Boarding the Illusory Train

Uttam Gaulee

Uttam Gaulee

When I had a brief stint as principal of a private school in Nepal circa 2008-2009, I had to deal with two frustrating parents representing two contrasting groups that created financial hardship for the school to run. One group represented the canny and the other naive. Mr. Chatur (pseudonym) represented the canny group, the smart well-to-do parents who didn’t pay fees and Ms. Saralmati (pseudonym) represented the naïve, poor parents.

Mr. Chatur was a businessman. He ran a retail-cum-wholesale store not too far from the school. He sold school supplies including uniform, shoes, belts, etc. to our students. Being one of the parents and due to proximity to school, he had an advantage to win business from the school community. We also recommended his store for parents to buy uniforms for consistency of color shades, etc. My problem with this otherwise fine gentleman was that he never paid the tuition for his sons. Clever as he was, he took advantage of an existing provision of a flawed school policy of tuition waiver for the top-performing students. Both of his sons topped the class every year and Mr. Chatur claimed the waiver for them. It would not be wise to do away with this merit benefit because all other schools also adopted it. My disappointment with this businessman grew when I heard that he hired a personal teacher to teach his two sons. Business minded as he was, in the wrong way, I would add, he figured out that hiring a personal teacher for a couple of hours a day was in fact more cost-effective for him than paying full tuition for his two children. This way, he was saving tuition money. Obviously, he was rich enough to pay the full tuition for his kids. Irony.  

One day, I talked to him and asked him to consider donating something to the school after congratulating him for both of his sons’ excellent academic performance. I indicated to him that we needed some lab equipment for school. He said okay for many times, but he never donated anything. Finally, after months of my requests, he showed up with a cheap plastic wall-clock. His annoying business-sense was visible in the advertisement of his business printed within the dial of the clock that he wanted us to hang on the school’s most prominent wall. I was sad but I laughed at my own success as a fundraiser.

Ms. Saralmati represented the naive group. She was the guardian to her grandson Raju (pseudonym). Her son worked in a Gulf country and her daughter-in-law (Raju’s mother) had married a different man so Raju was technically an orphan under the elderly woman’s care. Ms. Saralmati had no money, and Raju was an average student. At one point, his tuition had not been paid for 18 months. The number of parents not paying their kids’ tuition was significant and was steadily increasing. They would just send their children to the English Medium School because this was in itself prestigious in the community. This prestige issue coupled with the demonstration effect of a conservative society was so deep that it defied rationality in terms of the parents’ ability to pay. Such parents were a great problem because due to their delinquency in paying fees, teachers often had to wait for months to receive their already meager salary, the only reward of their hard work. As school principal, my desire was to recommend raise for teachers’ salary.  

At one point, teachers decided to prevent students with fees due from sitting for the final exam, a decision that I came to learn after I took the position of the Principal. Notices had been sent to parents in advance stipulating that any students with tuition due would not be allowed into the examination hall. When the examination day arrived, a number of parents led  by Ms. Saralmati, along with their respective kids, lined up to my office door. When I reached school, Ms. Saralmati caught me at the feet and started begging and imploring that her grandson be let into the exam hall. “Please, Sir! Don’t end my grandson’s education today. My son is in the Gulf. He will send money one day and I will pay you! I have nothing to offer right now!” I was moved and torn apart from the story of her financial hardship, which was real. But if I let her child in, I would lose the trust of the teachers. I called these parents into my office to talk.

My conversation with the parents

I knew that the conflict was hitting both sides so I tried to direct it towards a productive end. I explained to Ms. Saralmati and those parents that I was bound by the rules of the school and the trust of the teachers and so was not able to allow their children to the examination hall that day. But I assured them that I could arrange to have a separate examination the following week so that their kids’ education is not jeopardized. As they felt better, I asked them one by one what happened and why they were not able to pay tuition for their kids. Each of them had a unique story of financial hardship but the interestingly resounding promise was that they would pay later somehow. Their record of long delays has a more serious story behind. They were financially unable to pay the tuition in the reasonable future.

“Why don’t you consider sending your kids to public school?” I asked the blunt question in as polite a way as I could be while pretending as if I was just curious. Everyone went silent. I knew it was a hard question. But since Ms. Saralmati had already been vocal, she disclosed the reason.

“Sir, we know that the public school is free but as everyone says, the free education has no value in it.”

“But it is not free in that way,” I tried to explain. “It is free for you because the expenses of the school are paid for by the government.”

“Oh really? So does it actually have value then? Would my naati get a job by going to iskul [public school]” Ms. Saralmati asked, while other parents listened heartily. All nonplussed.

“Yes, it does. I was educated in a iskul myself!” I explained.

“But there were no Boardings [English medium schools] when you went to iskul, were there?” asked a cynical parent.

“That’s right, but there are still good reasons to send your children to the public school. First of all, your kids will feel better and more confident in public schools because they will know that they don’t owe money to school. Secondly, as I explained to you, the government is spending a lot of money on public schools. Thirdly, they also teach English once a day!”

I showed them the calculation how we spent Rs. 11,255 per student from what we get from the parents while the government spent Rs. 13,359 [estimated]. They started looking at each other when I put my principal hat back on and reminded them not to forget to pay the tuition dues.

Looking Forward I offer this story to the intellectual community asking all of us to think what this says about our education and society. How does this relate to ELT and what should language teachers take away from it? Benefits of multilingualism and the mythology of English medium’s equivalency to quality education has been discussed before in Choutari

This is one of the consequences of that mythology, a consequence that impacts parents severely, that destroys private schools (which tend to be seen more as villains than as victims), and demoralizes students across the country. Also, when I reflect on my own brief tenure of principalship, I now understand what made me so uncomfortable that I quit the job in less than six months. The system in place was and is still, aggravating socio-economic inequality and injustice. I will write in next blog what I think could potentially solve a principal’s plight of having to hate Mr. Chaturs and avoid poor grandmas. Until then, please let me know what you think.

The author: Uttam Gaulee is a doctoral candidate at the institute of higher education, University of Florida in the USA.

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.

Conclusion

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?

References

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

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: http://adaniel.tripod.com/Languages3.htm

Global Movement for Children (2011). Nepal: Disadvantaged Children Missing Out on Education. Retrieved from: http://www.gmfc.org/en/about-us/introduction/about-this-site

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.