities in our “modernized” economy and “globalized” world than English. We should teach these languages as well. 

Better Hindi and Arabic 

The 2011 census data documented 7.3 percent Nepali citizens (nearly 2 million, almost double the number from 2001, and the number must have again doubled by now) as working or living abroad. While the numbers across the southern open border are fuzzy, most of the “absentee” population was in India. Nepalis in the Middle East made up 75 percent of the “labor migrants”, with Malaysia coming second. Yes, they too would benefit if they knew better English. But they would benefit far more if they had better education, and better Hindi and Arabic. 

Even if we include students going to countries where English is the medium of instruction, facts still fly in the face of the whole premise of EOI. Besides the roughly 10,000 students going to English-speaking or English-medium-instruction countries, we are left with an elite group consisting of professionals in media, diplomacy, and business for whom English pays back well. In the end, the argument about English as an economic engine is a function of who is telling that story. It is true for people like me, but it is just a theory for too many other Nepalis. 

The case of Nepal is not new. American scholar Catherine Prendergast has documented a similar, eventually failed experiment in post-communist Slovakia. Blindly embracing English didn’t fulfill the dreams of many Slovakians. Larger political dynamics still determined who got the “global” economic opportunities and how even they were treated on global platforms. “Power structures will not stop creating hierarchies, unequal opportunities, and information asymmetry from which only a few benefit,” she writes. The same geopolitical dynamic has created artificial conditions of use and myth-making about English in Nepal, even giving the public the impression that this is globally the only promising language to learn. 

Invisible forces 

As language scholar Ram Asish Giri states: “Nepal, once a mecca for linguists because of its vast linguistic and cultural resources, is in socio-political trouble”. Behind that trouble, he warns, are “invisible language politics” that favors the national language. I think that English adds yet another layer to that politics, driven by a confluence of global and local socioeconomic forces. 

Beyond a handful of elite private schools where EOI may not affect learning too much, local languages are used with fear and shame and guilt—even in hiding. But even in the best of private schools, the potential of English as an important international language is itself destroyed because its imposition impedes healthy development of students’ intellectual, emotional, and sociolinguistic competencies; not to mention how other important international languages are ignored. 

The solution is not to tell the public to stop learning English. That would be wrong and superficial (and for those who benefit from it, hypocritical as well). It is to tell the truth that English is not the “only” international language. It is to try to stop learning from becoming too difficult and empty, schools too expensive, social policy too corrupt. 

Scholars and educators must start by adopting an ethical outlook about our diverse languages. That will help us promote what language policy scholars Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas call “the ecology-of-language paradigm.” This means letting many languages thrive, both local and international. 

Then we must accept the basic premise that societies cannot, in the long run, meaningfully realize any social vision behind teaching national or international languages by using false dreams. 

We must promote translanguaging as a natural process in education. We can do so by aligning educational change with recent democratic revolution. And we must develop scholarship to create a metalanguage, research methods, and teacher training for bringing translanguaging out of hiding and away from shame. 

All of this requires scholars to put the interest of society above their own personal, financial, and political benefits. It demands that we come out of denial about how poorly most of our colleagues teach and how little of that teaching their students understand. This is not an insult to teachers. It is a challenge for scholars and policymakers to embrace intellectual courage and social responsibility.  

Teachers can help more than they tend to believe they can: they are the rubber that hits the road. They can allow students to learn and take tests translingually. They can help their schools embrace multilingual education and revive bilingual testing from the past. The Israeli scholar Elana Sohamy has found that bilingual testing enhances students’ “identity, confidence, and self-concept”. 

No rocket science 

Private schools are responsible for undoing the damage of EOI. They can do so by allowing and promoting different languages. They can create informal curricula and academic support beyond the classroom for students, as well as training for teachers. They can include other international languages in their curricula. 

Policymakers are the most responsible. As Prem Phyak has noted, language policy experts can help prevent English from reproducing and reinforcing “social inequalities in terms of class, case/ethnicity, and race”. Following what a few governments, such as Tanzania’s and Ghana’s, have done recently, our Ministry of Education should direct both public and private schools to stop enforcing EOI. It should provide resources to schools that teach different international languages. And it should reward schools that do the right thing. 

Non-government organizations and professional associations can also play important roles. These agencies typically have more to gain by promoting the language of power. But they can also achieve broader business, cultural, and political goals by enhancing education through the promotion of better language policies. 

Not many countries have successfully reversed course on EOI. In fact, “market forces” are causing more developing countries to adopt it. Meanwhile, multilingualism and translingual educational practices are advancing in the United States and Europe. 
It needs no rocket science to understand the social and economic benefits of learning more than one international language, or local ones, from a social/national perspective. But when a good thing starts a vicious cycle, we must counter with honest efforts.

As language scholar Thomas Ricento points out, “English is not the inherent hegemon, nor the de facto oppressor, nor the ticket to social or economic mobility…” Instead, it is for us to “use” the language, and other means of economic opportunity, for our own benefit, broadly conceived. 

The germs causing cholera in London had come from India. But to stop the disaster, Londoners had to stop believing in a myth and change how they drank their water. 


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