The power of the English language

Just like many university undergraduates, I found the opportunity to teach English overseas an intriguing proposition.

During the summer of 2009, I traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal with Peace for All International, a non-government organization founded by Laurier student Ayiko Solomon to do just that.
As one of seven volunteers hosted by Laxman and Laxmi Shrestha, I worked with my team at the Lotus Children’s Home, a small orphanage the Shresthas manage in the capital city.

As I did not have any prerequisites in teaching English, I assumed that I would be a teacher’s aid – assisting students with their schoolwork. However, the school had other plans. Manasalu Higher Secondary School, the focus of our volunteer efforts, was short on teaching staff. The most logical thing to do was provide us with whiteboard markers, brushes and classrooms full of excited Nepali children.

In the beginning, miscommunication was rampant and learning what was expected of us was sometimes an uncomfortable experience.

Even though the principal and teachers taught English to their students, the language barrier was undeniable. Not because their English was poor, but as foreigners, with different pronunciations and a completely different cultural frame of reference, we had trouble understanding them.
Not surprisingly, while tackling each classroom, our main focus became English pronunciation.

English as essential

English education is crucial in Nepal. In 2008, the country faced an unemployment rate of nearly 50 per cent. Today, tourism serves as a major source of income for the country.

The locals understand that English competency provides a marketable advantage, not to mention a livelihood.

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Manasalu students are only permitted to speak English on school grounds.

As our host Laxman Shrestha explained, in Nepal “English [education] is a good idea…. Everything is in English: work, banks, everything.” Moreover, all post-secondary education in the country is conducted in English. To have any chance at a college education in Nepal one needs to be literate in English.

This idea was reiterated within the confines of the Manasalu School. All classes at the Kathmandu school were in English and students were expected to speak only English while on school grounds. The school’s aim was to create an environment conducive to learning the language. The school’s principal, Bhakta Ku Shrestha, explained, “Parents have expectations for English school.” He said they “expect to send their kids abroad – there’s nothing here, no jobs in Nepal.”

The price of education

However, English education is not free. There are three different school systems in Kathmandu: private schools, public schools funded entirely by the government and community schools like Manasalu, which are privately owned but survive during difficult times by taking out loans from the government.

As principal Shrestha explained, “It is like a company, it all has to do with property.” While those attending private schools pay the most, community schools depending on their standards have varying student, exam and computer lab fees. Laxman’s two boys attend Manasalu; their education fees are paid for by a close family friend, totaling 7,000 Nepalese rupees (NPR) a month – just under 100 CAD – a steep price for many.

Why pay for schooling, you might wonder, when the government provides it for free? The major reason is that public schools do not teach English.

At Manasalu, about 50 per cent of students continue their education past tenth grade to complete “+2” (two more years that would prepare them for college). Principal Shrestha explained that there are many science students, and because it is so difficult to find jobs in Nepal, they go abroad, primarily to China. After my sophisticated survey of the Manasalu students – having the pupils raise their hands – science was the clear favourite for subject matter.

Education in Nepal is a complex issue for volunteers interested in development, since education is a fundamental benchmark in understanding and evaluating any country’s development. However, in Nepal, it would seem that the best education is primarily English-focused.

The ‘brain drain’ issue

In recent years, Nepali schools have tailored to parental wishes –children fluent enough in English to leave the country for post-secondary education or work. This contributes to the accursed “brain drain.”

In Nepal, money is put into the education system to educate its population. The problem is that most educated Nepali who have desired skills and knowledge leave the country to create a better life for themselves. Thus, they do not contribute to Nepal’s development.

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Young Nepali students in class at the Manasalu Higher Secondary School.

Nepal is not alone; brain drain is the reality for many underdeveloped countries today. While Nepal’s education system has obvious problems, something can be said for the free public education system provided for the government, however sparse, and its exclusion of the English language. Only seven years prior, civil war forced Manasalu to close its doors for two full years. The system has made notable progress in the post-war years.

For those interested in development, especially in teaching English as many university undergraduates do, I believe going to Nepal to teach English should be looked at more critically. Perhaps we should be working toward development in areas that would encourage well-educated Nepali citizens to remain in Nepal and contribute to their home country’s development.

Nepal facts:

In addition to Mount Everest, the country is home to eight of the world’s tallest 10 peaks.

While Nepal was the birthplace of Buddhism, today it is home to a Hindu majority.

In 2006, Nepal’s 10-year civil war ended.

However, the country is still struggling to recover from a decade of Maoist insurgency.

In May 2008, the country’s last monarch was removed from power and a democratic republic was instated.

As of 2008, the country was plagued by a 46 per cent unemployment rate.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries on earth.

Approximately one half of the country’s population lives below the internationally sanctioned poverty line of 1.25 USD a day.

Nepal is landlocked between two of the developing world’s powerhouses – India and China.

The country is heavily reliant on neighbouring India for trade and economic support.

Foreign aid is vital to Nepal’s survival.