English Medium Education: Hearsay and Reality
Teaching and learning English has been a matter of an invisible ghost among the teachers and learners in most of the government aided community schools of Nepal. On the other hand, English has been a matter of identity and pride of private boarding schools of Nepal. Since English has been a key to the attraction of parents in the private boarding schools. It is also claimed that quality in education is also achieved through English medium education. On the basis of such hearsay most of the parents are highly motivated to admit their children in the English medium boarding schools pursuing quality education. Because of English medium education in private boarding schools nearby, the flow of students seems to be increased in those schools. Consequently, it has reduced the number of students in government aided community schools. Realizing the fact, some of the government aided community schools of Nepal have started English medium instruction in order to compete with privately owned boarding schools in terms of student number and learning achievement.
It is really a matter of quest that whether English medium education is a cause of access and quality in education or not. It is also a matter of curiosity that whether English medium education can ensure the access of the students from the linguistic minority groups and sustain their high learning achievement or not. Does English mean quality? Does English medium Education really equate with quality education? Are private boarding schools really English medium schools? Are private schools really providing quality education? Can government aided community schools also provide English medium education? Is it reasonable and justifiable to provide English medium education from the basic level? Is it possible to transform Nepali medium government funded community schools into English medium? Will there be a large number of students and high learning achievement in the community schools where the number of students are said to be decreasing due to the medium of instruction if there is provision of English medium of education? There are so many such issues related to English medium education and the issue of access and quality in education.
To me, English is amazing thing when I got first exposure in one of the government funded primary schools of my village of mid-western hilly part of Nepal for the first time after upgrading in grade four. As I remember the first class of my English period, the teacher appeared suddenly in the classroom and said ‘Good morning students’. We were unknown about what our teacher really said and what should we reply. Then he said in Nepali language say ‘Good morning teacher’ when the teacher enters into the classroom in English period. Then our first class of English period started with the very good morning. After that, our teachers asked us to turn the first page of English textbook in our hand but we did not know what was written there because none of us were English alphabet literate. They were very odd and difficult to copy for us. We started our journey of learning English alphabets first with capital letters and then with small letters and then learned the spelling of ‘Good’, ‘Morning’, ‘Sir’, etc. The teacher wrote the spelling of ‘Good’ means ‘ramro’ ‘Morning’ means ‘bihan’, ‘Sir’ means ‘guru’. The holistic meaning of ‘gurulaai bihanko namaste’. I was really confused about the individual word meaning of the word and how the phrase ‘Good morning sir’ meant so. I thought English is not easy and straight as our teacher translated and interpreted the text.
The journey of learning English as the compulsory subject in each grade continued as a matter of undesirable burden with frightening ghost in each examination with uncertain guessing marks up to SLC examination. I was really the don in English among my classmates because I obtained high score in English than others from the hillside school of Dailekh. I was skilful enough to obtain marks in the examination because I could memorize and digest the answers of the questions and vomit on the examination papers which made me the don in English among other competitors.
Fortunately, I crossed the Lohore stream of SLC and my journey of learning English climbed up towards the Saatsalli straight uphill about three hours continuous on foot walk and reached to Surkhet valley within a whole day walking from 5 am to 10 pm. After crossing the small entrance creek of Surkhet Campus (Education) I appeared as a valid student of English Education of Tribhuvan University. My god! English classed ended there without using a single word in Nepali on that very first day of my college life. English teachers spoke only English during their whole periods. I was amazed of their English and their nonstop speaking in English. I was nearly hopeless at English and my donship stepped down on the spot. The English medium in English period among English students was hundred percent English. I crossed the Bheri river of PCL too and the journey of learning English migrated from Surkhet valley to Kathmandu valley towards the gate of Mahendra Ratna Campus, Tahchal, Kathmandu. I thought it is the place where English is taught and learnt. English was English there too. Much more English! Again, I migrated towards Kirtipur where Gurus of Guru Jees were there who could speak English not only in class but also outside the classroom and everywhere. English was teasing me and I was just wondering the glory of English upon my fate.
After that I started my new journey of teaching English. I started teaching English from primary level to university level and from private boarding school to government aided community schools. What I have realized while teaching English as the medium of education in private English medium schools where other subjects are also taught in English is that there is a craze and compulsion for learning and sharing in English not only of the students but also of the teachers. On the other hand, English is taught as the subject in government funded public schools where students just take as the burden in learning and the phobia of being failed always hunt them. Teaching learning activities are found to be dominated by Nepali langauge even in the English class too. The students want to learn the content of the text in English and teachers also want to teach the content of the text simplifying and supplying support from their mother tongue. English has been taught as a subject rather than a language.
My journey of learning and teaching English, described in a couple of paragraph above, clearly displays a huge gap between teaching English at schools and at the universities. The context now may have changed or modified a little, but English alone has not even been taught in English medium, especially in school level. In such context, hoe logical does it seem to imagine English medium instruction in schools? The question has to be raised not only in terms of the difficulties faced by the students but also the potential challenges that (non-English) teachers have to face in using fluent and comprehensible English to their students when many of them are not proficient in English. Taking English medium instruction and quality education synonymously leads to hundreds of such challenges.
Mother tongue education versus English medium education
Language not only helps to promote equality and empower its users but also is a key factor for the social inclusion in multilingual communities. The children with mother tongues other than Nepali cannot compete with Nepali-speaking children who have acquired it as their mother tongue in our context. Naturally, they feel inferior, isolated, or incompetent and are forced to remain as a disadvantaged group in our school situation. Many studies have already revealed that teaching in mother tongue in the early grades enhances children’s ability to learn better than in second or foreign languages. It has also been reported that if children are taught in languages which are different from their home language, they drop-out from school, have low learning achievement, and repeat classes.
Unaware of the fact that mother tongue education means teaching of and through the mother tongue and providing children with cognitive and linguistic benefits, parents think that it means simply teaching the children their mother tongue, which they can learn in their own home, and thus it is a waste of time to send their children to such schools. They want their children to learn languages which can get them a job and access to higher education. They think that education in the mother tongue will not help them attain their goal but would rather restrict their children to a limited area. They have rather a positive attitude about Nepali, the official language of the country and English the international language and lingua franca accepted globally.
These days, most of the government schools have started teaching in the English medium and made it a rule that students should come to school in the assigned dress with a tie around their neck and a bag on their back in order to compete with English boarding schools to attract students for enrolment. These schools give priority to those who want to learn English rather than to those who want to learn the mother tongue as an optional subject. It naturally makes the mother tongue learners feel humiliated. As a result, they opt for English instead of their mother tongue.
As Nepali and English have grown more dominant in Nepali societies they have started to replace other languages. Despite increasingly overwhelming evidence of the value and benefits of early education in mother-tongue, few countries invest in it. Designing policies to incorporate these findings should be central to addressing the low quality of education in the developing world. It also goes to the heart of making education more inclusive and ensuring the right to education for all. Our education system favours using national or ‘global’ languages instead of mother-tongue teaching. This needs to be brought under discussion.
The issue of English medium education is also related with the issue of mother tongue based multilingual education as the linguistic right to get education in their mother tongues. The linguists and educationists claim that the access and quality in education is only possible if the education is provided in the mother tongue of the learners in the multilingual speech communities. It is reported from many studies and researches that access of linguistic minority groups learners can be ensured in education and they can achieve high learning achievement through mother tongue based multilingual education. Nepal is a multilingual country where the multilingual education is piloted in some of the pilot schools of Nepal expecting to increase the access and quality in education especially of the linguistic minority community schools. Similarly, there are a few of the pilot districts projected as the English medium education as well with the aim of achieving the quality in education. The medium, either mother tongue medium education or English medium education ensures the access and quality in education is really one of the major issues in education circle among the educationist.