EdTech and multilingualism – getting it right
05 September, 2022
‘Lost in translation? What is the role of English in education globally?’ - an international panel of experts in the world of language learning explored the complex interrelationship between English language as a primary vehicle for education in countries where it is a second language, and what may be missed or sacrificed with this approach.
I attended a really interesting event a few months ago and I wanted to share some of the take outs from it as we start the new academic year. The #SHAPELive events are held by Cambridge University Press & Assessment and attended by leading education practitioners from around the world. They asked the question, ‘Lost in translation? What is the role of English in education globally?’ and invited an international panel of experts in the world of language learning to explore the complex interrelationship between English language as a primary vehicle for education in countries where it is a second language, and what may be missed or sacrificed with this approach.
Accessing education primarily taught in English and being able to speak English in some countries has become a gold-standard for education and achievement, sold to parents as improving lives by enhancing social mobility and access to jobs. During the session, #SHAPELive snap-polled the audience with some fascinating results. Asked ‘who do you think is driving demand for English in education?’, over a quarter of participants (27%) responded with employers, 19% with government and 18% with parents.
Stephen Dobson, Professor and Dean of Education at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, discussed bicultural cultures, such as in New Zealand, and explored the connection between cultures in which English is embedded, and how allowances for other cultures are made. He opened his discussion in Māori, and moved into exploring some of ways the colonial use of English has left its mark on education systems worldwide. Discussing the ways in which teaching in English can become a force driving performance and assessment, and be at odds with cultures and values, he raised the imperative to balance the view of English as ‘gold-standard’ alongside other values, and the hope that revivals of local languages may continue despite the prevalence of English-language first teaching.
The audience was polled again, asking who the main resistors to changing the role of English in education are. Governments came out top, with parents close behind. Later in the fireside chat Professor Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli, Chair of English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, noted that governments in countries where multilingualism is the norm should know their linguistic landscapes best, and shouldn’t import frameworks without filtering and monitoring models. She stated that some models are simply not sensitive at all to local linguistic landscapes.
During the fireside chat, Stephen emphasised that although parents are cited as one of the driving forces for English-first teaching, translanguaging is commonplace in homes. Young people flit between languages in their widespread exposure to social media and online lives alongside their own contexts and cultures. Lack of tools to enable transitions to English, and switching between languages in ways already adopted and widely done, can routinely hinder progress in school and make attainment more difficult than possibly necessary.
Languages can be learned without being a medium of instruction, and in multilingual contexts this is even easier to embed. Aspiring to learn English or become fluent does not necessitate English as a medium of instruction, especially if it may harm progress in other academic subjects. Monolingual backgrounds are more of a challenge than multilingual ones, but Professor Lina Mukhopadhyay, Professor at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India, concluded by suggesting we refrain from imposing models from elsewhere and support researchers to tailor education response to cultural contexts, paving the way to multilingual and multicultural sensitive policies.
When it comes to EdTech, this could have profoundly interesting applications. Embracing multilingualism as standard is not as simple as just translating words on a page, it must go further to embed culturally to make sense and work for learners. As Ianthi outlined, multilingualism is the norm in many countries, with students switching between languages all the time outside of school informally and formally. Enforcing English-language only speaking in these countries can not only hinder student progress, but isn’t an appropriate cultural fit for their translanguage-rich lives. Straightforward verbatim translation misses cultural context and clues, so EdTech must both embrace and find ways to seek cultural support so tools are optimised for the languages and culture they’re used within.
International networks, translators and linguistics experts are urgently needed to reframe the English-first narrative and unlock better access to education for learners worldwide within EdTech and beyond. The imperative goes further than ‘nice to have’ – it comes under the absolute necessity for inclusion and the need to meet learners in their own contexts (despite this hyper-connected world) to optimise their user experience and improve outcomes.