I recently visited a primary school in Tirur, Malappuram district, Kerala. The language of instruction was English. The teacher had great enthusiasm, but the children didn't quite share it and seemed to be restless and distracted. To get to the bottom of this, I decided to have an informal chat with one of the students, Atul. When I asked him what he had learned in class, he was stumped. He didn't know what the teacher was even talking about. It wasn't because he was slow or the subject matter was interesting--it was simply that the lessons were taught in an alien language in which he was not fluent.
This is not an isolated case, but a common occurrence in schools across India and elsewhere in South Asia. If students cannot understand the language of instruction, how are they expected to learn? The onus of answering that question is on policymakers.
Being taught in a language other than their own can negatively impact children's learning.
Education is about learning and understanding. It's not about the language of instruction. Realizing this truth would help governments create a better education eco-system that is capable of surmounting cultural and social inequalities. A new policy paper released for International Mother Language Day on 21 February by the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (GMR) presents a detailed picture of the learning gap issue. The paper argues that being taught in a language other than their own can negatively impact children's learning.
UNESCO GMR director Aaron Benavot shared with me some serious concerns and relevant suggestions based on the paper. "The core finding of the policy paper is that as much as 40% of the global population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand. Evidence shows that speaking a language that is not spoken in the classroom frequently holds back a child's learning, especially for those living in poverty," Benavot noted.
Interestingly, learning improves in countries that have invested in bilingual programmes.
The paper shows that children--but, obviously!--learn better when they can understand the language of instruction. "You only need look at some international and regional learning assessments and country examples to see the evidence. In many Western African school systems, French continues to be the main language of instruction, so the vast majority of children are taught from the early grades in a language with which they have limited familiarity. This seriously hampers their chances of learning. In Côte d'Ivoire, 55% of grade 5 students who speak the test language at home learned the basics in reading in 2008, compared with only 25% of the 8 out of 10 students who speak another language," Benavot added.
Interestingly, learning improves in countries that have invested in bilingual programmes. Take the case of Guatemala where students in bilingual schools have lower repetition and dropout rates. They also have higher scores in all subject areas. Children in Ethiopia who participated in bilingual programmes for eight years improved their learning in subjects across the curriculum.
"After analyzing various countries' experiences we can see that at least six years of mother tongue instruction is needed to reduce learning gaps for minority language speakers. It is therefore vital for education policies to recognise the importance of mother tongue learning,'' suggested Benavot.
The UNESCO paper recognises that bilingual education is not an easy policy to implement. It is expensive, and creates challenges within the education system, notably in areas of teacher recruitment, curriculum development and the provision of teaching materials. But, according to the GMR director, it is a vital investment.
The fault lines of violent conflict have often followed the contours of group-based inequality exacerbated by language policies in education.
The paper also looks at the imposition of single dominant languages as the language of instruction in schools as a frequent source of grievances linked to wider issues of social and cultural inequality. The fault lines of violent conflict have often followed the contours of group-based inequality exacerbated by language policies in education.
Benavot highlights the examples of Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh to explain this. "In Nepal, the imposition of Nepali as the language of instruction fed into the broader set of grievances among non-Nepali speaking castes and ethnic minorities that drove the civil war."
The report also cites the example of Pakistan:
"In Pakistan, the post-independence government adopted Urdu as the national language and the language of instruction in schools. This became a source of alienation in a country that was home to six major linguistic groups and fifty-eight smaller ones. The failure to recognize Bengali, spoken by the vast majority of the population in East Pakistan, was one of the major sources of conflict within the new country, leading to student riots in 1952. The riots gave birth to the Bengali Language Movement, a precursor to the movement that fought for the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of a new country, Bangladesh.
Both countries have continued to face language-related political challenges. In Bangladesh, where Bengali is the national language, non-Bengali speaking tribal groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts have cited a perceived injustice over language as a factor that justifies their secession demands. In Pakistan, the continued use of Urdu as the language of instruction in government schools, even though it is spoken at home by less than 8% of the population, has also contributed to political tensions."
It is important to invest in bilingual education for at least six years in countries where there are many minority languages.
Language is a symbol that reflects the culture of one's community and ethnic identity. Learning and speaking in one's own mother tongue can create a sense of personal identity and group attachment. While it strengthens an ethnic group's sense of belonging and social ties, it can also turn into a basis for their marginalization. It would be disastrous if the governments give space for the latter outcome to happen.
UNESCO and Benavot hope that the findings of the new paper will show ministers of education how important it is to invest in bilingual education for at least six years in countries where there are many minority languages so that children's learning does not suffer.
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