The Medium Language of Teaching

- Pratyoush Onta | 2023-09-29

Nepal’s universities should remove barriers that restrict the possibilities for obtaining higher education.

About a year and half ago, an unsigned letter was published in the popular online portal Some students enrolled in the Master of Arts programme in the Central Department of Journalism of Tribhuvan University (TU) had penned the letter, addressing it to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of TU. In the letter they complained against the compulsory requirement of their department whereby they had to take their exams in English. They pointed out that this provision had come as a barrier to them since all of their previous studies had been completed in Nepali.

In their letter, it was stated that many students had complained that although they can understand the English of the assigned readings, they encounter problems when trying to write in English. They added that the situation is such that when students cannot express what they know in English, they either fail in their exams or barely pass them. According to the letter writers, many students had dropped out of their programme or had not finished their MA theses because of the English language requirement.

In their letter they also pointed out that other departments in the same Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of TU allowed their students to take their exams in either Nepali or English. The last point is factually accurate. Even though TU might have an official rule saying teaching and examining should only be done in English at the MA and above levels, in many social science disciplines, bilingual usage of Nepali and English in lectures and exams is very common and allowed by the concerned faculty members.

I do not know what logic propelled the faculty members of the Central Department of Journalism of TU to implement the “English only” rule. But given that this is a department that mostly prepares Nepali students for careers in journalism in Nepal, the “English only” rule seems out of place. As is obvious, journalism in Nepal is mostly practiced in Nepali; so this fact alone should have been enough for the department to institutionalise a flexible policy regarding the medium language of teaching and exams.

In this particular context of training, students should have the freedom to write their exams and theses in the language in which they are most proficient, especially if that language is going to be their first working language when they subsequently seek professional jobs as journalists in Nepal. Those students who are proficient in English and those who wish to take up careers in which that language will be the first working language can opt to take their exams and do their theses in English. It should be as simple as that; but in a bureaucratic-university system, logic is the first victim. Students are so terrified of possible future retribution by department faculty that they have to resort to an unsigned letter to make this simple point. It is tragic to say the least.

Broadening our view beyond the landscape of TU, I would emphasise that removing barriers that restrict the possibilities for obtaining higher education and the associated credentials should be the number one priority of the universities in Nepal. This exercise would obviously include considerations regarding the medium language of teaching and research (on the latter subject, see my “The language of research” published in this paper, February 10, 2018). If the contents of what they are supposed to learn or the processes to evaluate their learning are not fully accessible to the students because of arbitrarily determined linguistic barriers, then the concerned academic programme is certainly not doing its part to be student- and learning-friendly.

The long debate

The medium language of instruction in Nepal’s schools and universities has been in debate for over seven decades. This debate saw many participants and experiments in the period immediately after the end of the Rana regime in 1951. I mention just two non-governmental examples here: The efforts of Mahananda Sapkota and the Nepali Bhasa Pracharak Sangh to develop Nepali-language based schools in eastern Nepal and those of Gopal Pandey “Asim” and Nepali Siksha Parishad in starting the “Rastra Bhasa Siksha Pranali”. The Sangh was not active for too long as an institution per se, but as my colleague Devendra Uprety is currently documenting, its influence outlived both the organisation and its founder Sapkota.

The Parishad, on the other hand, was able to institutionalise an alternate process for students to complete school without having to study English although it was not successful in starting a similar post-school education system. Its Pranali was in operation for two decades until the New Education System Plan (NESP) forced its closure in the early 1970s. In terms of governmental efforts, the medium language of instruction was debated by the Nepal National Education Planning Commission during 1954-1955 and found a prominent mention in its report formally published in 1956. The Commission had recommended that teaching in Nepali should be made compulsory from the third grade onwards. By doing so, it hoped that this would lead to “greater national strength and unity”.

The work of Sapkota and Pandey “Asim” was directly or indirectly inspired by the Nepali language-based linguistic nationalism of the early decades of the 20th century. Their own activism reflected considerations of promoting both access to education and greater national Nepali identity. The Commission’s work, and more importantly, the nationalisation of school education under the NESP in the 1970s largely resulted in our country’s current population with a majority for whom Nepali is either their first or second working language.

Working language

Hence, when I advocate a flexible approach towards the medium language of instruction in higher education in Nepal’s universities, I am working with this historically produced fact. Contrary to the linguistic nationalists of the past for whom the Nepali language was fundamental to their national and personal identity, I am suggesting that we use this historical fact to facilitate access to higher education, especially to those for whom Nepali will be their subsequent working language. At the same time, I recognise that without having access to English-reading abilities, one cannot advance too far in many social science disciplines. Many of the references the students will need to read to attain mastery in their disciplines are only available in English. So if you want to pursue an MPhil or PhD in many social science disciplines, you will have to brush up your English-language reading and writing skills. This will most likely have to be done on your own effort since Nepal’s colleges and universities have largely failed to deliver proficient English-teaching programmes.

Finally, I know that it is not enough to simply say that students should be allowed to learn and write their exams in the languages in which they are most proficient. We also need to produce corresponding reference resources—textbooks, monographs and edited volumes—needed to support teaching and learning in those languages. Here our universities, other academic entities and individual scholars will need to do a lot more to come up with these resources. In part this means that universities, other academic institutions and all three levels of governments in federal Nepal will have to dedicate more funds to support the creation of such resources needed for teaching and learning.

Published date: September 29, 2023

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