Teaching-Learning Curriculum Education Policy

Medium of Instruction at Education level: Instigating Social, Cultural, and Economic Division and Inequality in Bangladesh

Medium of instruction should be the language in which learners are fluent; Image source: medium.com
Nushrat Mahjabeen
Written by Nushrat Mahjabeen

Education is regarded as an important ingredient to one’s life as it provides an individual a new outlook towards society and people. It can enhance one’s intellectual capability to contribute to the reduction of poverty, gender equity, citizenship, and equality of life (Hossain, 2009). Language choice for education hampers the learning process hence medium of instruction should be the language in which learners are fluent and comfortable (Channa et al, 2016). Here, how the medium of instruction of different levels of education in Bangladesh can stimulate the social, cultural, and economic division and inequality has been narrated below.

Language Planning and Policy in Bangladesh

Language policy influences the structure, function, and acquisition of language varieties within a speech community. Language planning refers to deliberate efforts to influence the behavior of others with respect to the acquisition, structure, or functional allocation of their language codes (Cooper, 1989). It also refers to a “body of ideas, laws, regulations, rules, and practices intended to achieve the planned language change in the societies, group or system” (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997). The choice of medium of instruction is linked with language planning and policymaking because the medium of instruction can make an effective impact on masses perceptions of that language. Socio-historical backgrounds are crucial for identifying language policies for the medium of instruction while it “originates within a policy that has a socio-historical identity” (Hamid, Nguyen & Baldauf, 2013, p.4). Ferguson (2006) suggested that language policy specifically addresses language planning which concentrates on the four issues such as the medium of instruction choice for various levels of the education system, the role of mother tongue in the educational process, selection of second or foreign language, and the choice of variety as a norm for teaching purposes in case of English or other pluri-centric languages.

The language policy act of 1987 adopted in Bangladesh has been characterized by an emphasis on ‘Bengali in all spheres’ which also affects the use of English in different domains of life and culture of Bangladeshi people (Banu & Sussex, 2001). Though in 1987, the Bangla Language Implementation Act was established, English is still being used in law, administration, and educational domains for instance English was made a compulsory subject from Grade 1 in 1992. Then, towards the end of the decade, it was introduced as a compulsory subject for first-year undergraduate students in tertiary institutions across the country (Hamid, 2000). English was brought to the subcontinent as part of British colonial rule which is until now seen as the language of power and social mobility (Erling et al., in press). Apart from education domains, English is also used in law and administration by acknowledging the importance of English as an international language in the global era. Through the amendment of the Supreme Court (High Court Division) Rules 1973 on 21 November 2012, the opportunity of using ‘Bangla’ in law has been created. But still, there are numerous hindrances to use Bangla in the Supreme Court. As a result, English has become an integral language in the decisions of the Supreme Court.

The medium of Instruction at the Different Levels of Education

The medium of instruction for education refers to “vehicle for teaching and learning” (Hamid, Jahan, & Islam, 2013, p.144). It is the language used as the medium of interaction between teachers and students in the classroom and it assists to impart knowledge and skills (Islam et al, 2015).             

In Bangladesh, 98% of the population speaks Bangla (Hamid, Erling, 2016). According to the Cultural Survey of Bangladesh (2007), at present, there are at least 16 regional varieties of Bangla spoken in the greater districts of Barisal, Bogra, Chittagong, Comilla, Dhaka, Dinajpur, Faridpur, Jessore, Khulna, Kushtia, Mymensingh, Noakhali, Pabna, Rajshahi, Rangpur, and Sylhet. 54 indigenous groups are speaking at least 35 languages spoken by the indigenous people (www.iwgia.org> Bangladesh). There are also a number of Pakistanis who speak their own language, Urdu. They have been lived here since the end of the civil war of 1971 (Hamid & Erling, 2016). But after the independence in 1971, Bangla was made the national language 1972. It became the language of the medium of instruction at primary, secondary, and higher secondary level education. There are a certain number of English medium institutions where English plays the dominant role and Bangla has a peripheral role (Hamid, 2006; Hamid & Jahan, 2015). There is also another stream called madrasa education where Bangla is used as the medium of instruction with Arabic (Hamid, Erling, 2016).

General or secular education follows the National Education Policy (2010) of Bangladesh which states that the aims and objectives of education are removing socio-economic discrimination irrespective of race, religion, and creed; showing tolerance for different ideologies for the development of democratic culture, and helping develop a life-oriented, realistic and positive outlook; promoting the languages and cultures of the indigenous and small ethnic groups; ensuring efficient and correct teaching of Bangla language and so on. It clearly asserts that in terms of the medium of instruction students of hill areas will learn textbooks on their own indigenous languages at the primary level. In 2017, the National Curriculum and Textbook Board took the vigorous decision to publish primary school textbooks in indigenous languages – mainly in Chakma, Marma and Tripura in order to facilitate learning in ethnic minority communities. But aside from Chakma, Marma and Tripura languages, there are other indigenous languages which have own scripts and a large number of children speak languages other than Chakma, Marma and Tripura. Moreover, at the secondary and higher secondary level, National Education Policy states that there is no opportunity for the secondary and higher secondary students to use languages other than Bangla. Another stream called English medium institutions does not follow the National Education Policy 2010 as it is “totally different and isolated from the nationally accepted curriculum” (Chakraborti, 2002) where English is the medium of instruction. They follow the General Certificate of Education (GCE) syllabus where students prepare themselves for Ordinary level (O level) and Advanced Level (A level) examinations. There is an additional stream called English version schools where Bangla medium school curriculum is followed and textbooks are translated from the Bengali language into English (en.wikipedia.org> wiki_English_version _schools).

In National educational Policy 2010, no visible statement has been given regarding the medium of instruction at the higher or tertiary level education. Here at the higher education level, Bangla dominates humanities and social sciences while English is prevalent in science, technology, engineering, and medicine. Though Bangla is used as a medium of instruction in public universities, English became the medium of instruction in all private universities (Rahman, 2008). Here, students of private universities are required to write their assignments and exams in English. So, the use of code-mixing of English and Bangla becomes common in the classrooms. Thus, the medium of instruction denotes a division between the public and private sectors in the higher education sector in Bangladesh (Hamid et al, 2013).

Instigating Social Division and Inequality

In our country, the family socioeconomic status of children determines the quality of the school that they attend (Hamid & Jahan, 2015). About 1 to 2 percent wealthier section of the society enrolls their children in English medium institutions where they use English as their medium of instruction in the class. In our country, “English is perceived as a language of power and mobility since British colonial days” (Hamid & Jahan, 2015). Here, after the completion of higher education, English medium students get more priority and are given more importance in terms of joining multinational companies and it is believed that they are supposed to communicate in English better than the other Bangla medium students. So, from the beginning of their education, the students who study in English medium or English version institutions regard themselves superior to other non-English medium background students. The majority of them use a ‘posh’ British accent to show their socio-economic background of the society.

On 1952, our heroes fought against language imposition of the Pakistani state as the then Bangla-speaking East Pakistanis anticipated that the state language policy could destroy their cultural identity. As we sacrificed a lot for language more than any nation in the world, it is assumed that we recognize the necessity and significance of our mother tongue. But ironically having one of the most hegemonic and chauvinistic language policies, the country identifies itself with Bangla and imposed its own language upon its non- Bengali population. The poverty status and overall socio-economic situation of Bangladesh’s indigenous peoples are acutely disadvantaged compared with the rest of the country.  According to National Education Policy 2010, Bangla is used as a medium of instruction at the primary, secondary, and higher secondary levels. So, indigenous students have to use Bangla to interact not only with their peers but also with their teachers. In most cases, the teachers who teach indigenous students are mostly from the Bengali community and unable to understand indigenous students’ mother tongue. These students feel inferiority for not raising questions in Bangla and have to let the time go looking at the classmates raising questions. It is obvious that a child achieves lots of advantages to learn something in their mother tongue as learning through mother tongue helps to foster proper and adequate communication between teachers and students and further promote learning as the child feels more comfortable to express himself in a language, he/she understands (Awopetu, 2016). These indigenous students find it difficult to speak even in Bangla as a second language to communicate in the class and to learn Bangla alphabets to write. They also struggle a lot to learn another language English and this time they have to learn English language skills for being proficient in communicating in English. But they find numerous complications to achieve the proficiency of using English along with Bangla in higher education whereas Bengali students face fewer difficulties. Because of their less proficiency in English and Bangla, indigenous students face social inequalities as they cannot present themselves properly in front of others. So, here the medium of instruction of education in Bangladesh can create social division and inequality.

Instigating Cultural Division and Inequality

Since English medium education is very expensive, the upper class of the society can afford such education; and parents are very eager to give their children such education as they think that English medium education is a sign of status and prestige (Tickoo 2006). Here, they prefer to speak in English instead of their mother tongues, Bangla. A language is not merely a language; it is mingled with culture, history, and ideology. If a language is neglected, the culture of its native speakers is also neglected (Phillipson, 1992). The students of English medium schools are frequently exposed to western culture instead of Bangladeshi culture (Al-Quaderi, 2010). They tend to belittle Bangladeshi ideologies, attitudes, and traditional way of life and lead towards westernization. Gradually, students of English medium schools decrease their use of Bangla and become detached from the Bangladeshi culture as well (Haque, 2009). They learn about western tradition, geography, history, political and cultural background, leaving out Bangladeshi history and culture. They start to practice western culture at the expense of their own tradition and culture. For example, the students of English medium schools prefer to celebrate ‘Christmas’, ‘Halloween’ instead of ‘Pahela Baishakh’ (Bengal New Year).

On the contrary indigenous students tend to celebrate Bengali culture and festivals forgetting their own cultures and festivals. They cannot use their mother tongue in the classrooms as their knowledge will not be regarded as the proper knowledge. Their self-esteem, self-competence may be fragile. They feel marginalized and think of themselves as outsiders. The indigenous culture is part of the national heritage and culture in Bangladesh but the histories, cultures, and lives of the ethnic people are somewhat absent from national curriculum textbooks as the books narrate the glory of Bengali heroes, their culture, and history. So, most of the Bengali students do not know the significant festivals of indigenous communities such as ‘Bizu’, ‘Alphaloni’ are celebrated by the Chakma community, ‘Sangrain’ is celebrated by the Marma community, ‘Mangona’ is celebrated by the Garo community. The indigenous communities live on Jhum cultivation but there are a number of allegations against Jhum cultivation and in national curriculum textbooks, it is showed that cultivation of Jhum can be destructive to the environment by causing soil erosion; loss of topsoil; loss of soil fertility; and deforestation” (Tripura & Harun,2003). Moreover, some television programs misrepresent the culture of the indigenous community. Because of having no knowledge of their rich culture; Bengali students make fun of their culture. The attitudes of Bengali students towards indigenous culture and community lead them to lack motivation. This inferiority attitude hinders them to be self-confident.

Instigating Economic Division and Inequality

Since 1971 poverty became the major problem faced by about half of the total population in Bangladesh (Sarker, Wu & Hossin, 2019). The rural sector concentrates 93 percent of the very poor and 89 percent of the poor. So, the institutions which are situated in the rural area are not equipped with enough teaching and learning materials, competent teachers. There are a large number of students who cannot properly write even in their mother tongue Bangla. Because of the lack of competent teachers, they also cannot gain proficiency in learning English language skills. When those students enter into their higher education, they cannot compete with the students who study in urban schools equipped with enough laboratories, libraries, effective learning materials, and skilled teachers. The same problem goes with the indigenous students who complete their earlier studies in schools of hill tracts. When they continue their higher education, they face difficulties reading different materials which mostly are written in English, and also understanding the lectures of teachers which are delivered in English. On the contrary, Bengali medium students who studied in urban schools and get high competent and trained teachers can achieve proficiency in language skills of both Bangla and English. Additionally, students who completed their education in English medium institutions face less difficulty in learning books or understanding lectures of teachers in higher education. They get a high opportunity to get a job in several well-known companies because of their high proficiency in English. We, the Bangladeshi people tend to value those people who have better proficiency in English so the students who studied in rural areas and who are from indigenous communities face inequality and division because of their socio-economic status as their knowledge of other language resources, life trajectories are neglected.   

In conclusion, it can be said that the medium of instruction of primary, secondary, and higher secondary levels of education instigate social, cultural, and economic inequality and division. Because of the lacking of social and economic recognition, indigenous communities have started to use Bengali leaving their native languages and by the time they lose the ability to recognize their alphabets. Though they tried heart and soul to be skilled in both English and Bangla, they get less opportunity than the Bengali students in terms of getting jobs. The same goes for the Bengali students who took their education in rural institutions as they face more difficulties while learning both English and Bangla compared to the students who completed their education from urban institutions or English medium institutions.

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About the author

Nushrat Mahjabeen

Nushrat Mahjabeen

Nushrat Mahjabeen, MA in TESOL, Department of English Language, Institute of Modern Languages, University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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