Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 21 17:25:22 UTC 2005

Forwarded from Linguist-List

Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda?

Tollefson, James W.; Tsui, Amy B. M.
Medium of Instruction Policies
Which Agenda? Whose Agenda?
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Announced at

Revied by Thapelo Otlogetswe, Information Technology Research Institute,
University of Brighton, UK.


The book is an edited collection of 14 papers by 16 authors who argue for
the centrality of medium-of-instruction (MOI) policy in socio- political
processes. MOI policy choices are presented not just as pedagogical
options, but are defined by and define the social, political and economic
participation, social equality and human rights of citizens. They empower
and disempower different language groups and perpetuate the subjugation of
the minority groups by the dominant ones (cf. Honey 1997). Its scope is
broad with papers on experiences from every continent. The papers detail
experiences from New Zealand, Wales, the US, Hong Kong, Singapore,
Malaysia, the Philippines, India, South Africa, Bolivia and Ecuador,
Slovenia and post-colonial Africa. They dispel the dominant myth that
linguistic pluralism is a root source of ethnic and national unrest, by
defending the position that linguistic diversity empowers citizens to
meaningfully participate politically, socially and economically.


The book is divided into three major parts:

Part one: Minority Languages in English Dominated States (Three
Part two: Language in Post-Colonial States (Six chapters)
Part Three: Managing and Exploiting Language Conflict (Three

There are two other chapters by the editors which do not fall within the
broader three classifications above; one at the beginning of the book,
which serves as a useful introduction to the chapters, and another at the
end of the book which summarizes the common themes across all chapters.

In the first chapter the editors, Tollefson and Tsui, introduce the reader
to the collection by offering a panoramic overview of the entire book,
chapter by chapter. Each chapter is summarized by considering how it
illustrates how state educational agendas mirror underlying political,
social and economic agendas. In multilingual and multi-ethnic
post-colonial states, for instance, the colonial language has been
preferred over indigenous languages for its perceived ethnic and political
neutrality to eschew ethnic and national upheavals. Such choices have
favoured the elite educated in the colonial language and restricted
political, economic and social participation of the rest of the population
who lack the mastery of the foreign tongue. Thus the first chapter not
only provides a summary of other chapters but also show how all the
chapters in the book hang together.

Stephen May traces how the indigenous Maori of New Zealand fought for
their linguistic rights under the colonial domination of English speaking
whites of European origin, the Pakeha. The Maori established Maori-medium
schools outside the government educational system to revive and maintain
the Maori language and culture. This led to the recognition of Maori as an
official language in New Zealand in 1987 through the passing of the Maori
Language Act. The Maori used the linguistic gains as a platform for
greater autonomy and to challenge the inequalities inherent in the state
educational system. May believes that the Maori struggle presents a useful
model that could be adopted by other minority languages in the country.

Dylan Jones and Marilyn Martin-Jones in the third chapter focus on the
socio-political processes in the development of Welsh-medium and bilingual
education in an English dominant environment. They show how in the 19th
and 20th century Welsh was considered a stumbling block to moral progress
and commercial prosperity. English-medium education was therefore seen as
a desirable tool to combat Welsh backwardness and riotous mannerisms of
the 1830 and 1840s. The Welsh, however resisted the English language
dominance led be Welsh intellectuals, politicians, The Welsh Language
Society and Welsh speaking parents. Welsh schools were established and the
public sector institutions created employment opportunities for those
educated in Welsh. In spite of all these progresses, the demand for
English in higher education has meant that Welsh hasn't established itself
at that level.

Teresa McCarty provides a critical analysis of medium of instruction
policy in the United States observing that though the US is linguistically
and culturally pluralistic it remains English dominated.  Throughout the
history of America when linguistic diversity was considered
non-threatening as in the creation of religious texts in native languages,
it was state-supported but when it was considered destabilizing, the state
went into "a full-fledged language panic" (p.  79) and linguistic
diversity was curtailed. McCarty therefore argues that decisions about
language are rarely linguistically motivated but are about social class,
power and control.

II. LANGUAGE IN POST COLONIAL STATES In chapter five Amy Tsui discusses
Hong Kong's language policies first, over the 150 years of British
colonialism and later when Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of
China. She argues that the policies have always been guided by underlying
political agendas although economic justifications were offered to the
public. Although Cantonese is widely spoken, English is widely used as a
medium of instruction in many schools since it is crucial for maintaining
Hong Kong as a major financial and trading centre and it symbolizes
prestige, power and wealth. This argument has been sustained regardless of
the fact that research has shown that mother tongue education improved
students' academic performance, motivation and confidence. She argues that
the political agenda always supercedes all agendas whether they are
economic, social or educational although these agendas will be used as
public justification for policy.

Anne Pakir offers a positive appraisal of Singapore's language policy
model which she argues "represents an impressive case of a well- planned
and effective implemented language-policy program" (p. 117).  With its
English-knowing bilingualism of English and another official language in
the country Singapore has attempted the language preservation of different
linguistic groups and the empowerment of learners for a knowledge-based
economy which has English as a dominant language. English is the first
school language and the main medium of instruction in all national schools
and is seen as politically neutral. Pupils select their second school
language on the basis of their ethnic classification. The official ethnic
languages, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, are supported, promoted and taught as
second languages. Although minority languages are taught alongside
English, English still remains dominant, raising identity issues and
problems in the transference of traditional values.

Sarah Kaur Gill traces the development of nationalism in Malaysia after
independence through the establishment of Bahasa Malaysia as the official
language and discusses the relegation of English, which played a dominant
role before independence, to a second language status. English retained
its official status for only 10 years after independence as Bahasa
Malaysia replaced it in different sectors of the society in a process that
lasted about 26 years. Bahasa Malaysia as an official language was crucial
for enhancing feelings of nationalism and unity although the indigenous
Malays formed 49.78% and there were other ethnic groups like Chinese
(37.1%) and Indians (11.0%). The adoption of Bahasa Malaysia as an
official language enhanced its status and gave Malaysia a unique national
identity.  However the dominance of Bahasa Malaysia impacted negatively on
the comprehension of texts in English by undergraduates educated in Bahasa
Malaysia. The government was therefore forced to revert to the use of
English in science, engineering and medical courses in universities and
colleges on the basis of economic and technological development
justifications. This move was successfully opposed by the Malaysian
intellectuals who retained Bahasa Malaysia in public schools at the
expense of academic development of students, while private universities
could teach in both English and Bahasa Malaysia.  Malaysia has
increasingly become receptive to the teaching in English not only in
higher education but also at primary schools.

In chapter 8, Iluminado Nical, Jerzy J. Smolicz and Margaret J.  Secombe
measure language attitudes of Philippines rural students, their parents
and teachers, faced by the dominance of both Filipino and English. Their
research is based in the island of Leyte. Pre- independence Philippines
suffered American imposition rule with its compulsory education in English
which excluded indigenous languages from schools, universities and most of
public life. After independence Filipino which gained popularity, was
adopted as a political compromise to defuse ethnic tensions and so that a
foreign language like English could not be adopted as a national language.
Bilingual education through Filipino and English disadvantaged minority
learners who "faced a double linguistic barrier to learning" (p.  160).
The Philippines continues to face tensions between Cebuano and Tagalog
which could develop into a serious ethnic conflict. Nical, Smolicz and
Secombe argue for linguistic diversity alongside the development of a
national language.

E. Annamalai points out that though India has about 200 languages, only 33
are used as the medium of instruction and 41 are made available for study
in the school curriculum from which students must learn three. The three
languages include either their mother tongue or a regional language, Hindi
and English. English is considered ethnically neutrally, though it is not
class neutral since it is a language of the elite. Making English the
medium of higher education has heightened its demand and made it more
prestigious. There is also no commitment from the government to change
medium of instruction from English to Indian languages since it has been
argued that the Indian languages have to develop first to handle technical
terminology and textbooks have to be written before the languages could be
used in schools. Annamalai argues that these conditions are unhelpful
since a language develops in use and texts are easily produced when there
is demand for them. Parental demand for English-medium of instruction put
the government under pressure. Annamalai argues that the "solution to the
problems of education through the medium of English is to teach English
effectively while imparting education through the medium of Indian
languages" (p. 191).

Hassana Alidou presents a critical review of medium-of-instruction in
post-colonial Africa. Although the continent is vast, she successfully
shows striking similarities between francophone and anglophone Africa. She
observes that colonial education was created to serve European economical
and political interests. Colonial administrators used a common language
for learners since they did not speak the same language. In former British
colonies African languages and English were used transitionally as medium
of instruction and English became a dominant language after the fourth
grade and the only language in secondary school and higher education. In
former French colonies, on the other hand, African languages were excluded
completely from the education system in an attempt to civilize and
assimilate African students into French culture. However in post- colonial
Africa, in avoidance of ethnic wars, African governments ironically
retained colonial languages which were viewed as neutral means of
communication. Political independence did not lead to educational and
economic independence. This created problems for learners resulting with
higher levels of dropouts and lower levels of pass rate. Alidou finally
argues that medium-of-instruction issue in Africa can only be resolved
through courageous leadership that will seriously address "both Western
and African-based linguistic, cultural and economic hegemony" (p. 213).

although South Africa has 11 official languages (9 Bantu languages,
English and Afrikaans) which constitutionally are of equal status and
esteem, English is used as the de facto official language because of its
prestige and partly because of a lack of a clear policy of the
implementation of the language policy that will see the other languages
used in official public domains. English though having a smaller number of
native speakers, it has prestige and it is politically, economically, and
educationally dominant. On the other hand Bantu languages, although
numerically in the majority, they lack prestige, economic and educational
value. Afrikaans remains stigmatized as a symbol of apartheid. The
constitutional pronouncement binds the national and provisional
governments to use at least two official languages for the purposes of
government. Webb's criticism is of the government's "escape clauses" which
may allow the government to avoid the full and meaningful implementation
of future policy. One of these escape clauses states that policies should
take into "account usage, practicality, expense, regional circumstances,
and the balance of the needs and preferences of the population" (p.
220). While Webb has a positive view of language policy development in
South Africa, he believes it is too soon to determine conclusively whether
it is a failure or success.

Kendall A. King and Carol Benson argue that the gap between official
policy and daily practice in the implementation of the language policy in
Bolivia and Ecuador can be traced to ideological and implementation
challenges and resource constraints. Both countries experienced long
Spanish colonial rule that marginalized indigenous people and their
languages. They therefore argue for an educational system in mother tongue
with Spanish being introduced gradually as a second language and that the
mother tongue should be developed in parallel with Spanish throughout
primary school. However they note that there is a lack of resources for
and in indigenous languages.  These include human and material resources.
Untrained teachers and those who lack confidence in indigenous languages
pose a great challenge to the teaching of indigenous languages.
Ideological forces that could undermine the teaching of indigenous
languages include expressed ideals which are not matched with actual
actions on the ground. King and Benson are optimistic of the future of
indigenous languages in Bolivia and Ecuador as more minority individuals
take leadership roles in the society. Many indigenous languages also have
written forms and are used in basic schooling.

James Tollefson discusses the languages policies in Slovenia focusing on
the tension between the process of integration and ethnolinguistic
nationalism. He argues that between 1945-1980 language policies in
Yugoslavia were characterized by great pluralism. This was central to the
maintenance of a united state comprising Serbs, Croats, Moslems, Slovenes,
Albanians, and Macedonians. Linguistic pluralism therefore maintained
peace, stability and unity. However in the mid 1980s, Slobodan Molosevic
imposed Serbian nationalism and blamed pluralism for a plethora of
problems in Yugoslavia. The resistance of Serbian nationalism led to the
independence of Slovenia which established Slovene as the official
language but offered Italians and Hungarians a right to mother tongue
education in Slovenia. Tollefson argues that the case of Yugoslavia
illustrates that to avoid tensions dominant groups must deal with
minorities fairly and embrace pluralism.

In the final chapter James W. Tollefson and Amy B. Tsui reiterate the
central theme of the whole book; that medium of instruction policies are
not formed in isolation but rather in the context of complex political and
social forces, changes in government and competition for resources. They
summarize central themes across all chapters. These include amongst
others, the gap between between official policy and everyday practice,
limitations of resources to support minority language development, the
relationship between ethnolinguistic diversity and social conflict and
many others.


Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda? is a must-have
text for all those working in sociolinguistics, language policy
development, education research and I recommend it as critical reading for
all education and linguistics students. It covers medium of instruction
matters in amazing depth and scope than any book I have ever read on the
subject. It is well written and the contributors have an impressive
mastery of their subject.

Having said that, there are weaknesses that must be pointed out.
Although the book is divided into three main categories: Part one:
Minority Languages in English Dominated States; Part two: Language in
Post-Colonial States, and Part Three: Managing and Exploiting Language
Conflict, these classifications are not helpful since there is
considerable overlap between the classifications rendering them unhelpful
and even misleading. This is partly because the classifications are not
mutually exclusive. For instance papers that deal with Minority Languages
in English Dominated States are found in a different section since states
like India and South Africa have minority languages in an English
dominated environment but are also post-colonial. Alidou's paper on
medium-of-instruction in post-colonial Africa traces how African states
have managed and exploited language conflict although it is not under
Managing and Exploiting Language Conflict. This observation is true for
other papers in the collection.

What I found striking also is how different writers characterized a
country which is the focus of their paper as multilingual (e.g. Indian
with about 200 languages, South Africa with about 80 languages and the US
with over 300 languages) and then proceeded to ignore the vast majority of
other minority languages and their status in the country and instead
focused either on those languages which had been declared official or
those whose speakers rendered the loudest protestation. While most writers
argue for mother-tongue education, most stayed clear of addressing how
each child could be guaranteed learning in their mother tongue in highly
multilingual communities.  Watson has observed that "the poorest countries
are amongst the most plurilingual, especially in Africa" (Watson 1999:06).
How then can states facing the scourge of Aids and with pitiable economies
guarantee mother tongue education to each child in a highly plurilingual
community? Related to this matter is the lack of an economic justification
of how states can sustain the implementation of mother-tongue education.
While the collection of chapters argue that medium of instruction policies
are better understood within the a socio- political and economic
framework, the papers succeed in illustrating the socio-political
parameters but fail in showing the economic ones.

Having said that, I still consider Medium of Instruction Policies: Which
Agenda? Whose Agenda? the best book on the subject of medium of
instruction policy today.


Honey, John (1997) Language is Power: The Story of Standard
ENglish and its Enemies. London: Faber and Faber Limited

Watson, Keith (1999) Language, Power, Development and
Geographical Changes: conflicting pressures facing plurilingual
societies. Compare, Vol. 29, No. 1.


Thapelo Otlogetswe is a PhD student at the Information Technology
Research Institute, University of Brighton, UK. His research is in the
area of corpus lexicography focusing on how minority languages can
build robust corpora for lexicographic research.

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