Teaching English as a language is different from using English as language of instruction
Prem Phyak (a PhD from the University of Hawaii, USA) is a lecturer, at department of English Education, Tribhuvan University, Nepal. His area of PhD is Second Language Studies, with a focus on multilingual ideologies, policies and pedagogies. His research areas cover identity, agency, and social justice in the intersection of language, space and education.
Our Choutari editor Jeevan Karki has spoken to Dr. Phyak on the area of language planning and policy in the context of Nepal.
1. Welcome and congratulations Dr. Phyak for your fresh doctoral degree from the University of Hawaii. What are you doing these days?
Thank you, Jeevanji. It took me sometime to settle in Kathmandu. I spend most of my time teaching at both Masters and M.Phil./PhD programs at the Central Department of Education, Tribhuwan University. Besides, I am working on a project Art, Language and Public Space. I am looking at the enactment of multilingualism in public space of Kathmandu and exploring both the reproduction and resistance of monolingual ideologies through the use of languages in city space.
2. As we know, one of your areas of interest is language policy in education. For our readers, can you explain what language policy and planning is and why does it become crucial in Nepal, a multilingual country?
Yes, my research draws on interdisciplinary approaches to language education. There are multiple perspectives of language policy. Traditionally, language policy has been defined as what different bodies of government decide about the use of languages in various agencies like education, mass media and government offices. This perspective is top-down and constructs language policy as a normative (establishing, relating to, or deriving from a standard or norm) practice, which may not necessarily recognize complexity of linguistic diversity and multilingual practices in real life situations. But my perspective on language policy is bottom-up approach. For me, language policy is what and how individuals, communities, and institutions practise languages in their real life without any censorship and symbolic dominance. From this perspective, each individual is taken as an agent of language policy. Since each individual and community can decide, what language should be used where and for what purposes. It is important to understand on-the-ground language practices. More specifically, language policy is simply a legitimacy of actual language practices on the ground. This perspective goes beyond language-policy-as-text idea to language-policy-as-practice.
“Language policy is simply a legitimacy of actual language practices on the ground.”
In Nepal, language policy discourse is dominantly guided by a top-down and normative ideologies. In other words, government tends to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach in the creation and implementation of language policy. Yet, such a policy does not work in multilingual contexts where languages across their boundaries and practices become fluid and dynamic. Therefore, language policy should be grounded on multilingual ideologies as experienced by bi-/multilingual speakers and epistemologies of language minoritised people. For me, language policy is ‘plural’ and ‘multiple’ and should recognize language practices of all individuals and communities; it should not impose monolingual ideologies in the guise nation-state and neoliberal ideologies. This perspective on language policy is crucial in a multilingual context like Nepal for two reasons. First, this perspective recognises bi-/multilingual identities of each individual. Second, while taking language policy as a multiple and agentive process, this perspective challenges normative boundaries between language that create hierarchy and unequal power relations among languages. Most importantly, it is necessary to situate language policies within local language practices in various domains, particularly at home and an immediate community of interlocutors.
3. So, regarding the language in educational planning is concerned, do you think Nepal is following a right model? I make a reference here, many children start their early foundation of schooling from English in Nepal.
A great question, Jeevan-ji! Yet, I should be careful when I say ‘a right model’. The notion of ‘right model’ in language-in-education planning can be hegemonic and may reproduce linguistic inequalities. Developing one ‘right model’ of language education planning may support a deficit view of language education that considers particular languages, mostly minoritised languages, problem while giving educational value to other languages. Rather than saying ‘a right mode’, I would like to use locally appropriate and linguistically sensitive approach. This approach to language education planning recognises all children’s language practices as resource for learning, both language and academic content.
“We should embrace locally appropriate and linguistically sensitive approach for the language in education.”
Nepal’s current language education planning is extremely narrow and unable to embrace real multilingual practices. Although there is some level of awareness of the importance of multilingualism in education, at macro level, both language policy discourses and pedagogical practices reproduce monolingual ideologies of language. For example, I had an opportunity to attend two language policy-related discussions in the last five months in Kathmandu. Both discussions were attended by linguists, teacher educators, government officials and teachers. Although those programs were organised to analyse issues concerning multilingual policies in education, the discussions could not challenge rather reproduced monolingual ideologies. Mostly because the discussion questions were framed by upholding monolingual perspectives, the panelists could not go beyond linguistic boundaries and neoliberal language ideologies. For instance, most often, in one discussion, the panelists were asked to express their opinions about the use of English against multilingual education. In another discussion, panelists were focusing on a ‘trilingual policy’ (English, Nepali and one ‘mother tongue’) and analyzing that the use of minoritised languages in public domains (e.g., education) is a problematic. Both perspectives see multilingualism in education as problem and construct binary oppositions between languages. For example, in the first discussion multilingual education is presented as anti-English language teaching while the second discussion, which was intended to discuss legitimacy of ‘mother tongues’, simply wrongly interprets ‘trilingual policy’ as multilingual policy. Such discussions invite tensions, but do not lead us to decision-making processes that are informed by academic research and on-the-ground language practices and meaning-making processes.
The increasing use of English as medium of instruction and its teaching from the pre-primary level should not simply be celebrated as a panacea, as seen in the current language education policy discourses, rather it should be understood as a part of broader ideologies, pedagogies and policies of multilingualism. I don’t mean multilingual education is anti-English, but it is, as studies have consistently shown, an incredible resource for learning English and any other languages. More importantly, it is important to understand that teaching English as a language is different from using English as language of instruction. Our policies have given space to teaching English as a compulsory subject from the first grade. Teaching of English and any other languages is not a problem, but reproducing monolingual English ideology is a grave issue. The body of literature from language learning and teaching from multilingual contexts have identified that using students’ prior linguistic knowledge (home language) in classroom pedagogies has a transformative impact in student learning. It is important to understand that students’ communicative and academic literacy knowledge in their home language plays a foundational role in learning new languages and academic content. In the current policies and ideologies of English language teaching, we have not been able to embrace students’ multilingual competence. While embracing outmoded the-earlier-the-better and the-more-the-better ideologies, the current language policies and practices are supporting subtractive model of language education. This model eventually leads to multilingual students’ lack of access to knowledge.
4. While having research on medium of instruction, I had a talk with some of the parents from Sherpa, Rai and Magar community. I asked them what if there was a provision of educating their children in their mother tongue in schools, they said there was no scope of their language for the future of their children and hence they were not enthusiastic about what you called ‘students home language in classroom pedagogies’. Therefore, if the community feel that multilingual approach to education is not necessary for them and even not possible, why do we need this?
I think the problem lies in how we frame our questions about language, but not with what parents and communities think about language. The problem lies in power relation constructed in our language education policies that have reproduced the dominance of particular languages, backed up by political and economic reasons for long, rather than educational and socio-cultural relevance. As you have said, parents are often asked whether they see the relevance of their home languages in relation to Nepali and English. They are asked which language(s) they prefer to be used in education. Such questions create a binary relation between languages and are deeply influenced by a monolingual ideology. But we have not asked parents what multilingual education actually is nor have they been engaged in understanding what multilingual education actually is. We have not asked an inclusive question about language and discussed with them how multilingual education is relevant to supporting quality and effective learning of all children. In other words, our questions make parents think that their home languages do not have value in education. It is not uncommon for parents to have negative attitudes towards home languages in the context where language education policies are guided by political economic rather than educational rationale.
5. The national and international policy documents assert the use of Mother-tongue-based Multi-lingual-Education. However, the practitioners say, it is next to impossible to practise it in Nepal, where more than 125 local languages are recognised. Therefore, what can be the practical solution for it? Or has the time come to look for another alternative approach?
I don’t think ‘practitioners’ are saying that multilingual education is ‘next to impossible to practice’. Indeed, in the context like Nepal, what is impossible is not to have a multilingual policy. I know that there is a dominant ideology, based on 18th/19th century European monolingual ideology, which portrays multilingualism as problem in education and other public spheres. However, as multilingualism is our reality, it will be costly, from both educational and socio-cultural perspective, to imagine and impose monolingual policies and pedagogical practices in education. The argument that multilingual education is impossible to implement due to a greater number of languages is fundamentally flawed and reproduces a deficit view of language education. More importantly, such a view is ill-informed and not supported by any educational and language learning studies, but it is politically motivated (supporting status quo and maintaining power relations among languages). What is true, as I have mentioned above, we have not been able to engage in informed discussions and decision-making processes. Seeing multilingualism as problem in multilingual country is the byproduct of ill-informed discussions. There are schools, communities and states, around the world, that have been using multiple languages in education successfully.
Although multilingualism in education is indispensable to support effective teaching learning, the existing multilingual education policy has two major issues. First, the transitional bilingual education model which gives space for using students’ home languages (other than Nepali) up to Grade 3 only does not support students to develop academic competence in multiple languages. This model, which eventually focuses on learning of dominant languages, does not contribute to develop multilingual competence of students. Second, the policy does not provide clear guidelines towards adopting multilingual pedagogies. We can see that, both in policy documents and pedagogical practices in schools, the existing multilingual education, unfortunately seems to support monolingual ideologies. For example, I have observed that most teachers and government officials interpret multilingual education as teaching of three languages—Nepali, English and one mother tongue—separately in school. While embracing this kind of separatist ideology, teachers are discouraging the use of multiple languages for pedagogical purposes in the classroom. Teachers are not educated and empowered to use multiple languages to achieve pedagogical goals in a planned and systematic way. My point is that we have to discuss what alternative pedagogical approaches, which embrace basic principles of multilingualism in education, that do not support a separatist ideology rather embrace an inclusive and co-learning practices could an effective approach. Two-way bilingual education programs, content-integrated multilingual education, inquiry-based learning and translanguaging pedagogies are some of the alternative practices that could appropriate in Nepal. These pedagogical approaches recognize linguistic and cultural capitals of all children in teaching-learning processes. Rather than considering multilingualism as a problem, these pedagogies take all students’ languages and language practices as integral part of learning language and academic contents. While saying this, I would not argue for a one-size-fits-all approach rather I focus on the need for working with teachers, students and communities in developing pedagogical tools that best address their linguistic, cultural and educational needs.
6. How do you evaluate the English language teaching (ELT) policy and practices in Nepal? What kind of policy should be developed to fit our context?
ELT policies and practices are unplanned and deeply shaped by global neoliberal ideologies. I have always argued that learning English is necessary; however, the construction and imposition of monolingual ideology as panacea for addressing educational issues is counterproductive for both ELT and learning academic contents. Second language acquisition and literacy studies have clearly shown that students cannot learn both language and academic content effectively if they are taught in a language they are not fully competent. In this regard, there are two major issues concerning ELT in Nepal. First, a dominant misconception takes ELT and the use of English as medium of instruction (EMI) synonymously. Considering ‘compulsory English’ (as a subject of teaching from the first Grade) insufficient, there is a growing trend to adopt EMI policy to teach content area subjects such as science, mathematics, and social studies. This policy is grounded on the assumption that students learn English better if all subjects are taught in English. However, what is lacking is critical and informed discussions and analysis whether or not this policy contributes to students’ cognitive and academic investment in learning processes. A growing body of literature has suggested that teaching students in a language they are not fully competent leads to lack of access to knowledge, cognitive investment and creativity in classroom. So the current monolingual view on ELT should be critically assessed and adopt a multilingual approach to English language pedagogy. In doing this, it is important to engage teachers in pedagogical planning to create space for multiple languages for an effective learning process, while achieving the goals of lessons.
“English is necessary; however, the construction and imposition of monolingual ideology as panacea for addressing educational issues is counterproductive for both ELT and learning academic contents.”
7. Finally, what do you suggest to a critical mass of scholars in the field of linguistics, applied linguistics and language education and ELT in Nepal?
I would like to highlight two major points. First, linguists, applied linguists and language educators, including ELT practitioners, should engage themselves in discussions that are informed by theories and findings from second language acquisition, language policy and illiteracy studies. This engagement includes understanding of both policies and practices from other multilingual contexts and critical assessment of whether or not language policies and practices are supporting students’ agency, identity and existing linguistic and cultural capital. This kind of engagement is necessary to make informed-decisions in language policy and develop alternative pedagogies in language education. Second, it is important to engage teachers, students, parents and other stakeholders in analysing language ideologies and pedagogies in order to raise their awareness of multilingualism and its importance in language education. For this, concentrated efforts should be invested in developing pedagogical tools and materials in collaboration with teachers, students and communities and implement in the classroom. Doing this will shift our attention towards embracing multilingualism as an integral aspect of education. For this, we should discuss how teachers can use multiple languages in the classroom in a planned and purposeful way. I would argue that rather than reproducing monolingual ideologies—both in policies and practices—our emphasis should be how to bridge gap, created by separatist ideology, between languages and discuss in what teachers can tap in students’ existing language competence. In sum, there is a need for reframing our language policy discourses and focus more on learners and their identities in language education.