Beauty and Power of Multilingualism

Shyam Sharma

Shyam Sharma

During the past year, I came across a lot of news items (including some based on scientific studies) about the benefits of multilingualism. There was so much on this issue that I sometimes wondered if the scientific and sociological studies were essentially a part of rather political responses to the ongoing redistribution of economic and geopolitical power around the world (especially in relation to the global status of the US vis-a-vis other countries like China, India, and the rest of BRICK nations). Perhaps immigration, increased global connections (virtually and otherwise), and development in other areas are contributing to it. In any case, the range of research, arguments, and perspectives on the subject was quite rich and diverse, with some reports going as far as saying that multilingualism may delay severe mental disorders in old age to others indicating that it is simply business-smart for companies to make their websites more multilingual. Living in the US, a society where monolingual policies and assumptions are (understandably) prevalent in most walks of life, I was pleased to see the emerging appreciation of multilingualism because I think this will only have positive outcomes on local and global levels.

However, every time I read the news about this issue, I was sad. I was sad that, back home in Nepal, where learning and using multiple languages is a fundamental reality of life and society, formal education is increasingly adopting the mind-boggling “subtractive” approach in relation to multilingualism (excluding/destroying some languages to improve others), in the name of education, economic opportunity, and globalization. Instead of focusing on the real challenges of education, schools and parents and experts alike are buying into the idea that simply switching to English-Only medium of instruction for all subjects and at all levels will magically improve education — when, in our special context, the opposite is far more true. Let me return to this concern after sharing a quick summary of the new studies and reports mentioned above. I will conclude by sharing some fun activities for the classroom, just so I don’t spread too many sadness bugs to you as a reader.

If you have the time and can browse through the annotated bibliography linked to this page on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, this site provides the most exhaustive list of studies documenting the benefits of being multilingual. Since even the annotations are rather overwhelming in amount, here is a brief list if you don’t have too much time. The studies show that proficiency in multiple languages:

  • supports academic success by helping individuals use critical language awareness and sensitivity to nuances of meaning, read and understand texts better for any purpose, perform better in standardized tests/exams, reinforce the learning of new languages required in school especially through two-way immersion, fine-tune the ability to hear and pay attention, better hypothesize in learning science, bolsters success in higher education in general;
  • enhances cognitive ability by helping individuals use more divergent thinking, go higher on the level of critical thinking, draw on different perspectives and think outside the box, employ greater cognitive flexibility, think better non-verbally, acquire greater metalinguistic awareness and creativity, utilize an improved working memory, deploy “more advanced processing of verbal material, more discriminating perceptual distinctions, more propensity to search for structure in perceptual situations, and more capacity to reorganize their perceptions in response to feedback,” offset age-related loss of memory and even diseases, use an apparently increased IQ;
  • improves interpersonal, social, economic, and professional opportunities for individuals by helping them boost their social skills and confidence, connect them to more people and increasing their opportunities to learn and grow, strengthen emotional and personal relationships with others who may feel strongly about linguistic and cultural bonds, give them unique skills and abilities, allow them to travel and work more successfully.

For anyone interested to learn even more about the benefits of multilingualism, here is another compilation of news, issues, and debates on a university website. Some of the sources include an article titled “Bilinguals are Smarter” on New York Times, a Wired Magazine article about bilinguals making more rational and less biased decisions, and a Ted talk by Patricia Ryan, a long time English teacher in the Middle East, who points out a number of problems, including the problem of gatekeeping in the name of educational quality. A fun-to-read article in The Huffington Post includes these benefits: better understanding cultural references, better navigate the social and professional worlds, better notice things that are lost in translation, feel better connected to one’s heritage/family and history, have deeper conversations with people across borders, make self-expression multidimensional as if one can use multiple personalities as needed.

As I indicated above, the more I read news and reports about the benefits of multilingualism, the more I wondered if, back home, educators and policy makers, schools and parents will begin to change the increasingly dominating discourse and practice of English-Only instruction. Where are we on the issue of multilingualism and what, if anything, will make us change direction? Are well-informed educators doomed to passively watch the simplemindedness of those who create and implement wrong-headed language policy (or rather don’t do anything, because they seem to have no clue) forever? What can we do if we are teachers in English-only medium schools? Should those of us who have started discussing multilingualism be worried about offending our colleagues in private schools who have a stake in English medium education, fellow parents who may misunderstand what we mean, and the people whose business depends on the mythology of “English medium = quality education”? What about those of us who are studying or working abroad (especially in an English speaking country)? Frankly, I think it is intellectually and socially irresponsible to be silent on this subject. But I could be unrealistic. The facts in favor of promoting multilingualism through education are crystal clear, but power and politics much more complicated.

Of course, English is everything its proponents say it is, and it does most of what they say. The problem is with “only” English in a society where most teachers and learners do not use it outside school, where few teachers speak it fluently and few students can master nuance even after being forced to use it for ten or fifteen years, and where there is insufficient resource to implement what schools have doggedly tried and most of them have miserably failed for decades. Contradictory as it may sound, except in a handful of good private schools in a handful of cities, English education itself will dramatically improve if teachers and students are first allowed to teach fluently and learn effectively — not to mention education in all other subjects. Now, why are Nepali-medium schools not “automatically” better? The answer is: they would be much worse (as they are going to be) by replacing Nepali and local language as the medium of all instruction. When English is imposed on teachers who can’t speak well and students who don’t have the opportunity to develop the competence needed, anyone can predict the results. English proficiency as an educational objective is absolutely necessary and we must do whatever we can to improve it; we owe it to our children to teach this “global” language. English language as an “only” medium for all subjects in our particular context at this time is a “snake oil.” What we need is freedom to use what works best at different levels of education, types of schools, subjects and teachers and students and so on. What we need is a general recognition that proficiency in English and quality education are two completely different things and we should expose the myths and lies on which the monolingual moves are based.

I am reminded of a book titled Buying into English in which the author, Catherine Prendergast, illustrates the failed promise of English in Slovakia. What made a positive difference for those who could benefit from English was not the language itself but instead their privilege or achievement in economic, social, political, and other forms. Nepal’s case may be unique in some ways, but the same dynamics apply. If students coming out of our private schools are more successful in higher education and the professions, it is because they had the privilege of schools with better resources, better teachers, richer and/or more educated parents, homes and communities with more favorable environments, networks of educated and resourceful family members, etc, etc, etc. For these reasons, I find it absurd when our educators ignore the big picture, disregard shocking numbers of failure (including failures due to English medium), and continue to sell or support the logically broken idea that English medium in itself will improve education. One should be ashamed to promote an educational situation based on and perpetuating shocking inequalities in education. English medium is a “false cause” of success before it starts becoming a real one for the minority; for the rest of the nation, when this medium is made mandatory, it makes teaching less fluent and learning less effective, and it undermines success and opportunity instead of enhancing them. Thus, for educators themselves to use the “success stories” of a minority when the majority does not have all the other privileges that go along with English medium is disingenuous, if not dishonest.

Yes, if all the other conditions of education described above are better, English can add to the ultimate outcome. But even then—and let me go one step further than I have before—students will benefit if they are taught in more languages than one, if they are fluent in more languages than one, if they can access knowledge and connect to people and think by using and . . . . Just think about adding all of the benefits of multilingualism that I summarized above to the previous sentence! That is the power of multilingualism when compared to monolingual education. That is what would happen if our private schools (and public ones that are adopting the same mythology) were to let teachers use multiple languages in the classroom. Future generations of students would be able to communicate complex and diverse ideas in more than one language, improving their learning and increasing opportunities in different walks of life and for a lifetime!

Now, as I promised at the outset, just to move away from the shock and disgust about our systematic destruction of multilingualism (because too many of us have somehow bought into, help advance, or tolerate this amazing, grand lie that using “English Only” improves education), let me share a few fun activities and conversations you can use in your classroom.

Ask students to translate the word “beauty” into Nepali (and/or other languages they speak). In the case of Nepali, hoping the English-only madness hasn’t completely destroyed this language among all students in class, someone will say “sundar.” Ask students if that word is associated with females or males in Nepali. The answer, in Nepali, is male, right? In English, it is typically used to describe females, with the adjective “beautiful.” What is “beautiful” in Nepali? “Sundari?” Probably not! Well, yeah, some students will say. Then ask the class to translate the word “sundari” back into English, or imagine what image“beautiful” conjures up in their minds. Again, if at least some of them have a good sense of the connotations in Nepali, they might say things like “nakkali” or someone “who tries hard to look pretty.” In any case, the connotations in Nepali are not positive—unlike in English, generally speaking. Guess what, if any of your students are good in Nepali, they will also tell you that “sundari” means a female monkey. And so the conversation will continue, just using one key word and two languages, showing you the beauty and power of multilingualism. Good luck with the rest of the conversation, whichever way you want to wrap it up.

Let us take another case of hard-to-translate words in different languages. Here is one of the many websites that provide lists of such words from languages spoken around the world. Take any number of these words to class (or pull them up and show the accompanying images on the screen if that is possible), and then ask students to write words from their home or other languages that they don’t think have accurate translation in English. This activity will also help your students refine their translingual skills, taking one more step in the direction of achieving many of the benefits of multilingualism described above. What does a word and especially its connotations say about the society (context, culture, lifestyle), about changes over time, about worldviews, etc? What are the personal, social, and professional benefits of continuously developing vocabulary, range of syntax and idiom, and sociolinguistic competency in more than one language?

To keep this post short, let me sign off with a link to a blog post that I wrote for a professional group named Transnational Writing here in the US. In this two-part essay, I have discussed some of the practical/classroom strategies and activities for engaging students in translingual communication (a hot button topic here in the US these days).

I look forward to reading your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

The author:  Dr. Sharma is currently working in the capacity of an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Stony Brook University, New York in the USA

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