Illustration by Louise Mézel
New Delhi, India. I am waiting for a taxi in a dilapidated neighborhood near South Extension, surrounded by building sites filled with broken concrete blocks and curious goats. A 12-year-old Indian boy introduces himself to me. He takes out a dog-eared notebook and reads, haltingly:
“Acids and bases are crucial components in the study of chemistry.”
When I ask him, first in English and then in Hindi, what that means, he has no idea. He says the teacher wrote it on the board and he copied it down. Several times he asks me to read it out loud and mimics my pronunciation. The taxi arrives.
This anecdote is neither uncommon nor unusual in the subcontinent, or indeed many parts of the developing world. One consequence of a flat world is the growing hegemony of global languages — particularly English. This presents education systems all around the world with a headache: people want their children to learn English, many schools offer English-medium instruction, and textbooks written in English are ubiquitous. But all too often teachers can’t speak it and children can’t understand it, and so a dangerous cycle begins — one in which people never learn to truly think, write, or read in their own language.
The cost of ignoring local languages
The desire of parents, politicians and educators to give children access to a language that promises access to higher education and better jobs makes perfect sense. But in their haste to expose students to global (English) or regional (e.g. Hindi) languages as early as possible, local languages are being neglected. Recent research from low- and middle-income countries indicates that “use of home language as a learning resource is uncommon,” a major contributing factor to poor literacy rates. The Tibetan education system is a prime example: from 1960 until the policy of “Tibetinization” in the 1990s, the education system, modeled on the Anglo-Indian system, did not use Tibetan as the language of instruction, and the resulting academic outcomes were dismal.
Let’s be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching other languages in school — in countries like the Netherlands or Denmark it’s quite normal to learn four or more languages — but it’s important that students have a strong first language base to draw from. There is also a distinction to be made between learning a language, and learning a subject in another language. The jury is very much still out on whether it’s beneficial for students to study a subject like history or science in a language they can’t speak fluently, let alone one that they don’t speak a word of.
Not surprisingly, it tends to be disadvantaged communities who are hit hardest by the educational stampede towards global and regional languages. Compare a child who speaks a local dialect but has Hindi textbooks at school, with a middle-class child whose parents speak English at home and uses English textbooks. This places an additional burden on teachers, who often not only have to deal with large class sizes but have to support students struggling with an unfamiliar language.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
The general consensus among language experts is that a solid foundation in the mother tongue is extremely important for learning other things — whether that’s another language, or a subject like math or science. In early childhood education, language is linked to development of critical cognitive, emotional and social skills such as learning to express and control one’s feelings, interacting with other children, and, especially, engaging in imaginative play. The formative years even before kindergarten hugely impact how a person’s life will turn out; in 2016, Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman argued that for every $1 spent on a child’s education, there is an ROI (return on investment) of $6.
This is the age when parents and teachers start to read us books, and we begin to understand the connection between written and spoken language. We form powerful connections to early books; I know I’m not alone in vividly remembering The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Matilda. But what if there were few or no books available in your mother tongue? For many local languages, this lack of appropriate children’s literature hinders the attempt to build literacy from a young age. Imagine if there were no stories to read in your own language, and even if there were, your parents and teachers either couldn’t access them or couldn’t read them. Would you develop a connection to the written form of that language, or indeed to any language?
The literacy crunch
It’s extraordinary to think that mankind has developed the internal combustion engine, sent people into outer space, and connected our entire planet with near-instant communications, yet according to UNESCO 16% of people cannot read. That’s 773 million people as of 2013, of whom 63.8% are women.
But it’s in the fine print where an even bleaker picture emerges. Where there is no reliable data (the norm rather than the exception in developing countries), a child is counted as literate after five years of school attendance. In India — which, let’s remember, contains more people than every country in Africa combined — a 2003 study of 100,000 slum households in Maharashtra by Pratham Books, one of the country’s largest NGOs, found that, despite 94% school enrolment, one third of the children could read words but not sentences, 27% could identify alphabets but no more, and 17% could read nothing at all. These are staggering numbers, and that’s even before tackling the thorny issue of how one defines literacy.
When global languages dominate, what stories are we telling?
Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a remarkable TED talk in which she spoke far more eloquently than I can about the perils of presenting a single, homogenized, white story. The stories we tell and the books we read shape our cultural identity; when global and regional languages come to dominate, vernacular languages become what publishers call “niche markets.” Stories get lost over time, just as muscles atrophy and memories fade; ask Australian Aborigines or Native Americans. When Harry Potter or Bob the Builder or Thomas the Tank Engine displace indigenous stories, children are denied a connection with their own unique culture.
This is not to rail against Hollywood hegemony or popular English fiction, both of which have their place. It’s when these become substitutes for, rather than additions to, local books, films and stories that they become problematic. Publishers are increasingly reluctant to commit time and money to producing materials in local languages. Often this task falls to NGOs such as Pratham Books, whose Storyweaver initiative provides an open-source platform for multilingual children’s stories; in the Scandinavian countries, it’s the government who tries to incentivize novelists and filmmakers to use the local language by providing substantial grants.
The deeper truth is that it’s not simply local languages that are affected — it’s all languages. As humans, we require difference and variety. The twentieth century has shown us the danger of monocultures; if our civilization is a vast and fabulous garden, maybe it’s time to start cultivating it.