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BEP and Vernacularization Why mother-tongue based education?

BEP and Vernacularizatio Why mother-tongue based education? (Kalsang Wangdu)

In 2004, the 'Basic Education Policy for Tibetans in Exile' (BEP) was promulgated by the Tibetan administration in Dharamsala. This has caused a considerable excitement as well as anxiety in various constituencies of the exile Tibetan community. However, most of the discourses in the public domain revolve around the issue of vernacularization of curriculum and instruction, thereby relegating to oblivion more important aspects of the policy. As a result,


BEP was hijacked by an unwarranted singular emphasis on vernacularization alone, causing unnecessary disagreement amongst educational agencies that run Tibetan diaspora schools. Even in the schools where BEP is purportedly in practice, apart from the vernacularization of curriculum and instruction at primary level (which has been in place since late 1980s and early 1990s), there have been little changes in the pedagogical practices of the teachers. It should be said in no uncertain terms that, although the central theme of this article is issues pertaining to vernacularization of Tibetan diaspora education, it is by no means the most important feature of the BEP. The author is aware of the danger of perpetuating a common public myth that equates BEP with vernacularization and Tibetanization.

People who oppose vernacularization of secondary education cite various reasons such as lack of further studies and job opportunities in Tibetan language, lack of teachers who can teach in Tibetan language, lack of educational materials translated into Tibetan, etc. These are valid questions that would require considerable resources and efforts to set them right. Majority of those who support BEP's clause on vernacularization are clueless about what researches say about its pedagogical advantages. Their arguments supporting vernacularization are either blind-faith or almost entirely based on emotional, political and nationalistic themes. There is an acute dearth of educator's voice. Thus, this article is an attempt to present educational and pedagogical perspectives concerning vernacularization of education in a non-academic language.

Theoretical frameworks
In the era of rapid globalization and growing cultural and linguistic marginalization, mother-tongue based education has been looked upon as a potential system for nurturing locally rooted global citizens of the 21st century. Besides ensuring higher academic success, it is known for its cost-effectiveness in the long run and the ability to garner community involvement in education. Here I would like to elaborate on two key points related with academic achievements.

a) Ensures better conceptual understanding
It doesn't require a great deal of intellectual erudition to understand the fact that one's mother-tongue is the easiest and the best medium to communicate as well as to learn academic subjects. It is something that is innate and natural. As such mother-tongue based education help students gain better conceptual understanding of the subject matter. Not only that one's native language is the best medium of learning, vernacularization generally leads to inclusion of more local knowledge in the curriculum, which is closer to the child's cultural, environmental and historical milieu. There are concrete evidences to show that vernacularization leads to Tibetanization of curriculum in our case . This enriches teachers' and students' access to local resources to learn the content, thereby reducing the level of abstraction and dislocation between home and school.

b) Supports second language acquisition
Research have also shown that the instruction in native language not only enhances children's academic achievement in subjects like science, math, social studies and others, but also supports the process of acquiring a second or a third language. Linguists like Crawford have explained this in terms of transfer of literacy skills and academic knowledge between various languages. Languages, despite obvious differences, share a lot of innate and subtle similarities. This is somewhat explained by the term 'universal grammar' - that most languages have certain similar grammatical features such as a having consonants and vowels, a basic word order, subject and object, noun and verb, phonetics, etc. Cummins calls this the 'common underlying proficiency' of languages that is fluid and readily transferable. For example, a Tibetan student who understands well the meaning and functions of 'bya-tshig' (བྱ་ཚིག) in Tibetan language will easily comprehend 'verbs' in English language. This is called 'language transfer' and I have seen many incidences of such positive transfer between Tibetan and English language in Tibetan schools during numerous classroom observations.

Cognitive theories of bilingualism such as Developmental Interdependence Hypothesis suggest that a child's second language competence is partly dependent on the level of competence already achieved in the first language. It posits that the language acquisition is not a zero-sum game and that there is a positive transfer of skills and concepts from one language to another. Literacy in the first language builds the necessary cognitive development upon which the second language acquisition is based. Studies in various parts of the world show that children who were educated first in their mother tongue did as well or better in acquiring the dominant or world language than their counterparts who had received much more exposure to that world language.

Research findings
Against the backdrop of these theoretical underpinnings, it would be interesting to look at findings of researches conducted on the effects of mother-tongue based education. Only few international case studies as well as Tibetan experiences are cited here.

a) International case studies
A World Bank study on Burkina Faso (a small African nation) found that children with initial literary in the Moore language before beginning instruction in French achieved better results in French & Math than students who had only participated in French-language schooling. In Hong Kong, Chinese students who were taught in Chinese language did better than those who had studied in English medium schools . Likewise in Brazil, studies have demonstrated that the use of children's native language has been successful in raising levels of literacy in the local language and the national language (Portuguese), as well as raising achievement level in all academic subjects.

b) Tibetan experiences
In 1987, due to persistent efforts made by the Panchen Lama and Ngapo, Tibet Autonomous Region's (TAR) Congress passed the legislation for using Tibetan language in education, administration and other public domains. As a result, pilot projects were initiated at four secondary schools in 1989 - two in Lhasa, and one each in Shigatse and Lhokha, with a total enrolment of 161 Tibetan students. In 1995, students in the pilot projects sat for senior school examination with other students. The result was very telling. According to Catriona Bass , students in the Tibetan medium scored a pass percentage of 80% as against 39% achieved by the Chinese medium students. Even in the Chinese language exam, Tibetan medium students outscored Chinese medium students by 66% to 61%. Such success story like this is not just confined to TAR only, but echoes in other Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces. For example, Chungba Primary School was set up in 2002 in Litang County, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province, teaching all subjects in Tibetan with Chinese as the second language. In 2008, the first batch graduated primary school and stood first in the county test. They stood first in all subjects and took all honors across the county, even outdoing Chinese students in the Chinese language exam .

Therefore, generally in educational and pedagogical terms, it is beyond doubt that mother-tongue based education is the key to enhancing learning gains in students and makes education meaningful to the child. It results in better content learning as well as supports acquisition of new languages. However, there can be no denying that vernacularization of education in a diasporic situation like ours is definitely a herculean task. Odds and stakes are very high. It would require tremendous resources, efforts, and creative compromises to draw benefits of the mother-tongue based education, without placing Tibetan children in a disadvantageous position. This calls for a widespread and nuanced debate on education in both policy and public domains. It is also time for educators to make our voices heard.