The magic of ignorance - English a false prophet

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at
Wed Jan 19 10:56:48 UTC 2005

Before we look at any education system, we need to interrogate the term
'mother tongue'. It is not the case that Finland (or anywhere in the
world, as far as I know) "Basic education (reading, writing, math,
science, history, etc.) is conducted in the mother tongue, for all
pupils". If a child who is a native speaker of (for example) Italian or
Bengali happens to be in a school in location X in Finland, they will
get the same education as everyone else, not in Italian or Bengali. To
do anything else would be impractical. 'Mother tongue' is often
shorthand for 'dominant native language of community', and should not
necessarily be interpreted as meaning 'native language' (a language
spoken before any other is acquired).

Where there is a dominant community language (as there is at national
level in Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, UK, France, USA, etc.) there
is a default assumption that state provided basic education will be in
that dominant language. This is often a fairly obvious choice, and not
particularly controversial (though many people would like to see more
opportunities for minority linguistic groups to maintain their ancestral
languages). National unity in state-provided education is a reasonable
desire of many governments and populations.

In many multilingual societies, there is no uncontested dominant
community language at national level, and sometimes not even at regional
level. In India, for example, there is no language other than English
which is equally (and, socially, inequally) the property of all regions.
In such countries which have a history of European colonisation, the
coloniser's language may be less contested that any  single other

What is striking about the Northern European countries (and I single out
here Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands), with their
superb education systems, is that they have a clear educational focus on
the dominant community language, while at the same time teaching foreign
languages (especially English) to a very high level. I am a bit confused
about how Trond Trosterud is suggesting other countries respond to this,
and I think we might be in agreement.

In some countries (e.g. Malaysia) where there are many ethno-linguistic
communities and two languages with local traditions of education and use
as a lingua france (Malay and English), one of which (Malay) is probably
the most common native language in the country a bilingual education
system of some sort for everyone seems to make sense. In other places
(e.g. Chile) with no internal tradition of English then the Nordic model
of English taught to everyone as a foreign language makes more sense.

Malaysia, though not as rich as the Nordic countries, is highly
developed and can deliver mass education efficiently to the entire
popularion.  There are many places where this is not possible, and where
it is not feasible to teach anything other than  a locally dominant
language to the majority population. In India, for example, the priority
is clearly to teach the dominant STATE (not national) language in basic
education. This was discussed by Jean D'souza in connection with the
education (in Marathi) of street children and child workers in the
Indian city of Pune: these children were not getting education in either
their mother tongues (often), nor in either of the national languages of
India (Hindi and English), but they were getting basic education in the
language that optimised their access to the governmental and cultural
structures they most needed. India has not been as successful as Finland
(or as Malaysia) in equalising access to education, so it remains the
case that access to English and (in areas outside its region of
dominance, and to a lesser extent) Hindi is associated with social

My message is that places are different, and that local needs must be


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Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at
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