Speaking a foreign language makes you less intelligent. This is a fundamental truth about speaking a foreign language, but it is often forgotten. And forgetting this truth can have profoundly negative consequences for the classroom.
I do not mean that the practice of learning a language is harmful to intelligence. What I mean is that when we express ourselves in a language that is not our mother tongue, we must simplify our thoughts. To give a personal example, I have been conversationally fluent in Nepali for almost two years, but even today when I speak Nepali I feel less intelligent. I know fewer vocabulary and the words I do know are simpler than those of my Nepali friends. It takes me longer to parse sentences and longer to respond. I forget words and mix others up and am often laughed at for some amusing mistake (my students were quite confused when I told them that their homework assignment was due ‘pharsi’ – I had meant ‘parsi’). For me, thinking in Nepali is just harder to do. It takes longer and it is exhausting.
When our students speak or write to us in the English language, they are the same students as when they speak Nepali to us outside of class, but the outward manifestation of their personalities can be very different. They may be bolder or they may be more shy, depending upon how they face the challenge and potential humiliation of being forced to express themselves in a less intelligent (and oftentimes laughably simplistic) way. This is the discomfort and terror of learning a language, and also its exhilarating challenge.
As teachers who have long since mastered the English language, we sometimes forget this. We teach language as if it were a simple skill like long division, and not a fundamental means of expressing ourselves. We scold our students for not speaking out in class, for being timid and quiet when their names are called and they must stand up and speak out in front of their friends. But when we do this, we are forgetting the terror and frustration that we experienced when we were students. We are inhibiting their learning.
By teaching only in this way, we make speaking English a terrifying ordeal for the less confident students. And it is almost impossible to develop communicative competence, in which students are able to hold a spontaneous conversation. Without communicative competence, the students may be able to pass the SLC but they will never be able to speak English fluently.
We must also take language into account when considering the medium of instruction for other classroom subjects like science and social studies. Most of the students where I worked spoke Tamang as a first language, Nepali as a second language, and English as a third language. The decision for medium of instruction is a very important decision in a country like Nepal that has such vibrant language diversity. In choosing to include instruction in the medium of English, Nepali, or a regional language, a school must respond to the desires of the community, the pressures of competition with other schools private and public, the resources available, and the strengths and limitations of the government curricula and examinations.
Ideally, students should be given the opportunity to learn in the language with which they are most comfortable. Speaking a foreign language makes you less intelligent. When students learn history or science in a language that is not their own, their grasp of the subject matter is unavoidably simpler. The depth of their questions and their creative capacity are diminished. They do not learn as well.
Unfortunately, in many places throughout Nepal today this is something of a necessary evil. A good command of the English language is considered one of the most useful skills, and English medium instruction is held to be one of the best ways to develop that skill. Schools must compete with each other by offering quality instruction in the areas that foster high SLC scores and attract students. Schools in poorer areas can also be hampered by a lack of materials and staff.
But regardless of resources or medium of instruction, in every single classroom in Nepal there needs to be the realization that language study is less about memorizing words and more about learning to communicate. Language study is difficult, often scary, and (when mastered) extremely satisfying and valuable. Speaking a foreign language will make you feel less intelligent, especially at first, but mastering a foreign language will make you brilliant.
* Luke Lindemann was a 2010-2011 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Shree Udaya Kharka Secondary School in Chapagaon VDC, Lalitpur. Before receiving this grant, he worked as an English teacher for Bhutanese refugees in the United States. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics from Pomona College, and his primary interests are language issues and education.