Saturday, 24 December 2011

Debunking a few myths

The government of Nepal has shown its commitment to ensure quality education for children from all the communities by 2015 as envisioned by Educational for All and the Millennium Development Goal programmes. The Ministry of Education (MoE) has also developed guidelines for implementing multilingual education (MLE) as an integral part of the Nepali education system. According to the plan, local mother tongues will be the medium of instruction for pre-primary education and for all subjects (except Nepali and English) up to Grade 3. Basic education in Grades 4 and 5 shall be bilingual (the mother tongue and a second language). The government aims to implement MLE in 7,500 schools by 2015.
Famous scholars like Carol Benson, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Pamela MacKenzie and Ajit Mohanty have argued that teaching in one’s mother tongue not only enhances the children’s overall educational attainment but also establishes a linkage between schools and the community. However, there are some major misconceptions that have to be removed for the sustainability of MLE.
Education in mother tongue is irrelevant
There is a strong belief among parents, children and policy makers that dominant languages like English and Nepali are the most important languages to access wider socio-economic opportunities at the national and international levels.
Indigenous people from the developing countries often believe that learning in the mother tongue has no any relevance for promoting quality education. There is also a belief that since children are already competent in their mother tongue before they go to school, there is no point in introducing it in school. This belief emerges from the ignorance and illiteracy of the indigenous people. They are not aware of and are not well informed about the fact that, in the early grades, learning in the mother tongue will help children learn better, creating a strong foundation for effective learning of other languages like English and Nepali.
Kids should be taught in the dominant languages
There is a view that children should be taught in the dominant language irrespective of their linguistic background. In different developing countries, the perceived value of English, for example, as the language that brings prosperity in one’s life is taken as granted. People from poor countries have a mindset that without teaching English from the early grades, their children will be unable to compete with other children. Of course, it is true that having knowledge of English is necessary as it is a global lingua franca. There is no doubt that command over English provides wider socio-economic opportunities. But it is not true that children can learn better English or any dominant language if they develop confidence in learning in general.
Introduction of English, for example, from the early grades does not guarantee children’s competence in English. Availability of competent teachers, materials and other sources has to be considered. The case of Ethiopia (one of the world’s poorest countries) shows that children learning in their mother tongue for the first eight years have performed better in all subjects including English than those who were not taught in their mother tongue. Similar findings have been reported from Orissa, India. This clearly indicates that learning in the mother tongue in the early grades not only promotes competence in the first language but also promotes better learning of other languages including English.
Multilingual education is anti-English
In educational discourse, we see that mother tongue-based education and English education are considered as enemies. Not only indigenous activists but also educationists have this kind of belief. Policy makers and educationists fear that use of the mother tongue may displace the use of English and vice versa. However, this is only a misconception.
Mother tongue-based education is not an anti-English education policy, rather it supports effective teaching and sustainable learning of English. It advocates teaching of English at the right time, by the right people and for the right purpose. MLE argues for enhancement of quality education through the mother tongue in the beginning with effective teaching of English and other languages after children develop a strong foundation in their first language. Likewise, right policies and effective implementation of English education helps to promote the world’s linguistic diversity.
Multilingual education is expensive
There is a belief that since MLE requires production of materials and teacher preparation in multiple languages, the state cannot afford the financial burden of implementing such a programme. Although sufficient funds are necessary to implement the programme, it is not impossible to find funds if there is strong political will. At the same time, it should be noted that we cannot compare the children’s educational attainment with money.
Minority Rights Group International reported in 2009 that the world’s 101 million children are still out of school, and that between 50 and 70 percent of them are from minority linguistic communities due to linguistic barriers. We see that even if states and donor agencies have spent huge amounts of money, there is no substantial progress in ensuring access and promoting the quality of basic education. The World Bank has reported that although mother tongue-based education programmes are costly in the initial phase, in the long run they are more cost-effective as they promote quality education.
The value of the programme that helps to promote social cohesion, bring ethno-linguistic minority children into school, enhances quality education and increases community participation in schools is priceless and incomparable with the investment of money. In this regard, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and others have argued that rather than asking whether states can afford mother tongue-based education programmes, we have to ask whether states can afford not to implement them.

Published on 23 December, 2011, The Kathmandu Post