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The Significance of Multilingual Education in a Diverse Society

Education is nothing but seeking and spreading the truth. The truth lies in different forms, in different places, and, of course, in different languages. To spread the truth, one must be able to communicate with the person in a language that they understand. Here comes the role of Multilingual education, which becomes a necessity in a diverse society like the regions of South Asia. While many nations in this region are still struggling with the political tutelage of colonizers by adopting their foreign languages and naming them national languages, we cannot ignore the Lingua Franca that it has created; the best example is English itself. But with this comes the concept of diglossia, where one language is regarded as a low variety (L) and may be used at home or in informal environments, and the other is regarded as a high variety (H) and is used in specialized formal functions. This hierarchy creates a sense of loss of identity that one has for their language, especially in a diverse society where one language starts dominating the other. This notion is not new in a region like South Asia, where countries like India and Sri Lanka both have seen internal disturbances over language issues, be it the imposition of Hindi in India as an official language and the fear of its southern states, or the imposition of Sinhala as the only language of administration replacing English in 1956 and the opposition from Sri Lankan Tamils.

In September 2022, the United Nations Transforming Education Summit (TES) convened heads of state and government representatives to discuss how to fundamentally and comprehensively transform education systems to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), or the ‘education SDG’, which sets out to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ by 2030. In this context, multilingual education was considered the role model for transforming education. This article discusses the significance of multilingual education in a diverse society like South Asia and how it can benefit students, communities, and nations in terms of learning, creativity, and identity.

First Language and Learning:

Every year on February 21, the world celebrates International Mother Language Day, which was established at the initiative of Bangladesh by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1999. Many studies have shown that a student learns better in their mother tongue, and from then on, that mother tongue serves as the basis for them to learn the other languages. According to the organizers of the International Conference of South Asian Languages and Literatures, South Asia is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, with almost 650 independent languages. From the above statistics, it can be seen that out of these 650, almost 450 are in India alone.

If we look at the current state of the multilingual education system in India, the 8th schedule of the constitution provides 22 scheduled languages along with two official languages (Hindi and English). The New Education Policy 2020 (NEP) mentions that wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade five, but preferably till Grade eight and beyond, will be the home language or local language. Thereafter, the local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible by both public and private schools.

Multilingualism, Intellectual Flexibility, and Creativity:

It has been observed and several researchers have also found that children who are fluent in more than one language are superior lateral thinkers; they have greater social adaptability; their thinking and reasoning skills are better; and their cognitive abilities are also greater. Hence, multilingualism is very important for a person's overall development.

Cross-Cultural Communication Skills:

In a diverse society, it is the language of the people that plays a major role in binding them all together. Multilingualism allows one to communicate across one’s own culture and widen their horizons. Since languages don’t operate in a vacuum, culture and society play a key role in their existence. The reason for this is that language is a sociolinguistic, ethnolinguistic, and psycholinguistic issue that needs great attention for its accommodation.

Changing Times, Technology, and Language Education:

In these and the upcoming days of technical advancements, we see and understand the significance of coding in different languages that a computer can understand, be it Python, Java, C++, PHP, Ruby, etc. If monolingualism were okay, I would argue that we cannot work with a single language on a computer; it can be done, but not efficiently. Hence, in a diverse society, we need to be multilingual to work efficiently and more effectively.

Multilingualism and School Education:

Multilingualism becomes a necessity for students belonging to different cultural backgrounds within a school. It is the responsibility of states to protect the minority’s interests by providing them with education in their preferred language that they can understand and learn, which is an important component of policies to uplift the backward and downtrodden sections of society.

Multilingual education is not only a necessity but also an opportunity for a diverse society like South Asia. It can enhance students’ academic performance, cognitive abilities, cultural awareness, and identity formation. It can also foster social cohesion, economic development, and global citizenship among different linguistic communities and nations. Therefore, policymakers, educators, and parents should support and promote multilingual education as a way to transform education systems and societies for the better.

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