Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dying mother tongues: Need for a more concrete national language policy

Local languages are being displaced from schools, both public and private. In private schools, English is not only the medium of instruction (MOI) and a subject in the curriculum, but also the language of communication. No matter the language policy devised by the government, it is only applicable for public schools. And currently, not a single private school features a local language as the MOI. Moreover, private schools attract students by overemphasising the English medium, for which many parents pay huge sums of money.

One parent, a taxi driver, from Kathmandu recently told me, “I am sending my son to a private school because they teach English and give a lot of homework. With most of his friends in private schools, my son doesn’t want to go to a public school. Since he started, his English has significantly improved.” The motivations parents have for sending children to private schools seem never-ending and often trump the difficulties many families face in paying high fees for private schools.  “It is difficult to afford private school, but in this modern age our children need to know English to get good jobs. And if I send my son to a public school, he thinks that he is from a lower class family…all rich people send their children to private schools. Besides, although I am Tamang, my children speak very little of the language and don’t like to use it.” It appears that private schools are selling English and projecting it as a key to material attainment by focusing on its commodity value. In this regard, sociologist Martha Caddell says, “English-medium instruction emerged as a key dimension of the selling of dreams that characterise these aspirations. Use of English—even of a very poor level—is considered to connect students to a wider international project, offering a greater potential for mobility than Nepali-medium government schools.” 

There are two different educational language policies—one for private schools and one for public schools. This phenomenon has created a clear line between the haves and have-nots—a phenomenon similar to what educationist RA Giri argues as the “unspoken privileging of the English language has created a further division in an already divided Nepali society”. The social identity of the children who go to private schools seems to be richer and more civilised while those who go to public schools are considered to be poor and uncivilised. Given this division, parents are discouraged from sending their children to public schools where English is not as central as in private schools.
Another policy that contributes to the displacement of local languages in primary schools has been the voluntary transfer of public school management to local communities. The handover of management responsibilities to the community per the Seventh Amendment to the Education Act of 2001 envisioned enhanced participation of the local community, improved quality of education, and increased efficiency and accountability in schools. In 2003, the World Bank funded the government’s Community School Support Project (CSSP) to support community-managed schools. According to the Department of Education (DoE), more than 8,000 public schools have already been handed over to communities where School Management Committees (SMC) have taken sole responsibility for their management—including the hiring of teachers, the selection of the MOI, and the generation and allocation of funds for overall school development. The policy also aims to address the deteriorating quality of education in public schools. To this end, there has been a shift from Nepali or local languages to an English MOI in community-managed schools.
Regarding the switch, a head teacher at one community-managed school in Kathmandu said, “We had to switch to compete with private schools. Parents want their children to be taught in English, so without doing this, parents will send their children to private schools instead. Without English as the MOI, we are not able to increase the number of students, which limits the quota of teachers we receive from the government.”
Upon asking him asked him why the children, a majority of which are Newars, are not taught in Newari, he responded, “If we teach in the Newari language, Newari guardians will send their children to private English-medium schools instead of ours. The number of Newari students increased after we introduced English from grade one.” This view indicates that the government’s unwillingness to issue a uniform language policy for both private and public schools is forcing community-managed schools to introduce an English MOI to compete with private schools.

Why do community-managed schools introduce an English MOI? One obvious reason is that they want to increase the number of students so they receive more teachers from the government. If the number of students is low, fewer teachers are allotted for the school, both to teach classes as well as handle administrative work. The more students enrolled, the more teachers a school is entitled to. Because of this, community-managed schools are compelled to use an English medium, displacing local languages (even Nepali), to increase the number of students.

The government’s policy meant to encourage teaching in mother tongues in primary schools seems to be nothing more than rhetoric. The overall general educational policies of the government contradict its claims to be promoting local languages in schools. The dominance of over poor, marginalised and tribal groups has been legitimatised through the introduction of English MOI from the early grades in community-managed schools and private schools. There is a need for a more concrete national language policy to address not only the country’s multilingual realities, but also the strong aspirations of parents and children to learn English over their mother tongues.

Phayak researches on the issue language-education-identity nexus in multilingual and multicultural contexts