Saturday, April 22, 2017

Myaamia revitalization and well-being

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas drew our attention to an inspiring story of language "resurrection": that of Myaamia, the language of the Miami tribe in USA. As  Lorraine Boissoneault says in the Smithsonian Magazine article, "Despite the threat of language extinction, despite the brutal history of genocide and forced removals, this is a story of hope. It’s about reversing time and making that which has sunk below the surface visible once more. This is the story of how a disappearing language came back to life—and how it’s bringing other lost languages with it".

But it takes time, as linguists David Costa and Daryl Baldwin know. Costa has already spent 30 years on reviving Myaamia, and we're told that he "anticipates it’ll be another 30 or 40 before the puzzle is complete and all the historical records of the language are translated, digitally assembled, and made available to members of the tribe". As a project that will probably outlive its initiators, the focus has to be on youth. One result of their work has been wide institutional collaboration: "From this initiative came National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages. The workshop has been held in 2011, 2013, 2015 and is slated once again for 2017.... The workshop has hosted community members from 60 different languages already".

And the benefits of this revitalization are startlingly tangible!
To emphasize the importance of indigenous languages, Baldwin and others researched the health impact of speaking a native language. They found that for indigenous bands in British Columbia, those who had at least 50 percent of the population fluent in the language saw 1/6 the rate of youth suicides compared to those with lower rates of spoken language. In the Southwestern U.S., tribes where the native language was spoken widely only had around 14 percent of the population that smoked, while that rate was 50 percent in the Northern Plains tribes, which have much lower language usage. Then there are the results they saw at Miami University: while graduation rates for tribal students were 44 percent in the 1990s, since the implementation of the language study program that rate has jumped to 77 percent.
As the website of Healing Through Language summarizes: "One tool for improving health has become apparent in recent years: language. Communities that maintain their Native language have lower suicide rates. Elders often find renewed vitality when called upon to help the younger generations recover a language. Youths in language programs graduate from high school at higher rates than those who take a mainstream language like Spanish."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

MTME needed beyond early grades

In his fortnightly column, Anurag Behar has just published 'The focus for education in 2017' - a comprehensive 'cheat-sheet' of 'approaches and issues, which will be worked upon and fought about, this year and next'. The list of 25 issues range from the high-minded (constitutional values) to the everyday (inadequate water in schools).

About mother-tongue education, he says:
21. Mother tongue is the most effective medium of education in early grades. However, given the reality of the social capital of English, all children must have the opportunity to learn the language.
In fact, mother-tongue medium (MTM) education is most effective not just in early grades. It is most effective throughout the schooling years. Several studies show that length of time spent in mother-tongue (L1) schooling is the best predictor of academic performance. This includes performance in the second language (L2). In the world's largest longitudinal study of minority education (over 210 000 students), Thomas and Collier (2002: 7) conclude that 'the strongest predictor of L2 student achievement is the amount of formal L1 schooling. The more L1 grade-level schooling, the higher L2 achievement'. Early-exit to a dominant language does not yield good outcomes. What is needed is a mother-tongue based multilingual education (MTME).

Regarding this study and another, Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar (2010: 96) note, 'The length of MTM education was... more important than any other factor (and many were included) in predicting the educational success of bilingual students. It was also much more important than socio-economic status.' We've blogged earlier about their excellent overview of education of indigenous peoples, tribals and minorities. In the context of this post, see especially Chapter 8, 'What forms of education would be consistent with law and research?' (and section 8.1.3 therein).

Earlier in their monograph, Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar also cite Kathleen Heugh's study (2000) in South Africa (which we've blogged about too) which shows that even under the racist policies of apartheid,
secondary school pass rate rose, with 8 years of MTM, to 83.7% by 1976 and the English language as a subject pass rate rose to over 78%. When after the Soweto uprising MTM education went down to only 4 years, with an earlier transition to English-medium, the secondary school pass rate declined to 44% by 1992, with a parallel decline in English language proficiency. (p. 53)
A final pair of examples for this post are from Assam and Odisha in India, from the work by Ajit Mohanty and his colleagues. In a well-controlled study, Bodo children learning in Bodo-medium outperformed Bodos studying in the regional language Assamese. In Odisha, Kui-speaking tribal Kond children in Kui-Odia bilingual programmes 'in their later grades (i.e. the high school grades) were found to perform in Odia language tasks at the same level as the Odia-only monolingual children'. (Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar, pp. 97, and 70-71)

So, a more accurate phrasing of Behar's point would be:
21. Mother tongue is the most effective medium of education. Given India's multilingual reality and the social capital of English, all children must have the opportunity to get a mother-tongue based multilingual education.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

2019 UN Year of Indigenous Languages

In November 2016, the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly:
13. [Proclaimed] the year beginning on 1 January 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages and to take further urgent steps at the national and international levels, and invites the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to serve as the lead agency for the Year, in collaboration with other relevant agencies, within existing resources.
The session also '5. [Reaffirmed] the decision to convene a high-level event to mark the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to be held during the seventy-first session of the General Assembly, in 2017'.

Further, the Assembly '12. [Decided] to continue to observe in New York, Geneva and other United Nations offices every year on 9 August the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, requests the Secretary-General to support the observance of the Day from within existing resources, and encourages Governments to observe the Day at the national level'.

Earlier in the document, the Assembly noted that it was:
Deeply concerned at the vast number of endangered languages, in particular indigenous languages, and stressing that, despite the continuing efforts, there is an urgent need to preserve, promote and revitalize endangered languages,
[Recognized] the importance to indigenous peoples of revitalizing, using, developing and transmitting their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literature to future generations,
Let us hope that the annual observance, the high-level event in 2017, and the UN year in 2019 will raise awareness and result in more effective action.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Privatisation, Discrimination and the Right to Education

A 2015 report on Privatisation, Discrimination and the Right to Education (PDF) observes:

  • The State is gradually releasing itself from its obligation to provide quality public education for all, as it is increasingly relying on private actors to provide education. Investment in education is nowhere near internationally agreed-upon norms.
  • The growing private sector in education has not been matched by appropriate regulatory, supervision and monitoring frameworks, resulting in many rights-issues in private schools.
  • Parents are often forced to resort to private schools because the public education system is largely failing, while private schools are often perceived to be of better quality. In that sense, the extent of ‘free choice’ exercised is debatable.
  • The fees attached to privately provided education are bound to result in discrimination by keeping more children out of school, particularly those from low-income households.
  • Moreover, expanding privatisation is very unlikely to ensure the enrolment of out-of-school children and may increase school dropout rates because of tuition and other fees.
  • Thus, the 'sad reality' is that parents with higher incomes can ensure a better education for their children, while the poorest children are forced to attend either failing public schools in marginalised areas or the lowest quality private schools.

This could have been a report from India. But this report is from Uganda. The issues afflicting education in developing countries are distressingly similar. This report, by Kampala-based Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), sets out the international human rights framework in which privatisation of education must be seen. Indeed, ISER's reports consistently refer to the constitutional and international obligations that the country has, while balancing the realities of a market economy.

As one of the authors of the report, Salima Namusobya, notes in a recent opinion piece, 'The challenge of public versus private schools in Uganda':
Uganda and other developing countries should work towards sustainable, inclusive, quality education for all, while allowing for a well-regulated private education sector that supplements — but does not supplant — the public system, as advised by the July 2016 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Stellenbosch University - New Language Policy

Stellenbosch University (SU) has a new Language Policy (PDF, 12 pages). The university went through an elaborate consulation exercise. The policy in "essence"
advances institutional multilingualism and individual multilingualism in [the university's] academic, administrative, professional and social contexts. The Policy aims to increase equitable access to SU for all students and staff. Since our campuses are situated in the Western Cape, we commit ourselves to the promotion of the province’s three official languages, namely Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa.
The policy comes in the wake of what a news report describes as "chaotic scenes last year as student lobby group Open Stellenbosch protested against the language policy‚ arguing that the policy "safeguards Afrikaner culture" and excludes black students. The group demanded that English be the main language of instruction."

The new policy, though, gives equal status to the two languages: "Afrikaans and English are SU’s languages of learning and teaching" (p. 4). Section 7.5 of the policy, "Promotion of multilingualism" spells out some of the provisions for Afrikaans and isiXhosa.
7.5.3 SU advances the academic potential of Afrikaans by means of, for example, teaching, conducting research, holding symposia, presenting short courses, supporting language teachers and hosting guest lecturers in Afrikaans; presenting Afrikaans language acquisition courses; developing academic and professional literacy in Afrikaans; supporting Afrikaans reading and writing development; providing language services that include translation into Afrikaans, and editing of and document design for Afrikaans texts; developing multilingual glossaries with Afrikaans as one of the languages; and promoting Afrikaans through popular-science publications in the general media.
7.5.4 IsiXhosa as an emerging formal academic language receives particular attention for the purpose of its incremental introduction into selected disciplinary domains, prioritised in accordance with student needs in a well-planned, well-organised and systematic manner.... In certain programmes, isiXhosa is already used with a view to facilitating effective learning and teaching, especially where the use of isiXhosa may be important for career purposes. SU is commited to increasing the use of isiXhosa, to the extent that this is reasonably practicable, for example through basic communication skills short courses for staff and students, career-specific communication, discipline-specific terminology guides (printed and mobile applications) and phrase books.
Here are some other learning and teaching provisions of the new policy.

7.1.3.2 Learning opportunities, such as group work, assignments, tutorials and practicals involving students from both language groups are utilised to promote integration within programmes.

7.1.4 For undergraduate modules where both Afrikaans and English are used in the same class group...:
7.1.4.1 During each lecture, all information is conveyed at least in English and summaries or emphasis on content are also given in Afrikaans. Questions in Afrikaans and English are, at the least, answered in the language of the question.
7.1.4.3 For first-year modules, SU makes simultaneous interpreting available during each lecture. During the second and subsequent years of study, simultaneous interpreting is made available by SU upon request by a faculty, if the needs of the students warrant the service and SU has the resources to provide it. If two weeks have passed with no students making use of the interpreting service, it may be discontinued.
7.1.5.3 Where all the students in the class group agree to it by means of a secret ballot, the module will be presented in Afrikaans only or English only, provided that the relevant lecturers and teaching assistants have the necessary language proficiency and agree to do so.

7.1.7.1 All compulsory reading material is provided in English except where the module is about the language itself.

7.1.7.2 Compulsory reading material (excluding published material) is also provided in Afrikaans unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so.

7.1.8 Question papers for tests, examinations and other summative assessments are available in Afrikaans and English. Students may answer all assessments and submit all written work in Afrikaans or English.

7.1.9 In postgraduate learning and teaching any language may be used provided all the relevant students are sufficiently proficient in that language.

7.1.10.1 Where students or staff need alternative texts such as Braille or enlarged texts as a means to communicate and understand information and these are not available, the relevant member of staff should liaise with SU’s Braille Office to arrange the timeous availability of the alternative texts.

7.1.10.2 As South African Sign Language is the primary means of communication for some Deaf people, a sign language interpreter and/or real-time captioning is available during lectures, tutorials and principal SU public events, where it is required and it is reasonably practicable to do so.

The policy lapses after 5 years from its date of implementation. Within this period, or latest during its fifth year, it must be reviewed.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Exams and suicides

My colleague Rohit Dhankar has an essay in today's The Hindu called "Staying power of the pass-fail system". It gives a historical and sociocultural perspective on why examinations dominate our education system. Here is one of his conclusions:
But it seems that the biggest force behind the persistence of this curse [of a] useless examination system is a social one which is grossly under-examined. We are a caste-based and strictly hierarchical society. In earlier times, this hierarchy had the iron-clad stability of the caste system. That determined the place, function, work and life of an Indian even before his/her birth. There are attempts now, which range from constitutional rights to political struggle, to break that mould. It may not have been dismantled yet, but is under tremendous pressure ever since the freedom movement began.

But social hierarchies involve privileges, prestige and goods of life that are cherished by all. [No one] is ready to let go of the privileges one has. As a result... attempts to maintain the old hierarchy as well as...  ways to challenge it look toward education. Education, therefore, becomes a means of fierce competition either to remain in one’s position of privilege or to rise in the hierarchy. It completely stops being a self-motivated way of forming an authentic self and gaining an understanding of the world, and is reduced to a means to beat/best the neighbour. A more open and thoughtful system of education will challenge the hierarchies which are so dear to a caste-minded Indian. The result is that the authoritarian system of pass-fail stays.
The months of March through June in India are fraught with news reports of students commiting suicide because of the examination system. "When will we ever learn?" asks an anguished teacher Devi Kar. As she chillingly says of our suicides: "Our children are usually found hanging from ceiling fans."

Dhankar's essay (also available on his bilingual blog Thinking Aloud) notes: "There is no commission or committee report after Independence which does not acknowledge the burden of rote learning and the examination system on its students and its futility in assessing their real abilities." In fact, a decade ago, the magazine India Today told us several heart-rending stories about these "Killer Exams". It concluded by suggesting the following measures:
  • Instead of one-shot terminals, exams would be staggered over two semesters to ease pressure.
  • Evaluations would be a mix of internal and external. No sprinting through answer papers.
  • Restricting the number of pre-board exams and possibly banning them altogether.
  • A combination of multiple choice and traditional questions to test understanding and broad skills and not just memory.
  • No more failures in the new grading system being evolved
A decade later in 2016, we seem to be no better in stopping our children from killing themselves because of the examination system.

Monday, March 14, 2016

RTE is not causing schools to close - APF Report

A new report from Azim Premji Foundation (APF) argues that India's Right to Education Act (RTE) "does not in any way by design seek closure of private schools, so long as [the Act's] norms are met. As revealed in this report, it doesn’t seem to result in closure of private schools in practice either, at least in districts of the 7 States and 1 UT where the Foundation operates." (p. 8)

As the report, "Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009 and Private School Closure in India" (11 pages; PDFs here and here) notes, this is not the dominant narrative about the effect of RTE on private schools. Predictably, the report has raised something of a storm. "Many schools, mostly those under state board syllabus, have voluntarily closed down unable to bear the rigid RTE rules. The study is blind to ground realities," said the Secretary of the Associated Managements of English Medium Schools in Karnataka. A newspaper reports him saying that, "over 200 economy schools in Karnataka have closed due to the RTE". In contrast, the APF report finds that in the 69 districts that it surveyed:
only five schools closed down out of a total 34,756 private schools. Of these five schools, four schools were closed in Karnataka (all four in Yadgir district) and only one school was closed in Bageshwar district in Uttarakhand. It could not be ascertained whether non-compliance of RTE alone was the reason for these school closures. Also, whether the schools that were closed, were ‘recognized private’ or ‘unrecognized private’ schools is not stated. ‘Unrecognized private’ schools in any case do not have the license to function. (p.3) 
Punjab is one of the states which the APF report does not survey. A 2014 report by Centre for Civil Society (CCS), informs us that, "The education department of Punjab released a list of 1170 private schools closed down for the year 2013-14. While approaching the school owners of private schools, it came into limelight that some of the schools have been shut down under the RTE before the prescribed deadline [April 2014]." The CCS report (7 pages, PDF here) then goes on to investigate in two districts of Punjab the impact of these closures on the various stakeholders.

Thus the picture may be varied across the country and needs more investigation.