EMI in Nepal: A Passport to a Competitive World or a Commodity to Sell? A Case Study
I have observed that many public schools are adopting English as medium of instruction (EMI) in Nepal for a decade. During my last visit to Solukhumbu in June, some school principals stated, with a great enthusiasm, that they are gradually replacing Nepali with English as the medium of instruction up to secondary level. Even though there is lack of research and case of studies to find whether such a shift is a boon or bane. It is already a disputed issue at both global and local educational discourses and policies. Based on my own experience, observation and theoretical knowledge, I, in this blog post, make attempts to analyze the EMI situation in Nepal with reference to some questions attached to it. I also suggest that a transitional model of language education is appropriate for multilingual country like Nepal.
Shifting into EMI
I have visited several EMI classrooms, particularly three under-resourced schools in my working areas for three times this year (2014/2015). What I found is, the primary motives of shifting into EMI are increasing students’ participation, enhancing quality of education and improving performance of the schools.
Many public school authorities are basically shifting their medium of instruction to English from Nepali in order to attract the large number of students who are now attracted to private English medium schools.
One of the school principals, Mr. Prabhu Ram Basnet, from Solukhumbu articulates his views this way:
English is a global language, and it functions as an international lingua franca. EMI helps students connect countryside with a global world and offers them boundless opportunities. In addition, it is the language of global business and technology. If I had not implemented EMI in my school, many children would have joined private schools. Still, we are not able to increase the number of students at primary level. The government has already cut off the teachers’ quotas for primary section due to less number of students. EMI is producing better results to increase enrollment in my school.
Public schools are also adopting EMI so that they can acquire more quotas for new teachers from the government. More strikingly, teachers take for granted that teaching in English helps students find job and participate in global community. They also believe that students’ progress in the English language contributes to more access to information and knowledge.
Likewise, parents also consider EMI as a gateway to join a global academic and economic community. They think that English creates better academic and economic opportunities.
A guardian from the same area puts his views this way:
English is obligatory in this competitive world. I want my children to learn English so that they could receive better academic offers at national and international arenas. Ultimately, it leads to a quality to life. Therefore, EMI in school is a right approach now.
From the cases above, we can understand that both the teachers and guardians mean EMI leads to quality education. Whereas, there have been a lot of critiques regarding whether English when adopted as medium of instruction in the school contributes to quality education.
In the schools with EMI, teachers have to depend on the textbooks prescribed by the government alone. Sadly, there is not any support and teaching resources that can help the teachers to effectively conduct their classes in English medium. Very few teachers find EMI classroom pleasant and exciting in several content related subjects. Such teachers are either are from English language teaching background or novice ones. They love speaking English in the classroom most of the time. They also invest more efforts to learn new words and phrases in English. On the other hand, most teachers who have been teaching in Nepali medium of instruction for decades in the past find EMI very challenging. They feel their schools adopting EMI has posed a burden in their profession. This tendency might hinder teaching learning activities. In this regard, a teacher from Southern part of Solukhumbu, asserts as below:
I am not confident enough to teach in English. I’ve been teaching in Nepali since last two decades. Now I am supposed to teach in English. Teaching in English is very challenging for me. I cannot update myself at the old age. Neither are we provided any intensive training that can support and facilitate the EMI.
Another observation, use of translation method that has once abandoned by English teachers with school level English textbooks written using communicative methods has a comeback with the schools adopting EMI. School teachers are largely translating English texts into Nepali language during classroom teaching. While in others, teachers only use English. Here the paradox is, students can easily comprehend the contents delivered by the teachers using translation methods but they cannot when the contents delivered by the teachers in English. During the interaction with teachers, they have revealed that they have not made any assessment to find whether the students comprehend their teaching in English. If the students fail to understand, the teachers are yet to come up with a proper strategies to help the students in case of failure. All the teachers do not possess required proficiency level in English. And they do not bother about learning English either. They argue that they give emphasis on content, not language while teaching subjects like mathematics, science and social studies.
Yet another revealing part of my observation, students are less involved in pair and group works. Neither are they found engaged in any types of project work as it is a must for learner centered approach. Generally, teachers introduce the lesson, talk to the students, explain the teaching items, translate them and provide little notes on the board. However, students’ progress in building English vocabulary is a noticeable phenomenon through EMI. They generally seem to enjoy the lessons in all subjects with EMI in the beginning even if they can hardly read and write about social studies and science lessons. Their enjoyment is finally detected during the assessment. It is evident from the cases of students who do not understand test items in English. When inquired, a student states as follows:
Sir (teacher) translates questions in Nepali, so it is very easy for us to answer in the classroom. But I found difficult to understand some questions during the examination when teachers did not translate them in Nepali.
But some schools have been implementing CAS (Continuous Assessment System) to assess overall progress of students. A teacher from Solukhumbu put her views in positive light as follow:
We have challenges in terms of proficiency level of English to implement EMI. Further, students from Rai and Tamang linguistic backgrounds find it hard to learn all subjects in English in the beginning. However, we assess students incorporating the parameters from CAS, such as students’ attendance, participation in classroom activities, behavioural changes, project work and so on. We discouraged paper pencil based test at early grades for two years. So I did not find a lot of problems to assess students.
The impact of EMI on learning
The brief background of EMI setting might not capture all other contexts, but it certainly sets a scenario of EMI implementation and its impact on broader educational practices in Nepal. Parents and children have been influenced by the global academic and career offers, advancement of technology and access of information. They firmly believe that English opens the door to build a global networks, ties and relations. EMI has brought significant progress of students in English language being exposed to it and expressing the ideas in reading and writing in several academic subjects. However, comprehension part of the students is not clear. For instance, I did not find students performing drama in English. Neither were they involved in other creative activities in my working area. The learning achievement of these three schools has been increased by 6% in this academic year. However, the increased learning achievement might need further justification and statistics to see whether other factors or EMI alone contributes to this increase.
Teachers report that many students from early grades fail in mathematics, science and social studies because of sudden shifting into EMI. Their views reflect that students understand the content better in their first language. The other side of the impact is the growth of other national languages in which children are believed to learn and comprehend better than any other second or foreign languages. In many cases of EMI in Nepal, students are punished if they use their mother tongue inside classroom or school. They are forced to generate knowledge and internalize the meaning of content taught in English. It raises the question of cognitive development of learners. Hence, is EMI a medium of instruction for other academic subjects, or is it the sole objective at all? In a nutshell, the question of whether EMI is producing satisfactory learning outcomes still remains unanswered and needs further explorations.
Looking EMI into Back and Forth
When reflecting back to the history of medium of instruction policy, Jung Bahadur Rana, a powerful Rana Prime minister, established the Durbar (Palace) School after his return from Europe as he was greatly influenced by the use of English in the west. However, it was only open to members of the Rana family (Eagle, 1999). Thus, the first government-run school in Nepal practiced EMI. Likewise, the first post-secondary educational institution in Nepal, Trichandra College, opened in 1918 also practiced EMI. The government of Nepal showed interest in cultural unification only after 1950. The slogan of ek bhasha, ek bhesh, ek dharma, ek desh (one language, one costume, one religion, one nation) summarized the goals of the Panchayat government, which attempted to spread Nepali, Hinduism, and other symbols of nation throughout the country to create a unified national identity (Rai et al., 2011). Throughout the Panchayat era, the goals of education were to promote development through unification of the nation under one language and culture. Education in Nepali medium of instruction became accessible to common people instead of a privilege for elites with the goal of bringing the whole population into a unified national identity. (Weinberg, 2013). Thus, Nepali was the mandatory medium of instruction and all other languages including English were discouraged. After the restoration of democracy, many private English medium schools started EMI from grade one and public schools followed the same pattern.
There are questions regarding EMI implementation and the age of the students. At which age is EMI is to be incorporated? What is the justification in a way it is appropriate at grade one? What is the progress of students with EMI of different ages at different levels in relation to learning outcomes? These questions certainly need further inquiry. In addition, public schools do not have any definite guidelines to implement EMI. Policy only allows choosing English or Nepali.
The medium of instruction for school education shall be Nepali, English or both, whereas primary education can be provided in the mother tongue (first language). Language (as a subject) shall be taught in the same language (CDC, 2008).
The policy does not have comprehensive arrangement and facilitation plans to support the schools that implement EMI.
Next element of the analysis is teachers’ English language proficiency level required for EMI. My observation shows that teachers are forced to teach through EMI in many cases. Many public schools have been implementing EMI policy without qualified teachers. It is entirely unclear what the requirements are with reference to English language competence. Many EMI teachers do not see themselves as English language teachers. They consider their job as a facilitator of students towards better learning content deliberations through better comprehension.
On the other hand, schools do not have any plan to teach students through EMI. Teaching through second or foreign language is entirely different issue from teaching academic subjects through the first language. As EMI concerned with language teaching pedagogy, there are questions that require further discussion. Are teachers, dealing with EMI, aware of foreign language teaching pedagogy in a multilingual context? Are they familiar with the process of communication through second or foreign language in the classroom? Is effective communication in English happening in those classrooms? In most instances, formulaic use of English is being observed. Students memorize the phrases and words, even sentences, most of the time. If the subjects to be taught do not have meaningful relationship with the outside world, learning cannot take place. How we can ensure effective communication taking place in the classroom in English among teachers and students in various academic subjects is a crucial issue in EMI settings.
The use of students’ home or community language is seen in all EMI schools I have observed. In many classrooms excessive use of Nepali has been observed. If the teachers are not proficient enough in English, they certainly use students’ home language. In this regard, what is the effect of using and not using L1 in the learning of the students? A clear guideline is indispensable. With reference to the teacher training, there has not been any uniform teacher training modality developed yet to assist EMI in Nepal. NCED (National Centre for Education Development), the apex body for human resource development at school education has not institutionally materialized the teacher training model for the EMI purpose. Neither there is any space for EMI in current TPD (teachers’ professional development) model of teacher training. It shows that EMI is not in priority of policy in the Ministry of Education. Furthermore, there are doubts on training manuals at theoretical ground designed and implemented for EMI purpose by several organizations in Nepal. For example, some training sessions are merely translation while others are full of pair and group works. Ministry of Education and its associate agencies need to think over a uniform teacher training model for the EMI purpose which can be a basis for training at different levels.
Similarly, many head teachers are found confused with which subjects to be taught through EMI. For instance, many private English medium schools teach social studies in Nepali medium while this subject is taught in English in public schools. The basis for decisions is not clear yet. The decisions are not based on the effectiveness of learning process and outcome from the medium of instruction implemented in schools.
EMI is unquestionably a growing phenomenon in public education in Nepal. It is assumed to be a passport to a global world. Despite the fact, 50 % students still fail in SLC and end up being a migrant laborer. It has been beneficial to improve the students’ English as it provides maximum exposure to them through speech, reading and writing in several subjects. EMI is thought to open the door of possibilities for lofty academic and economic offers at local and international level; nonetheless there are suspicions over how many students from public schools have this opportunity. Furthermore, EMI in Nepal is being very powerfully promoted, and the phenomenon is more idealistic in nature. However, it has been contested issue in Nepali academia for both political and pedagogical reasons. There are strong academic evidences that support multilingual education at both local and global educational policies. The most importantly, researchers have critiques on the weak pedagogical aspect of EMI in multilingual situation, particularly on the process of communication inside the classroom. EMI has been implemented without any logical guidelines in public schools. It is being implemented with little or no preparation and planning at all. The phenomenon is not effective in terms of its impact on students’ learning of several academic subjects.
The policy regarding EMI is not comprehensive, nor is it academically and practically desirable. It is more covert in nature leaving the things up to the market. The English language related policies and practices have been implemented without considering the educational costs and benefits in Nepal. The sole logic behind the current shift is globalization and market forces. Thus, EMI has also been a key selling point in the market in the guise of the ideology of quality education, which at present remains a myth. It has been projected as a commodity in the market. But very few students have access to the global and local market resources available in English.
Incorporating a foreign language at the early foundation of education is not academically sound policy. Nepal needs to formulate multilingual model of the language policy and planning. Whereas, EMI planning needs to be guided by the transitional model- from local language to official language to international language from early grades to university level.
CDC (2008), Curriculum Development Centre, Sanothimi Bhaktapur.
Eagle, S. (1999). The language situation in Nepal. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 20 (4-5), 272-327.
Rai, V. S., Rai, M., Phyak, P., & Rai, N. (2011). Multilingual education in Nepal: Hearsay and reality. Kathmandu, Nepal: UNESCO.
Weinberg, M. (2013). Revisiting history in language policy: The case of medium of instruction in Nepal. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 28(1), 61-80.
The author is a training specialist in English at REED Nepal and an adjunct faculty in Tribhuvan University, Nepal.