In many parts of the world it is common for universities to use the English language as the teaching medium. English dominates the world as the language of business, science and, to a lesser extent, literature. Universities in countries where English is not the official language pride themselves on being global by offering the whole curriculum in English. Despite the severe competition between English and French, even France has been giving in to the “English” power with numerous French universities beginning to offer complete degree programs in English.

It is true that being multilingual is a great asset to have in today’s globalized job market; however, what I find is that no matter how fluent the teacher and the students are, teaching in a foreign language is not as natural or spontaneous as teaching in one’s native language. It is comparable to eating using a knife and fork for someone who was raised  using their bare fingers, chop sticks, or pita bread; of course the former is neat, but the latter has a more natural  and nostalgic feeling to it.

One will never have a class where all students have the same level of foreign language competence, which means that some may feel reluctant and embarrassed to ask questions or to participate in class discussion. Delivering the information in the native language on topics other than science and mathematics may turn a formal and sometimes stressful evening class into a social gathering where relevant experiences are shared, native idiomatic expressions are used effectively, and puns and metaphors can “make a long story short”. If I say to my students “in a nutshell” in English it would not have the same impact as saying “to summarize” in Arabic. Teaching in one’s native language frees one to use humor to convey complex concepts, makes salutes more cordial, and disciplinary terms possibly less severe and more acceptable.

Of course one could have the best of both worlds by using English slides, since textbooks are usually in English, with a mixture of English and native language comments. I am not a social scientist but I would bet that when students hear a concept in their native language it awakens a different part of their brain. According to Perani et al, in a paper titled Brain Processing of Native and Foreign Languages, “some brain areas are shaped by early exposure to the maternal language, and are not necessarily activated by the processing of a second language to which they have been exposed for a limited time later in life.” These findings imply that we may be shortchanging our students when we insist on teaching in a foreign language.

Even within the same country, and among users of the same native language, there have been some controversies on SAT exams and others in the USA concerning the exams being written for the mainstream white student, which puts black inner city students at a major disadvantage. I am not aware of solutions that were developed to address such issues.

In the end, a bright student will usually do well against all odds, but with no credit or recognition for the additional effort, unfortunately!

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