Multilingualism, Education, English and Development: Whose Development?

Multilingualism, Education, English and Development: Whose Development? - Plenary by Professor Ajit Mohanty at the 11th Language and Development Conference, 2015

Professor Ajit Mohanty with Alisher Umarov

Professor Ajit Mohanty with Alisher Umarov

Alisher Umarov, (Chief of Education and Programme Specialist, UNESCO) the Chair of the session, kept the expectant audience entertained and informed with is dry wit while technology issues were solved at the start of the plenary. Professor Ajit Mohanty framed his talk identifying the key issue as access to development, opportunity and success, and that this access is usually controlled by language, with English perceived by many as the gatekeeper to success.

Professor Mohanty outlined the impact of a hierarchical structure of languages, and how these layers put English and major regional languages at the top of the hierarchy, with local indigenous languages disadvantaged and marginalised, entering a cycle of neglect. He explained that in India, EMI schools are almost always private, and therefore link between class and social status is directly related to school fees. The rise of low cost EMI private schools, which he labelled as ‘Doom schools’, are on the rise, with lower socio-economic classes making great sacrifices (5-10 per cent of their income) to send children to schools that achieve very little education, apart from rote learning and memorisation of phrases and texts. The wide held belief is that EMI schools offer a better quality education, however Mohanty provided research evidence that showed that children learning through Mother Tongue medium at lower primary levels are more successful than EMI schools in all subjects, and that when English is introduced in Grade 4 or 5 as a subject, their English proficiency is the same by grade 9. In Orissa, for example, out of the 22 languages identified, education is now being provided through 19 of these languages and research shows these children are doing better than children receiving their education through English or even Odia. English, he stated, benefits the privileged and discriminates against the disadvantaged, and children from low income and marginalised communities who study through EMI and worship the ‘English Goddess’ neither learn English nor get a proper education.

Following this point, Geetha Durairajan asked whether English can be viewed as a ‘healer’ language rather than a ‘killer’ language. Professor Mohanty explained that English can lead to diminishing of linguistic diversity, but within a multilingual framework, English does have a key role to play when it is founded on strong mother tongue development. Our children, he said, need to be multi-lingual, and education is a place where they learn about their world through their mother tongue, and learn English as a subject that can provide access to so much. The key is that English is learnt and used on a strong foundation which he believes is best achieved through teaching in the children’s mother tongue.

Post by: Simon Etherton
The writer is the Senior Academic Manager English Partnerships for British Council in South India

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