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Problems with an English-medium Education

To what extent is English-medium education the solution or the problem in settings where English is not the dominant language of the pupils’ homes or local communities?

Unfortunately, this is not a question I am going to be able to give one clear, definitive answer to as I believe that English-medium education can be both a problem, and a solution in situations where English is not the dominant language. On the one hand we have cases such as the one that can be seen in the state of Karnataka in India, where English-medium education has been replaced by one of the local languages, Kannada, a sensible decision many would say, but not when you consider that most of the urban areas in the State are multilingual, with people whose mother-tongues are Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Bengali, and many more (Resource and Reference Materials, p.81), so here, it could be argued, that one combining language, such as English, should be used that would be of benefit to all as a lingua franca. Then on the other hand you have Kathleen Heugh’s argument that without a full understanding of their mother-tongue children will struggle to fully understand what they are being taught, and that English-medium education should not begin until the children have received at least 6-8 years of mother-tongue education to avoid any such problems of comprehension (Learning English, pp.181-88)

In relation to Heugh’s argument I believe low levels of competence could exist where bilingual education is introduced too early, as children are often reluctant to question meanings of words for fear of revealing their ignorance in a subject, and in so doing facing ridicule from other students. Children can also struggle when having to concentrate on not only the message in say, a geography lesson, but also the medium when that lesson is taught in a second language such as English. Subjects such as geography, mathematics, and history should therefore logically be taught in the classes mother-tongue to allow the content to be more readily accessible, and to prevent the slowing down of the progress of the whole class, at least until the children are capable of comprehending the language they are being taught in.

Heugh conducted a study of English and colonial language education in South Africa, a country that had adopted English through linguistic imperialism towards the end of the nineteenth century. Heugh found that up until 1975, African children had received eight years of mother-tongue education, followed by a switch in secondary school to joint Afrikaans and English-medium education. The school leaving pass rate had improved from 43.5 per cent in 1955 to 83.7 per cent in 1976, figures that justify my belief that a monolingual education system throughout the child’s formative years of schooling is the correct course to take; however, this was to change dramatically with the introduction of only four years of mother-tongue education after the student led rebellions in Soweto of 1976. Within a few years it had become noticeable that academic performances had dropped dramatically, and that teachers responsible for students in grades 5-8 were not sufficiently competent enough in English to deal with the switch. English-medium education was proving a problem here for both students and teachers alike with its earlier introduction into the curriculum. John Rogers, a senior lecturer at the English Language Institute in Victoria, New Zealand, backs up these findings in his article ‘The world for sick proper’ (1990), as he claims ‘….that if the aim really is access to educational opportunity, progress is more likely to be achieved by education in local languages…. [and that] despite the enormous resources it diverts from other educational development possibilities, it actually achieves very little’ [Learning English, pp.212-13].

We only need look at another example of an early stage introduction of the English-medium in to the curriculum in Malawi to see its failings. Here, through lack of resources and funding, classes can often reach sizes of over a hundred children, and choral chanting then becomes the method of education where children will merely repeat en masse after their teacher, and, although giving students the ability to practice their pronunciation, it allows for no form of correction for the individuals whose errors will go undetected. The students in these situations are being positioned as passive recipients of the language and not given the chance to engage with each other, therefore severely limiting their ability to converse fluently through the medium of English. Again then, one must question how much of the message of the lesson they are taking in as they concentrate more on the medium of English than the actual subject matter.

We do not have to look as far as India though to see where an English-medium only education system may soon be a major socio-political issue, and that is within the UK. Without considering the increasing linguistic diversity of the UK’s population, partly through immigration, we may soon find ourselves in a situation very similar to the one in South Africa, where many children are failing to grasp the basics due to a fundamental lack of understanding in the language they are being taught in. Figures show that some 10 per cent of school students have English as a second language, whilst the figures in London are even higher, standing at nearer 30 per cent (Monaghan, 2007, p176).

So where, if anywhere, can an English-medium education system be of an advantage to students?….. Bangalore, capitol city of the State of Karnataka in India, as I’ve already mentioned in my opening statement, is a state divided by many languages, but with one common denominator amongst them all, English. Activists in Karnataka, throughout the late 1970’s and early 1980’s argued as to which should be the language of education and state, with the outcome being that it should be Kannada, a language spoken by around only a third of the State, but this unfortunately was not the wishes of many of the people, merely activists in positions of power. English has become an international language, a language of business and education, and the people of the regions appreciate that fact, realising for their children to have any chance of obtaining positions of power in business and industry they must be able to speak English.

One such child, a young girl named Ranika, attends Bishop Cotton School, where from the age of 5 the medium throughout the school is English only, and it is her father who believes that “If you really want to become a world citizen…. they have to learn the English language….. whether it’s in science, arts, or in business….” [An English Education, DVD2, 00:01:20]. Children in the state of Karnataka have learned to converse in several languages, and seem to have done so with relative ease as we see with the example of Thara, a young girl who attends Government Girls High School, who, by her own admission, can quite happily talk to neighbours and friends in Hindi, English, Guajarati or Tamil [An English Education, DVD2]. Thara sees it as a good thing to be able to speak to others through the medium of English when they are not able to understand her mother tongue of Kannada.

Activists such as M. Chidananda Murthy argue however, that to learn through the medium of English would be to lose ones culture and heritage [ibid], but even here parents disagree strongly with this argument as it’s claimed that if they have their own influences on their children and the ways in which they are raised, then there should be no fear of westernisation, and that both the English language and their Indian heritage can coexist comfortably side by side. Again we only need to look within our own shores to see where this particular issue could be raised though, with many fearing a loss of local customs and heritage through the teaching of a standardised form of English which does not reflect local dialects and accents. Annamalai (1986) claimed that ‘… English helps maintain divisions and hierarchies within a country…’ [Learning English, p.212], but if anything, within the UK I believe it has the opposite effect, breaking down the prejudices of economic backgrounds, ethnicity, or nationality, as here we are all taught a standardised English, so can all converse without fear of a lack of understanding or ridicule, regardless of our place of birth or heritage. Britain has become a multi-cultural society, and for us to all co-exist comfortably together then the most obvious solution seems to be for us to all be able to converse fluently in the same language, and this is only possible if we are all taught through the medium of English.

English-medium education can therefore not be seen with one blanket ideal, and every situation must be investigated and considered on its own merits before deciding whether the medium is indeed the solution or the problem for students whose dominant language is not English. Graddol argues that although the charge of cultural imperialism has still not gone away, English must be seen as a global language used for a range of purposes by non-English speaking countries (Graddol, 2006, p101), but at the same time we must not let it become an executioner bringing death to any languages it comes into contact with. This unfortunately, is why I have struggled to come to one conclusion as to whether English-medium education is the solution or the problem, as I can see the benefits of one all encompassing international language, but would hate to think that to have it would mean the death of so many colourful and interesting other languages, and the disadvantages that would come with not being able to speak it.


Mercer, N., Swann, J., Mayor, B. (eds) (2007), Learning English, Abingdon, Routledge

The Open University (2009), Resource and Reference Materials

U211(2007) DVD ROM 2, Exploring the English Language, OU, DVD00222