Multilingualism versus English as a medium of instruction

Wednesday 4 May 2016

The transformative role language plays in the national and international development of higher education was hotly debated at the start of Going Global.

“The idea that teaching content in a specific language helps foster proficiency in that language is a myth.” Professor Russell Kaschula, Professor of African Language Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa informed the conference delegates. With South Africa being one of the most unequal societies in the world, Kaschula added that “when poor people in South Africa are denied access to English; they are denied access to the economy.”

A South Asian perspective came from Roger Smith, Director of English Language Enhancement Network at Aga Khan University in Pakistan. There are several regional languages spoken in Pakistan with English and Urdu most commonly used as the medium of instruction. “Up to 90% of children in Pakistan are being educated in a language different form their mother tongue. This also affects language ability of teachers in classrooms and the reality is that English most often is not the language of instruction and content gets stripped down,” Smith said. 

Furthermore, English is the official medium of instruction in Pakistan universities. “Lots of educators are questioning whether English should be used as the medium of instruction. English is assumed to be beneficial for internationalisation.” Smith added. Professor Dr. Gölge Seferoğlu, Dean of Education at Middle East Technical University in Turkey shared that courses offered in English are highly sought after as they open up more employment opportunities after graduation. 

Kaschula says there is “No doubt that English as the medium of instruction has vastly increased the international profile of Rhodes University in South Africa and the amount of students coming to studying from the rest of the continent and abroad.” When looking at the issue of transformation in any country, Kaschula says, “We need to look at the language question, a lot more carefully and empirically.”