Does the medium of instruction affect how students learn Algebra and coding in South Asian schools? How can solving a quadratic equation or studying conditions change with language? Additionally, does language only impact students’ learning, or does it also affect national integrity, both being equally significant? This article delves into a comprehensive exploration of multilingualism in South Asian school education, considering the presence of multiple languages, some flourishing and others endangered.
In the current context of South Asia, especially the Southeastern region, English is considered a ‘natural, neutral and beneficial’ choice for learning and teaching. Being a postcolonial region, the language of colonisers holds importance; hence, its true nature and value are dubious. English is also a marker of elitism and a link language in today’s globalised world. Simultaneously, knowledge of regional languages can promote acculturation, blurring cultural boundaries. Thus, discussing the opportunities and challenges of introducing multilingualism in schools becomes imperative for effective policy interventions.
Regional languages as mediums of instruction
Using regional languages may be easier to comprehend in subjects like geography than mathematics, which is supposed to serve as a standard, universal, objective ‘language’. For instance, ‘a+b = b+a” mean the same regardless of their representation. Several studies reveal that it benefits their mathematical proficiency when people are permitted to solve mathematical problems in their preferred language.
Similarly, multilingualism can succeed in programming languages (expected to be English-dominated) if adequate translations are available. Accenture, an Irish-American IT company, demonstrated this by effectively organising coding tutorials in Filipino and Vietnamese. Embracing multilingualism allows developing empathy and user-experience skills, fostering culturally-inclusive technologies.
Multilingualism and job opportunities
Any education-related discussion is incomplete without discussing its direct returns (i.e.) good job opportunities. In today’s world, most companies aspire to connect with people globally, and a link language like English helps achieve that. Furthermore, the knowledge of regional languages may supplement these benefits. A 2019 survey by Forbes supported these beliefs by revealing that approximately 35% of hiring managers believed that being well-versed in a link language like English made multilingualism favourable for candidates.
The following paragraphs present the asymmetric statuses of the regional languages of three South Asian countries vis-à-vis English and each other.
Bhutan is a small state which has emphasised cultural heritage, sustainable development and Gross National Happiness in its education policies since the 1960s. It is socially less fragmented than India. Currently, Dzongkha receives reverence as the lingua franca and the national language of Bhutan, while English is the medium of instruction in most schools. It is interesting to learn that the former does not get neglected because of the latter, which is generally true in many multilingual countries. However, this does not imply that Dzongkha enjoys an equal status as English. For instance, Dzonghka textbooks still need to be produced in various technical subjects. With over 20 living languages in Bhutan, including Hindi, many languages are endangered because of the lack of a script, showing that no literature and education policy caters to them. Hence, Bhutan may not suffer much linguistic imbalance if certain tangible resources like books are provided in various scripts.
Sri Lanka has experienced severe ethnic conflict in the past owing to its language and education policies. Learning English along with Sinhala or Tamil has enabled teaching many subjects in English. Having a common language amongst plural ethnicities, which does not favour a particular ethnicity and cross-linguistic flexibility, has positively changed social relations towards increased recognition and acceptance of diversity. Hence, English serves as a unifier rather than an antagonist to the local groups responsible for their erosion. However, some ethnic inequalities persist, suggesting that language policy alone cannot bring national integrity.
Lastly, India, like other South Asian countries, has three imperatives in this context: safeguarding minority languages, establishing a national identity, and gaining access to socio-economic resources through English. The Three-language Policy was introduced in 1968 to achieve these imperatives. It required students to learn (a) the regional language of the State, (b) Hindi in the non-Hindi speaking areas and any other Indian language in the Hindi-speaking areas, and (c) English or any other modern European language. However, the policy implementation has been more difficult in small towns and rural areas than in urban areas experiencing a shortage of teachers. It has also reinforced the pre-existing linguistic hierarchies. The New Education Policy 2020, a recent development in the education system, recommends, ‘wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the local language’. Students should also begin learning science and mathematics bilingually in Grade 6 so that they can discuss them in their home language and English (if they are different) by the end of Grade 9. It also recommends standardising sign language. The policy is yet to be implemented. Hence, while India has made immense efforts, in theory, people await real action!
The challenges of multilingual education and their solutions
The challenges of multilingual education are evident in these cases. First, there is a significant lack of clarity regarding what multilingualism implies in a country’s education, and many questions remain unanswered. Would multiple languages be used as mediums of instruction or taught as separate subjects? Would schools be designated for specific languages, or would they offer varied options? Lastly, whether these policies would apply to public and private schools is also unclear.
Including multiple languages in the curriculum invites difficulty in grading and assessing students and the time and labour-intensive process of preparing lesson plans, especially in subjects like programming languages.
Additionally, the teacher capacity in the above countries is lacking. Improving the quality and quantity of education can yield better outcomes in multilingual education, which often involves cumbersome tasks. One solution is investing heavily in pre-service teacher education, as successfully done in Finland. When aspiring educators undergo proper training, their techniques enhance. Aspirants must possess passion, time, and skills to be willing to undergo extensive training, making recruitment selective and ensuring that only the most qualified candidates are chosen. This approach may seem counterintuitive to addressing inadequate teacher capacity. However, imagine the potential achievements regarding workload and learning outcomes with an efficient body of teachers!
The translation limitations also pose a challenge, especially in preparing assessments and comprehending international research. Hence, councils of interpreters who can help in translation and data analysis are recommended.
As a small-scale example, based on personal experiences of developing lesson plans for multilingual children from Asawarpur, Haryana, the author believes that translanguaging benefits children. Translanguaging refers to the combined usage of languages from one’s language repertoire, such as ‘Hinglish’ (a mixture of Hindi and English) used in the everyday conversations of many Indians. This has two significant academic benefits: an improved comprehension of academic content and the formation of connections between regional languages and English, enabling good acquisition of English. However, many English-medium schools prohibit using regional languages to communicate on their premises, consequently reinforcing the superiority of English. Similarly, the children from Asawarpur enjoyed learning English. However, they faced difficulties memorising its concepts because they lacked exposure to English outside the classrooms and unrelatable examples in the curriculum. Hence, translanguaging addresses this linguistic hierarchy. It may allow for balanced learning of regional languages (important for preserving cultural heritage) and English (important for various educational and employment opportunities).
Lastly, the prospect of linguistic chauvinism reigning needs to be tackled while ensuring that many languages are not subsumed under the dominant one as mere dialects. Therefore, curriculum development committees should be formed to represent diverse knowledge systems (closely connected to languages). We may take inspiration from UNESCO’s Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme (LINKS) initiative for climate change. LINKS aims to establish a dialogue between scientific knowledge holders and indigenous people to blend technology with sustainable traditions. Similarly, previously marginalised groups can be consulted and involved in the curricula development process in South Asian schools.
Introducing multilingualism in South Asian schools is a valuable option, considering the sociolinguistic context. Furthermore, although it can cater to identity politics and enhance students’ intelligence and proficiency, it cannot serve as the sole tool to embrace unity. While preserving native languages is important, education may not always be a viable approach to achieving this. Simultaneously, the status of English may seem irreplaceable, but it should not be promoted and prioritised at the expense of other languages. Thus, with sensitivity, empathy and inclusivity, multilingualism may thrive!
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.