Millennium Development Goals, Education for All and the Issue of Dominant language

Uttam Gaulee

Although official statistics show a progressive improvement in elementary education in Nepal over the last several years, an alarming number of children are still not in school. The number of these children is more than one million according to Global Movement for Children. What does this data say about our education system? How does the government or our society look at education? Is education still a privilege or a right of every individual? Let’s look at these questions in the light of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Education For All (EFA) global initiatives. Furthermore, as teachers of language and literacy, let us consider the relationship between the big picture of education and the emphasis on “English as education” in Nepal. How would respect for and promotion of education in local languages make a difference? Would the use of local languages for literacy and education better connect formal education to informal learning in the world outside school?

What are millennium development goals?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the key development targets declared by world leaders at the end of the millennium. “Achieving universal primary education” is one of the key goals because without basic education, it is difficult to meet other goals which are related to hunger, poverty, health and environment. Hence, the goal to providing basic education to everyone has been the main agenda of international development even before the declaration of MDGs. Government of all countries including Nepal have already agreed to Education For All (EFA).

What is EFA?

We know that a million children are not going to school, but we do not have statistics to show how many Nepalese people consider basic education a basic need and a human right. EFA is the official international declaration by all governments recognizing that basic education is the right of every individual. Government representatives from all around the world came together in Jomtein, Thailand in 1990 to declare unequivocally that every single person on earth needs basic education. The very first article of the declaration for Education For All clearly affirms the right of every individual—child or adult alike—to get fundamental education:

Every person – child, youth and adult – shall be able to benefit from educational opportunities designed to meet their basic learning needs.

This declaration stimulated governments to provide basic education to all. However, opening schools, having teachers and textbooks is not enough to provide education for all. There are many other issues such as the student’s personal, emotional, and linguistic and social backgrounds. We will discuss the issue of the dominant language here.

Which Language?

So, basic education is for all, but in which language? Providing education in one dominant language is the norm and that doesn’t serve the purpose for all in multilingual societies. Children who speak a language other than the language of instruction confront a substantial barrier to learning. Basic education should be given in the indigenous language of the children. This question cracks open another complicated question which has also been a matter of contention for a long time. The other question is related to the effectiveness of native language in instruction. Many studies have shown that instruction in native tongue is effective so much so that even proficiency of English or French language is better if taught using the mother tongue (Brock-Utne, 2000).

The African Experience

Africa is the continent where all kinds of language experiments have taken place. Most of Africa was colonized by England, France, and Portugal. The part of the continent colonized by England had English as the dominant language and this part was known was Anglophone Africa. Similarly, the part under the control of France had French as dominant language and was known as Francophone Africa. And, the part colonized by Portugal as Portuguese and was known as Lusophone Africa. Education was only available in the dominant language. The language barrier prevented many children from education. The language policy of such colonized countries was marked by the widespread use of the dominant language, particularly for pedagogical purposes. For example, mastery of French was the primary goal of education in Francophone Africa. Education in indigenous languages was also discussed.  However, the opinions were divided and the opportunity of protecting and promoting indigenous languages was ironically foiled by the Africans themselves.

Taiwanese Experience

Taiwan’s case is one of the complex cases. While they had multiple indigenous languages, Mandarin remained the dominant language. Taiwanese people had a hard time protecting their local languages. According to Tsao (2008), Taiwan government had to introduce some measures to protect indigenous language such as:

  • official prohibition of the punishment for speaking the minority language at school (in 1987)
  • the revision of Broadcast Bill  allowing the use of native languages in domestic broadcasts (in 1993)
  • formulation of the local language-in-education policy, allowing the teaching of Taiwanese local languages, cultures and histories in primary school beginning in 1993. (Tsao, 2008, p. 286)

However, after fifty years of high-handed promotion, Mandarin has become the first language of a large group of Taiwanese who have grown up speaking the language in public domains as well as in family. To these people, the use of such other Chinese varieties as Southern Min or Hakka is non-pragmatic and has no value other than fostering ethnic solidarity (Ibid, 287). Eventually, the current tendency is that the government, parents, and publishers all show a far more enthusiastic attitude toward the teaching of English than towards the teaching of local languages (Ibid, 293).

Should English be the language of education?

It is not uncommon to consider the mastery of the dominant language as the goal of education itself. It has happened in many societies in various times in history. Bruck-Utne mentions that French was considered to be the education (p. 144) in West Africa, when it was colonized by the French (as mentioned above). While considering mastery of a language as education maybe ridiculous, it is endemic. In Nepal, government has produced textbooks in indigenous languages and opened schools in order to provide elementary education in students’ own vernacular. Ironically, studies have found that parents are not willing to send their children to those schools fearing that their children will remain marginalized forever by doing so. They want their children to learn the widely spoken language Nepali. Moreover, more and more parents in urban areas are sending their children to English medium schools. They want their children to be proficient in the “language of the world.” People listen to you if you speak English, no surprise English is largely taken as the language of education. Anyone found to be speaking in local language is fined in many prestigious schools in urban areas. Actually, children watch each other and report on who breaks the so called rule. This phenomenon has been poignantly depicted by Bruck-Utne in the African context. She metaphorically describes this situation as children being turned into witch-hunters and traitors to their own linguistic community (p. 145).

Now, does that happen in Nepal and Africa only? Indian scenario is not very different. Although English has official status of assistant language, it is the most important language of India. It is the most commonly spoken language after Hindi and probably the most read and written language. Indians who know English will always try to show that they know English. “English symbolizes in Indians minds, better education, better culture and higher intellect” (Daniel, 2000). My curiosity prompted me to look how it is working in China, where people are aggressively learning English. I ended up with a projection that “. . . by 2025 the number of English-speaking Chinese will exceed the number of people speaking English as a first language in the rest of the world” (Andrews, 2011). Here’s a video link describing the “craze for English” in China which my colleague Shyam suggested. As teachers, policy makers, researchers, what do we do about this reality? Maybe we can’t do anything about it. Maybe we can.

Politics of the donors

There are arguments that the spread of the English language all over the world did not happen automatically. This has been systematically proliferated by agencies and this proliferation is still on. Languages are often imposed by powerful countries to foster their own languages. Robert Phillipson‘s book, Linguistic Imperialism published in 1992 discussed this issue in great detail. Brock-Utne has strongly denounced the politics of donors to support English or French language by the proliferation of English or French text-books. She argues that Britain and France want to recolonize the African minds through these languages again. According to her, these countries first spend money on expanding the use of their language and then ultimately aim to create more demand of English textbooks and materials. Among bilateral donors, however, there are also those that support the use of African languages as a language of instruction, first and foremost the German development agencies such as DSE and GTZ and the Swiss. There are also examples of financial support given by Nordic NGOs and Nordic donors to publishing of learning materials in local languages (Brock-Utne, p. 162). Why do parents, societies, and educational systems favor dominant languages against their own local languages? One of the most important reasons for this is the invisible hands of money. When countries or educational establishments receive cash from someone, they have to meet the expectations of the donors.


The questions remains: what do we do as educators about the fact that people and societies and entire nations favor dominant languages and often destroy their own indigenous linguistic, cultural, epistemological heritages? Is it part of our job to worry or do anything about it? Or is this a question that is more relevant for policy makers than for teachers?  Is it worth fighting the fight? If yes, for what reasons? Is it an academic issue or a political one?

An English teacher who has taught for three decades in the Gulf, Patricia Ryan makes a very sensible point that as educators there is no reason why we should suppress linguistic diversity in favor of a misguided craze for a world language. She says in this Ted video that we do need a global language but we need more than that. We need to promote multilingualism because languages are the storehouses of knowledge. We need the global language to learn from other societies and share our knowledge with others. With a foreign language as the only medium of learning and expressing thought, the very development of thought process will be negatively impacted in the first place, and we will not receive a great return by emphasizing too much on the language itself.

Are we just jumping on the bandwagon with the masses, are we more interested in the donors than our students’ learning . . . or are we thinking and working like informed educators?


Andrew, G. (11, March, 2011). China makes unprecedented English-language push. In Indianapolis Business Journal. Retrieved from:

Brock-Utne, B. (2000). Education for All—In Whose Language? In Whose Education for All? : Recolonization of the African Mind. London, UK: Garland Science.

Daniel, A. (2000). English in India. Retrieved from:

Global Movement for Children (2011). Nepal: Disadvantaged Children Missing Out on Education. Retrieved from:

Tsao, F. (2008). The language planning situation in Taiwan : An update in Kaplan, R.B. and Baldauf, R.B. (ed.) Language Planning and Policy in Asia, Vol 1 : Japan, Nepal, Taiwan and Chinese Characters.

World Conference on Education for All Meeting Basic Learning Needs (5-9 March, 1990). World declaration on education for all and framework for action to meet basic learning needs. Jomtien, Thailand.

7 thoughts on “Millennium Development Goals, Education for All and the Issue of Dominant language

  1. Definitely there has been linguistic genocide mainly due to state policy. Furthermore, innate power, resource power and structural power are playing the vital role for labelling language as dominant and marginalized. I think that it may not be only the financial capital working as a backforce but it may be the psychological phenomenon and ignorance embedded in the mindset of indigenous community.

  2. Thank you Uttam Sir for raising the universal issues of Education and language. I really enjoyed reading this article that has contextualized the unversal issue reflecting from the African Experience to the Taiwanese Experience and comparing with ours.

    According to the census 2001, Nepal is a home of diverse linguistic communities with more than 92 languages belonging to four different language families such as Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Astro-Asiatic, and Dravidian groups. The children with mother tongues other than Nepali cannot compete with Nepali speaking children who have acquired it as their mother tongue. They naturally feel inferior, isolated, or incompetent and are forced to remain as a disadvantaged group in our school situation. CDC(2004) states that there is low participation of non-Nepali speaking students in lower class of primary schools, their low achievement, higher percentage of their dropouts and increase in non-going children. To sort out the language issues, Mother tongue instruction (MTI) is a must.

    The only one strong argument that monolingual policy will strengthen national solidarity had posed some hinderance in using Mother Tongue as the medium of instruction in schools. But after the restoration of democracy in 1990, the government of Nepal has realized the importance of Mother Tongue (MT) education in consonance with the UN declaration. Some of the steps the government has taken in this connection are reflected in its laws and acts.

    Following the declaration of United Nations’ Convention on Rights of the Child (UNCRC) held in November 20, 1989 AD, the government of Nepal ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child on September 14, 1990. The convention is the world’s most widely ratified treaty. And then, the Constitution of Nepal (1990) has made provision for the right to gain primary education through mother tongues. The 7th amendment of Education Act (2001) and different policy documents envisaged under the 10th National Plan such as Education for All (EFA), Vulnerable Community Development Plan 2004 has supported MTI.

    Ultimately, MT as the medium of instruction at primary level will help in achieving the goals of EFA, MDG and sorting out the issue of Dominant language. Most importantly, it will relieve children from psychological shock and improve their performance.

    1. Praveen and other colleagues, I am so, so, so glad that we are finally talking about multilingualism in Nepal. Respecting the language of the learners, using it to teach them, or (for god’s sake) at least allowing them to use it for expressing their ideas freely is something that even a moderately sane person should recognize as inherently beneficial, civilized, and rational. Unfortunately, people who cannot even respect the language of others, who cannot see how prohibiting the use of local languages is morally as well as pragmatically wrong… get to call themselves “educators.” Yes, I just said that–read it again if you like.
      Anybody can understand two exceptions to this fundamental respect for linguistic and cultural diversity: (1) a language classroom where you inspire your students to speak the target language, and (2) teaching/enforcing required languages at the local, national, and international levels (for local, national, and international communication and success in the world). But this means that we teach or promote more than one languages as necessary or as they naturally occur in the community: it doesn’t mean that we should try to reduce the languages spoken by learners in our attempt to teach/promote the languages that we want (English, Nepali, Maithili, etc).
      Now comes the question of practicality–the traditional “hauguji” of those who would like to promote their own language or the language they can make the best bang out of as “the” language of education. The proponents of pragmatic “hauguji” will ask: How can I teach social studies to my Maithili speaking students in Maithili (if I cannot speak it myself)? How can a school system or the society at large afford to teach students speaking 92 languages in all those mediums, even at the primary level? For instance, what will you do if there are students from half a dozen language communities in the same science classroom?
      There are a few easy answers I can think of:
      1. Use English as the medium of learning English (read that again)
      2. Use Nepali as the medium for all other subjects (this has drawbacks, but there is no better alternative; vast majority of students can understand Nepali–and the point of multilingualism is not so much to create too many mediums for a nationally accredited education but to start promoting multilingual proficiency as well as allowing local students and teachers to use what is most effective for teaching and learning)
      3. Let the teachers and students freely use other languages to further facilitate and enhance teaching and learning (again, this will have many political implications but it is no more “political” than monolingualism)
      4. Where the teachers’ or students’ use of local languages creates communicative barriers, require the common medium (Most of the times, teachers are sensible people who are best able to determine what is best to most of their students. If language politics creeps in, then having a mainstream option for everyone to have to fall back on will solve the problem).
      What we need is the ability to learn and use many languages, as the communities naturally demand. Teaching/promoting multiple languages may not be easy or practical, but questions of human rights, morality, and ethics are not measured in what is “practical”–plus, in today’s world, knowing multiple languages is becoming more and more practically beneficial.

  3. Surendra ji, Praveen ji,Shyam ji and all NELTA Collegues,

    I would like to sincerely thank you all for reading and responding to the issue of dominant languages. While we have rightly identified the importance and value of widely used languages, we are missing something more essential (the development of thought process in the first place, as you have pointed out in your comments) in our aggressiveness towards achieving the prospects that these languages promise.

  4. An excellent work for developing nations. This paves way for a better understanding of EFA and a green light for a localised implementation

  5. “Is the country well on its way to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the target year of 2015? Again, how relevant are the MDG’s in so far as Nepal’s real development goals are concerned? In other words, how much of an impact will the achievement or non-achievement of these goals have on the overall well-being of the people?”
    Some good questions explored here.

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