Teaching in English around the world
Language without instruction
LAHORE AND LUCKNOW
More children in Africa and South Asia are being taught in English. That’s often a bad thing
“Roly poly right, right, right. Roly poly left, left, left,” sings a class of five-year- olds at a government primary school on the outskirts of Lucknow, a city in India’s Hindi-speaking heartland. This English- medium school, one of seven that opened last year among the 215 government schools in the Sarojini Nagar administrative block, is part of an effort by the government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, to counter the rise of private schools. Private schools have been mushrooming in India—private-sector enrolment rose from around a quarter of pupils in 2010-11 to over a third in 2016-17— and in Sarojini Nagar there are 200 registered private schools and many more unregistered ones. One of their main attractions is that the great majority of them use (or claim to use) English as the language of instruction.
As a recruitment drive, the policy seems to be working. A school nearby saw its enrolment rise over 50% in six months when it switched the medium of instruction from Hindi to English last April. As an education policy, however, it is not ideal.
The language in which children are taught can be hugely contentious. Colonial history determines its political salience. Where colonial powers wiped out the indigenous population, such as in America and Australia, it is hardly an issue: the colonial language has crushed indigenous ones, though a few of these are making a comeback. In places that were colonised unsuccessfully or not at all—such as Europe, Japan and China—indigenous languages rule. But controversy erupts in countries with a century or two of effective government by a colonial power—in South Asia and Africa, for instance—where the colonial language retains considerable sway.
In sub-Saharan Africa, only Tanzania, Ethiopia and Eritrea do not use a colonial language at all during primary education. Others use either English or French. That is partly because of inertia. Developing curricula and printing books in local languages is expensive, and doing so in scientific subjects in which the terminology is in English is difficult. Keeping English or French is also, in some places, politically convenient. Where tribes compete for power, the colonial language can be less controversial than the local ones. And then there is the self-interest of the elites, usually the only people who can speak the colonial language properly. “They have a huge return to their linguistic capital” when it is the official language, says Rajesh Ramachandran, of the Alfred Weber Institute for Economics in Heidelberg, Germany. The bias in favour of English is sometimes ferociously enforced: Rose Goodhart, a teacher in Ghana, has seen children beaten for speaking in their mother tongue.