Will multilingualism in the classroom provide a more conducive learning opportunity for students?
Home to several hundreds of languages and dialects, South Asia is linguistically diverse. Yet in the post-colonial era, many South Asian countries continue to use English as the medium of instruction.
Does that practice then, somehow, curtail the powers of expression and cognitive learning among students?
Educationists who participated in a panel discussion on Multilingualism in School Education in South Asia organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) and the Centre for Civil Society, India on October 30th, believe a change of practice would allow more students to better express themselves and understand scientific concepts while cutting across class divisions.
The panel moderated by Rohan Joshi an Education Policy Consultant from India included Prof Anjbeen Soomro, Faculty of Mathematics and Related Studies, Sukkur University, Pakistan, Dr Prasad Rao, Founder Chairman, Paramita Schools, Telangana, India, Prof Thakur S Powdyel, Former Minister of Education, Royal Government of Bhutan, and Shalini Wickremasuriya, Educationist, and Academic and Governing Council member of the Bandaranaike Academy for Leadership and Public Policy, Sri Lanka.
Multilingualism, says Professor Soomro, allows students to express themselves in the language they are most comfortable with. It empowers them and also ensures inclusivity.
At the Agriculture College she once taught, students wanted the terminology in local dialects, so they could better share their knowledge with farmers.
Though Pakistan’s constitution identifies English as the medium of instruction in schools, Soomro says, students are taught in Urdu in the primary grades. Inadequate knowledge of English brings about a sense of shame and segregation, with students from elite schools and those fluent in English developing a superiority complex.
As well, fluency in English is mandatory for employment in the Military, the Civil Service and the private sector.
India’s new national policy on education introduced in 2020 recognises the importance of multilingualism says Dr Rao.
By thinking and expressing themselves in multiple languages from an early age, students will be better at solving complex problems, he adds.
The challenge, he says, is in getting teachers to accept and implement multilingualism in the classroom. He notes, however, that introducing multilingualism does not mean replacing one language with another.
Dr Powdyel agrees that while youth have immense potential they are often curtailed in their intellectual growth by “the established expectations around communication and behaviour.”
Societies will be that much better and more progressive if diversity is allowed to flourish, he says.
Education should not be tailored with one goal, employment, in mind, but as a means that liberates the student while preserving the “integrity of the learner.”
Sri Lanka which took a different route in the early 1960s, switching from English as the medium of instruction to the mother tongue (Sinhala or Tamil) has a different tale to tell.
As Wickremasuriya explains, division along language lines was an underlying factor in the country’s 30-year ethnic conflict.
When the conflict ended the conversation turned to whether trilingualism (English, Sinhala and Tamil) should be promoted for “peacebuilding and social cohesion,” or whether the country should continue with education in the mother tongue along with exposure to a global language.
Eight years ago, she says the government of the day introduced the two-language policy, allowing students the choice of studying a subject in English from Grade 6 upwards.
Unfortunately, only 2.9 per cent of the entire student population between the Grades of 6 to 9 have shown an interest.
That, she says, is because Sri Lanka lacks teachers who are competent in English.
That drawback has also deprived teachers of the “skill set to draw on critical thinking and deep learning.”
An inadequate knowledge of English resulting in university-level students struggling to grasp complex ideas presented in that language has led to many dropping out, or even taking their lives.
She also points out that if faced with a need, students will find a way to learn a language; those seeking employment in Korea, learn that language within six to eight months and even pass the exam.
She adds that it is important to expose children to multiple languages early.
If linguistic justice is to be achieved says Soomro, younger teachers must be included in policy-level planning.
Teachers must also be exposed to the concept of translanguaging and must be open to students making mistakes when communicating.
Rao, meanwhile, points out that exposing students to the basics is far more important than insisting on proficiency.
There is much to be said for multilingualism and the importance of being able to express oneself in the language of choice.
However, proponents of the concept must keep in mind the Sri Lanka experiment; the complete switch to instruction in the mother tongue, with limited or no exposure to a global language resulted in generations of well-educated individuals stymied by their lack of English in accessing employment in coveted sectors.
It also further accentuated class divisions in society. (Colombo/Nov7/2023)