English Vinglish: English in Public Schools

English is not just another language we can learn, but an important tool that can empower Nepali workers in the global job market.

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My father teaches in Pokhariya Higher Secondary School, one of the many public schools in Biratnagar. Beginning this academic session, the school is planning to have separate sections in which all subjects, except Nepali of course, will be instructed in English. Those who wish to be instructed in English are being encouraged to join, with additional fees charged for the luxury. This novel approach is being tried out not only in Pokhariya but in many government-run public schools across the country.

The obvious question, then, is whether this is necessary. Government run public schools have always used Nepali language as the medium of instruction. Is instruction in English going to change anything, for better or worse? Will learning everything in English improve the grades of public school students? Or is this only a fad that will fizzle out over the next few years? There are questions aplenty, but no precedent to fall back on for answers. I do not know what the result of this experimentation is going to be. However, I believe this is an excellent idea that will revolutionize our education system.

Many of us still remember how the world panicked over Y2K crisis as the year 2000 approached. In order to avert the crisis, all computer programs in the world would have to be fixed to make sure important financial and economic software installed in those computers did not go haywire once the year 2000 started. So, the world needed computer engineers and programmers on a massive scale. Both China and India had those in large numbers, but most companies and businesses in the world used Indian computer firms and engineers to get their problems fixed. Was that because Chinese software engineers and programmers were less adept? No. The world came to India because Indian engineers had an advantage over Chinese engineers: English language, in which the Indians were fluent and the Chinese were not.

We sit between those two economic powerhouses—China and India. By 2020, around 40 percent Chinese are expected to be in the middle-class, and over 700 million have been lifted out of poverty so far. India still has some way to go to attain the level of growth that China has experienced. But it has also grown spectacularly since liberalizing its economy in the 1990s. Millions have been lifted out of poverty, and India’s middle-class today boasts a population larger than the entire population of the United States.

China has grown on the basis of its manufacturing prowess because of an abundance of cheap labor and great economic leadership of its rulers, especially that of Deng Xiaoping. However, the history of previous economic powerhouses of North America and Europe shows us that manufacturing growth does not last long. In order to create a sustainable economy that keeps growing, it is important to make sure that the workforce transforms itself from low-skilled to high-skilled. That looks more likely in India than in China. India’s economic growth has been led by high-skilled sectors like IT and R&D. A workforce with good English skills has meant that demand for high-skilled work has kept coming to India.

It would be naïve to imagine Nepal growing as fast and as far as India if we can somehow become more fluent in English. That is not my contention. However, the world has become smaller with the workforce of today not constrained within a nation’s boundaries. We need not look far. Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis leave each year to work overseas. We have migrated to work in Dubai, Qatar, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, India and many other countries. None of these countries speak the same language, but most understand English.

However, most Nepalis who go to work in these countries know neither English nor the local language of the host country. This creates problems for Nepali workers ranging from something as harmless as miscommunication to as serious as outright exploitation. A lot of the problems that Nepali workers face overseas could be reduced if we knew English. We need to realize that English is not just another language we can learn, but an important tool that can empower Nepali workers in the global job market.

Because of their British legacy, and because their natives speak thousands of languages, Indians have resorted to English as a means of communication even among themselves. This knowledge of English language has helped Indian workers go everywhere, from North America to Europe to Africa, and succeed as laborers or businesspeople. Other countries such as Poland and Ireland, where a significant population has command over English, have been able to grow not only because of their own domestic economic demand but also because of outsourcing of jobs and demand from other English speaking countries. Even in Nepal, most students from English-medium schools find better opportunities, whether in going abroad for studies or in getting a job within Nepal. English is no longer a language but a required ‘qualification’ in getting good jobs in today’s Nepal.

The experiment that has started in public schools is in the best interest of the country. I do not believe that instructions in English will make students any smarter than if they are instructed in Nepali language. However, English is a dominant language spoken and understood in almost every country in the world. Nepali workers of today have been competing in the world marketplace for jobs. English language instruction in all our schools—public and private—is a worthy cause because being able to read, write and speak English has become a very important skill that a ‘global worker’ of today and the future needs to possess.

source: Khanal, Mukesh (2013),"English Vinglish", republica,22 may 2013

2013-05-22 | EducateNepal


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