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Reinforcing the Gaps in Learning: Limited Familiarity of Students with the Language of Instruction

Basil Bernstein's theory on restricted and elaborated language codes is a good starting point for understanding the significance of classroom language corresponding to the language students are familiar with back home. A student from a working-class background might not have the same fluency or understanding of a language as their peers from elite backgrounds who do not lack monetary, cultural, and social capital. Language in education policies can be a source of broader grievances. While it strengthens one's bond with their community, it can also be a source of marginalization within educational institutions, and to be taught in a language other than their home language has been said to have a negative impact on learning such as hampering their communication within schools or reducing the learning opportunities for minority language groups.

Kenya is an example with two official languages and sixty-six local languages. Kids from the Marsabit region starting school at the young age of three or four must learn Swahili and English to understand their teachers in the classrooms while communicating in Borana at home. From an educational point of view, this can be categorized as a significant issue, as 40% of the students do not have access to education in a language they understand. The question arises: how can you learn if you don't understand?


In the case of refugees or minority groups in other countries, the children face a similar dilemma. A refugee in the USA from Syria who is only familiar with Arabic might find it impossible to adjust to a system where they need help understanding the content taught in English. Students who do not have complete command over a language used in schools struggle to express themselves, understand concepts and learn compared to their peers who are fluent in that language. The same peers are likely to draw the us-vs -them boundaries based on language differences.

In Pakistan, the post-independence government adopted Urdu as the national language, and now Urdu, along with English, are the two main mediums of instruction within schools. The problem here is that if students in KPK or Balochistan are taught in their local languages, it gets hard for them to find jobs in Punjab or enroll in higher educational institutions in Punjab because of the language barrier. Familiarity with Urdu and English increases the chances of success but is it not important to consider whether kids even understand what they are being taught in schools or just teaching in English and Urdu is the right thing to do that disregards their local languages?

This is not a hopeless situation because there are examples of multi-ethnic countries that have managed to teach their students in their respective languages. Ethiopia is one example where they combine mother tongue instruction with regional languages such as Amharic and even English so that kids are completely not alienated from the language of their home. Countries that are or have been affected by armed conflict are highly diverse linguistically, and in such cases, the right approach is to bring a change at the national level but alter the national policies that give weightage to the languages of all the communities. It is highly important to acknowledge that in countries where students are taught and tested in languages they do not speak at home, they are likely to perform poorly, and it can hinder the acquisition of critically important reading and writing skills, which defeats the said purpose of school or university education.

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