Doctrine divides, Action unites

 

  February 2014

Multilingualism, Social Harmony and the Role of the Teacher

Shree Ram Chaudhari
 

Nepal consists of a rich mosaic of diversity, which, according to the country’s 2001 census, numbered 102 ethnic groups and castes.
(Photo from www.trekinnepal.com; map from www.annapurna-trekking.com)
 

The most recent and most important dynamics in Nepali multilingualism are the entry of English as a medium of education and a language of business, diplomacy and cross-cultural communication. On the one hand, everyone knows the benefits of multilingualism: they would like to teach their children not only English but also other languages. However, on the other hand, it is difficult for the next generation to develop the same level of language proficiency for academic and professional communication for higher learning and the sharing of complex ideas if they only use their local languages for basic communication and use English only for educational, professional and intellectual purposes.

Educators understand that multilingualism helps to facilitate access to the curriculum and to learning in school. It also improves communication between different linguistic groups. Multilingualism provides children with the ability to share in a wide range of intercultural experiences, such as literature, entertainment, religion and other interests. Children can become fluent in more than one language; and for many people throughout the world, multilingualism is very common. The level of fluency depends on such factors as the language program children follow in school and the extent of parental support. The ability to speak the mother tongue as well as the national language and an international language creates a much wider range of life choices for individuals but can also achieve national unity. There is no scientific evidence that learning more than one language is intellectually damaging. Children who have a good understanding of how different languages function are more likely to have good analytical skills and are often more effective communicators. Therefore, there is no doubt that multilingualism is a positive social and personal resource.

Teachers of language and literacy also know that there is no evidence to show that multilingual societies face more disadvantages than monolingual countries. Any social disadvantage is caused by factors other than language. It is important educationally that children learn in their mother tongue in the early years of schooling. The Nepalese government has also instituted a policy regarding this observation.

However, the forces of globalization and prevailing myths about the power of English (as if it is a magical potion that will create jobs and opportunities and intellectual progress on its own) make it very difficult for societies to develop educational systems based on their understanding of multilingualism. Because of the globalization of English, parents and teachers are attracted to giving education to students in the English medium right from the very beginning. They wrongly believe that students will be able to better succeed in the competitive world if they have English proficiency. In reality, it is knowledge and skills that students need most. A great deal of research regarding multilingualism indicates that supporting children’s understanding of their native language first will enhance their acquisition of the second and third language. Similarly, there is a link between multilingualism and creativity. Multilingualism broadens access to information and offers alternative ways of organizing thoughts. Unfortunately, these realities get lost in the maze of myths about the magic of English.

Just consider the work of a businessperson. Most business people need to travel around the world and communicate with people who speak different languages. It is very clear that if students can speak multiple languages they will be much better business people who cannot only sell better but will also create and maintain good will with many more people in the future. Consider students too who may become diplomats, administrators and managers of multinational corporations or work for the United Nations or become writers and journalists at the international level. There is no profession that I can think of where students will not do better if they are multilingual. Remember though it will not be enough for them to “know” how to conduct basic communication in all the other languages except English, for only if teachers allow, encourage and facilitate the use of multiple languages at higher levels of education can students be efficient in multilingual contexts in their future careers.

Many educators wrongly believe that promoting multilingualism is costly, impractical or difficult. The reality is that such assumptions are simply wrong. Promoting multilingualism need not cost anything: teachers can simply encourage their students to use and develop different languages by asking them to express their ideas in different languages in the classroom as long as everyone understands. Similarly, there is nothing impractical about equally respecting and promoting different languages that students speak. Instead, the opposite should be seen as unprofessional, unethical and shameful for educated people and educators. Finally, multilingualism is becoming a profitable business in many areas. Think about a student who is able to translate documents. Realizing the importance of multilingualism, many software companies nowadays are developing multilingual interfaces, multilingual applications for translation, multilingual communicative mechanisms, etc.

Yet another problem with educators is that they believe that they are not qualified to teach or promote multilingualism. While it may be true that a teacher is not “qualified” to teach different languages, there is no reason why a teacher should not promote and encourage multiple languages among their students. Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason why they should suppress students’ languages. Just think about it: teachers have no right to do that in the first place.

Although politicians try to divide society along linguistic lines, educators can help their students speak the languages of different ethnic groups and thereby help them become cross-cultural citizens and promoters of cultural harmony. For this endeavor, teachers need to realize that Nepal is very rich in culture and its aspects. We need to utilize our culture to create peace and harmony among the people of Nepal, not for fighting with each other in the name of culture and language.

Teachers of language in a rich multilingual country, like Nepal, have a duty to facilitate multicultural education among their students. If they do so, they will not betray their students’ need to learn better English. If students continue to learn new ideas, if they grow up as citizens of the world who understand and respect different cultures and their languages, in the long term, their English will be better. Teachers need to prepare students for the real world, and the real world is multicultural and multilingual. At the very least, teachers need to draw on students’ linguistic and cultural experiences and knowledge, allow them to utilize those resources and never try to suppress them—whether intentionally or not. Teachers in multicultural classrooms should be open to their students and put forth the effort needed to know their students inside and outside of the classroom. Evaluating cultural diversity, teachers should build multicultural programs, show appreciation for differences, avoid stereotypes, acknowledge differences in children and discover the diversity within the classroom. In this way, teachers in Nepal cannot only improve the lives and futures of their students, but they can also make a contribution to a more vibrant country with more respectful relationships among people from different ethnic communities. Should not this goal be an aspiration of education in Nepal?


* Shree Ram Chaudhari is the program manager of the Society for Participatory Cultural Education (SPACE) in the Bardiya District of Nepal. He attended the first School of Peace (SOP) that Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) held in Bangalore, India, in 2006.

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