Sunday, February 23, 2020

Can a language with millions of speakers be endangered?

"Can a language with millions of speakers be endangered?" asked Maya Ravindranath and Abigail Cohn in 2014. Their sobering answer?

In terms of language endangerment then it seems there is no such thing as "too big to fail".

In this nuanced essay on language endangerment in Indonesia, the authors portray Indonesian as "a successful example of language planning and language standardization in the interest of nation building". But this has diverse implications for other local languages.

However, "the negative impact of Indonesian on local languages is not limited to the “smaller” languages in Indonesia, but is even affecting the larger languages, not generally thought to be at risk." They first demonstrate a weak correlation between number of speakers and language vitality. As they note, "considering how widely it is assumed that language size and vitality correlate this is a startling result."

They then present a case study of Javanese (drawing on the work of others as well). And conclude:

As Indonesian takes over in more and more domains of communication and intergenerational transmission of Javanese breaks down, we are led to conclude that even a language with over 80 million speakers can be at risk, a trend that has serious implications for all of the local languages of Indonesia.

And not only of Indonesia. As Ravindranath and Cohn say, "We hypothesize that this fact may be true elsewhere in the world."

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Esperanto and the translation scene

Photo credit: Yûiti Sawaya‎
The recent launch of the Esperanto volume Vjetnama Antologio (Vietnamese Anthology; details below) is a welcome addition to the diversity of Esperanto literature in translation. Abel Montagut, in a 2004 study, concluded that between 1957 and 1966 in the Esperanto world, English, Russian, French, and German (the "Big Four") accounted for only 30% of the source languages; 70% of the translations into Esperanto were from other languages. In sharp contrast, these Big Four accounted for 70% of the source languages in the UNESCO database Index Translationum

This prompted me to have a quick look at other parts of the world. A June 2019 article by Dan Kopf celebrates that, "in 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations". Moreover, as Chad Post notes, "the number of original works of fiction and poetry published annually in the US expanded from roughly 360 in 2008 to more than 600 in recent years. That may not seem like a lot, but a 67% increase over a decade is no fluke."

But Gabriella Page-Fort puts that into perspective: this is 632 out of an estimated 30 000 new books published in the US every year -- that's less that 1%! Indeed, Post mentions the 2005 study which "announced that less than 3% of all the books [not just literary fiction and poetry] published in English [in the United States] were originally written in another language". (And hence his international literature resource, "Three Percent".)

Besides, Kopf tells us, "Of the nearly 5800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China). Over 10% of books were originally published in France alone. Over that same period, only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar." No Vietnam there, incidentally! (The data comes from the Publishers Weekly database.) The Big Four in the US were French, German, Spanish, and Italian. (In that 2006-photo of my poetry bookshelf, the books are in English, Esperanto, Hindi, and translations from French, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, and Urdu.)

The situation with German is much better. "German publishers, for example, bought translation rights to 3782 American books in 2002, while American publishers bought rights for only 150 German books," Stephen Kinzer informs us. The situation has only improved since then, notes Page-Fort: "in 2016, 9882 new translations were published in Germany, 13.6% of new releases".

These observers of the translation scene offer a familiar list of reasons for the situation. Here's Post's one-paragraph summary: "economic censorship (translations don’t make profits, so corporations don’t bother with them), they spiral out to a host of intertwined cultural issues: Editors don’t read foreign languages; it doesn’t pay to fund a translator as well as an author; corporate consolidation has made it harder to publish books that sell modestly; indie presses can’t afford to market the foreign titles they do publish; American readers “yawn” at translations, and so bookstores don’t stock them and reviewers (or the handful that have survived the newspaper die-off) don’t review them. The more you look at it, the more the “problem” begins to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy."

But, as Page-Fort notes: "These dire statistics are focused only on the number of translations published, but demand for international books forces a shift. In China, the top five bestselling fiction books of 2017 were translations (including works by Japan’s Keigo Higashino and Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini); compare that to the US top five, who were all American, save for Canadian Margaret Atwood. We, the readers, have the power to change this trend."

Post offers another perspective. "If there are a few thousand above-average titles to choose from every year [from the world's languages], why not choose the ones that people will be debating and discussing decades from now, instead of the immediate successes?"

Let me end with Page-Fort again (and with a 2017-photo of five books from my poetry shelf.): "It is easy for me to imagine a more compassionate world, a place where education brings people together and empowers us to find one another through the arts. I would like to think that globalization will lead us toward a new cultural unity; a world where books are as unique as the people who write them and readers are drawn together through stories, beyond the borders of language or country."

I'm glad to see that the world Esperanto movement is playing a role here!

Vjetnama Antologio (2019), edited by Nguyen Thi Phuong Mai and Luon Ngoc Bao, was launched during the 9th Asian-Oceanian Congress of Esperanto in Danang, Vietnam (25-28 April 2019). The book is 14.5 x 20.5 cm, and has 386 pages. Price: 350 VND (about 15 EUR). Cover Photo credit: Yûiti Sawaya‎

Monday, April 15, 2019

Multilingual Education in South Asia - Unicef Report

Early Literacy and Multilingual Education in South Asia” (2019) analyses the varying language situations in South Asia and the existing policies and practices of using languages as medium of instruction (MoI) and as subjects in primary education curriculum. The report's author is Dhir Jhingran of the Language and Learning Foundation. The report concludes that "improving early literacy teaching and learning, and including non-dominant children’s languages in the teaching and learning at primary level, are two of the most important initiatives for ensuring inclusive and equitable student learning" (p. 6).

Here is a chapter-outline of the report (adapted from pp. 5-6):

Chapter 1 presents the rationale for using children’s first language as the medium of instruction. It lays out the principles of language learning, including learning of an unfamiliar language.

Chapter 2 provides a review of learning outcomes of language and literacy in eight countries -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Chapter 3 reviews the language speech patterns and linguistic diversity and complex sociolinguistic situations in each country, including the hierarchy between languages. The issue of the high value attached to learning English and also instruction through the medium of English is discussed.

Chapter 4 presents a typology of school-level sociolinguistic situations commonly found in the region. The approaches of bilingual and multilingual education are introduced. Introduction of non-dominant languages as mediums of instruction requires intense preparation. More importantly, this requires a shift in mindset and attitudes towards these languages and cultures.

Chapter 5 outlines two case studies of mother-tongue-based multilingual education from India and Nepal.

Chapter 6 makes recommendations for policies and programmes for supporting children’s language and literacy learning.

As the report wisely notes: "Prescriptive formulations of policy and programmes will not be effective where language situations are fluid and diverse. The bottom line for any flexible language-in-education policy or programme should be that children’s linguistic and cultural resources must be valued and used" (p. 2).

Hope practitioners, policy makers and educators often return to this report for possibilities and direction!

Citation: Jhingran, D., Early Literacy and Multilingual Education in South Asia, United Nations Children’s Fund Regional Office for South Asia, Kathmandu, 2019.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Lessons from Bhutan do not include English-medium education

"Improving the Quality of Schooling: Some Observations from Bhutan" is an interesting essay by Phuntsho Choden and my colleague V Santhakumar.  A key insight seems to be the following:
There is also a realization that 'quality schooling for all' cannot be achieved merely through the improvements in the provision of schooling such as providing better school infrastructure, having better-qualified teachers, or making the curriculum and pedagogy attractive to the students. There may be an equally, if not more, important need for demand measures, which encourage parents to use schools not only to enrol their children but also to retain them through it and ensure that the children learn at school....
Among these "demand measures" is what Section 7 of the essay calls "Focus on government schools":
It is remarkable to note that there is a much greater focus [than in India] on government schools in Bhutan not only by the government but also among the parents.... The majority in Bhutan wants their children to be educated in government schools. Unlike Indian states, there is no notable exodus of children from middle-class families to private schools. Though there are a few good-quality private schools in the capital and a few district headquarters, the rest are considered as an inferior option by the parents who believe that the facilities and quality of teachers are relatively better in government schools.
Bhutan's focus on improving the public education system is commendable indeed. Government expenditure on education was 7.39% of the GDP in 2015; the 2013 figure for India was 3.84%. The figure on the left is a comparison from Unesco's Institute of Statistics. And here is another vizualization from Gapminder.

The quality of schooling is good enough for the authors to remark: "A couple of teachers from Kerala who work in Bhutan note that their own children are receiving better schooling in Bhutan than they would have in Kerala." (And Kerala, as we know, has among the better public education systems in India. See, for instance, the ASER 2016 report, pp. 46-49). There are certainly lessons here for various Indian states.

However, the authors also suggest that the high reputation of government schools in Bhutan could be the following: "The fact that the government schools provide education in English medium could be the added advantage in Bhutan, considering that this is a major reason of migration of children to private schools in India." This suggests that were the Indian public education system to do the same, it too would enjoy a higher reputation than it now does.

Indeed, earlier in the essay, Section 5 of the post outlines just this as one of those "demand measures": "Schooling in English medium but connect with culture". Here is the section in full:
One notable feature of the schooling in Bhutan is that the medium of instruction is English. There could be historical reasons for it. The fact that the early teachers came from abroad and did not have proficiency in the local language could be an important reason. However, the adoption of English as the medium of instruction has not led to a neglect of their national language. It is taught as an important subject in schools and we could see teachers who specialize in it and students who do well in the subject. This is an important point since there are politicians and intellectuals (especially in various states of India) who argue that an English medium education makes the children neglect their culture, and the medium of instruction should be the local language. There are no indications that the Bhutanese people have abandoned their own language or culture due to the English medium education. Instead, anecdotal evidence indicates that they are much more wedded to their culture than most Indians are to theirs.
It is not clear what one is to make of these observations. The authors assert that the use of English as the medium of instruction (MoI) has not led to the neglect of the national language, Dzongkha. As evidence they say that Dzongkha is "taught as an important subject in schools"; that they saw "teachers who specialize in it and students who do well in the subject". Yes, this is evidence that Dzongkha is not being "neglected".

Surely, a far more desirable state would be for Dzongkha to flourish! Evidence that Dzonghka is flourishing would be if the language is being used as a knowledge-language in the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities -- at the school level as well as in higher education; if dictionaries, specialist terminologies and other reference materials are constantly being produced in the language; if books, magazines, mass media, the entertainment industry, and the internet use Dzonghka for pretty much all purposes -- from discussing politics to the latest developments in art, science and technology; if there is vibrant literary activity, including translations into and out of Dzongkha....

"There are no indications that the Bhutanese people have abandoned their own language or culture due to the English medium education," say the authors. Unless there is evidence of the language flourishing, choosing English as the MoI must necessarily mean neglect of their national language. And if there is indeed evidence of Dzongkha flourishing (in most, if not all of the domains mentioned above), it would be interesting to understand how and why that is happening!

A word on the other languages in Bhutan. It is worth noting that speakers of the other 21 languages that Ethnologue lists for Bhutan need to learn the national language, Dzongkha, as well as English. Their educational trajectory is likely to be different from that of native speakers of Dzongkha.

Thus, while there is no doubt much to learn from Bhutan's schooling system, switching to an English-medium education is certainly not one of the lessons India can learn from Bhutan.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

PLSI volume on English and other international languages

Volume 37 (of the projected 50 volumes) of the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) is being launched in Hyderabad on 27 July 2018. This volume is titled English and Other International Languages.

As the publisher's blurb says, the book "discusses the status of English and other foreign languages which continue to have a presence in India. While Section I discusses the complex progression of English in the Indian linguistic scene and its increasing acceptance among the people here, Section II describes the status and development of eight other international languages in use in India. The volume also observes how India’s engagement with foreign cultures has enriched the multilingual mosaic of the country."

The other eight languages are: Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish in India. This post deals only with the section on English. The 20 chapters include my essay, "English as the Medium of Instruction at School" (PDF). The contents of the volume are listed here.

The 27 July launch will feature both the series editor Ganesh Devy, as well as the volume editor T. Vijay Kumar.

The volume also has a useful set of appendices. Here is the list with links to where they can be found on the net:

I. Mother English (1854) -- a poem by Savitribai Phule

II. Address, dated 11th December 1823, from Raja Rammohan Roy to Lord Amherst

III. Minute on Indian education by the Hon’ble T. B. Macaulay, dated 2nd February 1835

IV. Gandhi on the English Language - 5 excerpts from his writings. Two books that bring together Gandhi's writings on education are Towards New Education (ed. Bharatan Kumarappa, 1953) and Evil Wrought by the English Medium (ed. K. R. Prabhu, 1958)

V. Debates in the Constituent Assembly on the English language, Constituent Assembly of India Volume III, Friday 2nd May, 1947 -- A recent commentary on the debates is by Rama Kant Agnihotri, "Constituent Assembly Debates on Language", Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 50, Issue No. 8, 21 Feb, 2015

VI. Address by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh at Oxford University -- the comments on English language are in this transcript.

VII. Excerpts from interviews with Chandrabhan Prasad -- The Wikipedia entry on him gives the links to many of his writings.

All in all, the PLSI volume promises to be a rich resource.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Multilingual education in India report coming in July 2018

The "early research findings" of the language and literacy project MultiLila will be announced and discussed in a two-day seminar in New Delhi in July 2018. The project's formal title is Multilingualism and Multiliteracy: Raising learning outcomes in challenging contexts in primary schools across India. This four-year UK-India project with its extensive, multidisciplinary network of partners (including institutions and people we have met often in this blog) began in 2016. Its primary question is "Why do some children in India not benefit from being multilingual or bilingual to the same degree as children in other ESL/EFL contexts?" (ESL is English as a Second Language, and EFL is English as a Foreign Language.)

As Mukhopadhyay (see below) notes, the project covers:
  • 1200 children in 4th standard [i. e. 10-year-olds] to be tested at two time points (4th and 5th standard)
  • 800 children living in urban areas in Delhi and Hyderabad (200 in slums, 200 in non-slums)
  • 400 children living in rural areas in Bihar-Patna (200 in semi-urban, 200 in urban areas)
  • Average ability children, no history of learning disabilities
  • No children from upper end of middle class or above
Some of the other questions the project asks are:
  • Is there a relationship between basic literacy and numeracy levels and school drop-out rates on the one hand, and language of instruction and support for MT education provision on the other?
  • Is multiliteracy associated with better skills in critical thinking and problem solving when MT literacy is available?
  • Are critical thinking and problem solving skills in the medium of instruction transferred in the child’s use of English for similar tasks?
  • Do multilingual children show comparable developmental knowledge of semantic fluency, syntactic knowledge, reading and retelling skills across MT and English?
One of the project's co-investigators, Lina Mukhopadhyay, amplified some of the objectives in the Language and Development Conference in 2017 (PDF):
  • To explore how the complex dynamics of social, economic and geographical contexts affect the delivery of quality of multilingual education in India.
  • To investigate how educational policy regarding the role of mother-tongue education (the three language formula) is implemented in schools, and how the language(s) of instruction impact on learning outcomes in basic literacy and numeracy but also higher level literacy skills expressed through critical thinking and problem solving in the language of education and in the development of English as a second language.
  • To evaluate how negative consequences of [structural inequality]... on learning outcomes can be attenuated when mother-tongue education is available.
We look forward to learning more about the seminar and the project's report, Multilingual classrooms: opportunities and challenges for English medium instruction in low and middle-income countries.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Language and Education resources at Early Literacy Initiative

In September 2017 I argued for MTME -- Mother-Tongue Based Multilingual Education -- in a blog post titled "Why Mother Tongue Medium in a Multilingual Context?"

The post is part of the recently launched website, Early Literacy Initiative (ELI), of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). As the ELI website states:

ELI is working broadly towards accomplishing:

  1. Research: To conduct new research in early language and literacy in India; and to disseminate knowledge that is already available.
  2. Teaching: To create a cadre of knowledgeable and well-prepared professionals in the area of early language and literacy.
  3. Advocacy: To provide visibility and leadership to work in early language and literacy by engaging in national level dialogues with scholars, policy-makers and other professionals working in allied areas. ELI will also provide networking support for practitioners and scholars working in the domain through a variety of means, such as, a visible and dynamic web presence, offering short-term workshops and courses, collecting and disseminating relevant information, and so on.

The blog is organized thematically. Their first theme is multilingualism. The website's Resources are organized around general interest, themes, handouts and publications, and talks and presentations.

All in all, ELI promises some interesting conversations!