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Review of  Medium of Instruction Policies

Reviewer: Thapelo Joseph Otlogetswe
Book Title: Medium of Instruction Policies
Book Author: James W. Tollefson Amy B.M. Tsui
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Book Announcement: 16.1257

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Date: Tue, 19 Apr 2005 20:02:27 +0100
From: Thapelo Otlogetswe <>
Subject: Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose

EDITORS: Tollefson, James W.; Tsui, Amy B. M.
TITLE: Medium of Instruction Policies
SUBTITLE: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda?
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2004

Thapelo Otlogetswe, Information Technology Research Institute,
University of Brighton, UK.


The book is an edited collection of 14 papers by 16 authors who
argue for the centrality of medium-of-instruction (MOI) policy in socio-
political processes. MOI policy choices are presented not just as
pedagogical options, but are defined by and define the social, political
and economic participation, social equality and human rights of
citizens. They empower and disempower different language groups
and perpetuate the subjugation of the minority groups by the dominant
ones (cf. Honey 1997). Its scope is broad with papers on experiences
from every continent. The papers detail experiences from New
Zealand, Wales, the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, the
Philippines, India, South Africa, Bolivia and Ecuador, Slovenia and
post-colonial Africa. They dispel the dominant myth that linguistic
pluralism is a root source of ethnic and national unrest, by defending
the position that linguistic diversity empowers citizens to meaningfully
participate politically, socially and economically.


The book is divided into three major parts:

Part one: Minority Languages in English Dominated States (Three
Part two: Language in Post-Colonial States (Six chapters)
Part Three: Managing and Exploiting Language Conflict (Three

There are two other chapters by the editors which do not fall within
the broader three classifications above; one at the beginning of the
book, which serves as a useful introduction to the chapters, and
another at the end of the book which summarizes the common themes
across all chapters.

In the first chapter the editors, Tollefson and Tsui, introduce the
reader to the collection by offering a panoramic overview of the entire
book, chapter by chapter. Each chapter is summarized by considering
how it illustrates how state educational agendas mirror underlying
political, social and economic agendas. In multilingual and multi-ethnic
post-colonial states, for instance, the colonial language has been
preferred over indigenous languages for its perceived ethnic and
political neutrality to eschew ethnic and national upheavals. Such
choices have favoured the elite educated in the colonial language and
restricted political, economic and social participation of the rest of the
population who lack the mastery of the foreign tongue. Thus the first
chapter not only provides a summary of other chapters but also show
how all the chapters in the book hang together.

In the second chapter Stephen May traces how the indigenous Maori
of New Zealand fought for their linguistic rights under the colonial
domination of English speaking whites of European origin, the
Pakeha. The Maori established Maori-medium schools outside the
government educational system to revive and maintain the Maori
language and culture. This led to the recognition of Maori as an
official language in New Zealand in 1987 through the passing of the
Maori Language Act. The Maori used the linguistic gains as a platform
for greater autonomy and to challenge the inequalities inherent in the
state educational system. May believes that the Maori struggle
presents a useful model that could be adopted by other minority
languages in the country.

Dylan Jones and Marilyn Martin-Jones in the third chapter focus on
the socio-political processes in the development of Welsh-medium and
bilingual education in an English dominant environment. They show
how in the 19th and 20th century Welsh was considered a stumbling
block to moral progress and commercial prosperity. English-medium
education was therefore seen as a desirable tool to combat Welsh
backwardness and riotous mannerisms of the 1830 and 1840s. The
Welsh, however resisted the English language dominance led be
Welsh intellectuals, politicians, The Welsh Language Society and
Welsh speaking parents. Welsh schools were established and the
public sector institutions created employment opportunities for those
educated in Welsh. In spite of all these progresses, the demand for
English in higher education has meant that Welsh hasn't established
itself at that level.

Teresa McCarty provides a critical analysis of medium of instruction
policy in the United States observing that though the US is
linguistically and culturally pluralistic it remains English dominated.
Throughout the history of America when linguistic diversity was
considered non-threatening as in the creation of religious texts in
native languages, it was state-supported but when it was considered
destabilizing, the state went into "a full-fledged language panic" (p.
79) and linguistic diversity was curtailed. McCarty therefore argues
that decisions about language are rarely linguistically motivated but
are about social class, power and control.

In chapter five Amy Tsui discusses Hong Kong's language policies
first, over the 150 years of British colonialism and later when Hong
Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China. She argues that the
policies have always been guided by underlying political agendas
although economic justifications were offered to the public. Although
Cantonese is widely spoken, English is widely used as a medium of
instruction in many schools since it is crucial for maintaining Hong
Kong as a major financial and trading centre and it symbolizes
prestige, power and wealth. This argument has been sustained
regardless of the fact that research has shown that mother tongue
education improved students' academic performance, motivation and
confidence. She argues that the political agenda always supercedes
all agendas whether they are economic, social or educational
although these agendas will be used as public justification for policy.

Anne Pakir offers a positive appraisal of Singapore's language policy
model which she argues "represents an impressive case of a well-
planned and effective implemented language-policy program" (p. 117).
With its English-knowing bilingualism of English and another official
language in the country Singapore has attempted the language
preservation of different linguistic groups and the empowerment of
learners for a knowledge-based economy which has English as a
dominant language. English is the first school language and the main
medium of instruction in all national schools and is seen as politically
neutral. Pupils select their second school language on the basis of
their ethnic classification. The official ethnic languages, Malay,
Chinese, Tamil, are supported, promoted and taught as second
languages. Although minority languages are taught alongside English,
English still remains dominant, raising identity issues and problems in
the transference of traditional values.

Sarah Kaur Gill traces the development of nationalism in Malaysia
after independence through the establishment of Bahasa Malaysia as
the official language and discusses the relegation of English, which
played a dominant role before independence, to a second language
status. English retained its official status for only 10 years after
independence as Bahasa Malaysia replaced it in different sectors of
the society in a process that lasted about 26 years. Bahasa Malaysia
as an official language was crucial for enhancing feelings of
nationalism and unity although the indigenous Malays formed 49.78%
and there were other ethnic groups like Chinese (37.1%) and Indians
(11.0%). The adoption of Bahasa Malaysia as an official language
enhanced its status and gave Malaysia a unique national identity.
However the dominance of Bahasa Malaysia impacted negatively on
the comprehension of texts in English by undergraduates educated in
Bahasa Malaysia. The government was therefore forced to revert to
the use of English in science, engineering and medical courses in
universities and colleges on the basis of economic and technological
development justifications. This move was successfully opposed by
the Malaysian intellectuals who retained Bahasa Malaysia in public
schools at the expense of academic development of students, while
private universities could teach in both English and Bahasa Malaysia.
Malaysia has increasingly become receptive to the teaching in English
not only in higher education but also at primary schools.

In chapter 8, Iluminado Nical, Jerzy J. Smolicz and Margaret J.
Secombe measure language attitudes of Philippines rural students,
their parents and teachers, faced by the dominance of both Filipino
and English. Their research is based in the island of Leyte. Pre-
independence Philippines suffered American imposition rule with its
compulsory education in English which excluded indigenous
languages from schools, universities and most of public life. After
independence Filipino which gained popularity, was adopted as a
political compromise to defuse ethnic tensions and so that a foreign
language like English could not be adopted as a national language.
Bilingual education through Filipino and English disadvantaged
minority learners who "faced a double linguistic barrier to learning" (p.
160). The Philippines continues to face tensions between Cebuano
and Tagalog which could develop into a serious ethnic conflict. Nical,
Smolicz and Secombe argue for linguistic diversity alongside the
development of a national language.

E. Annamalai points out that though India has about 200 languages,
only 33 are used as the medium of instruction and 41 are made
available for study in the school curriculum from which students must
learn three. The three languages include either their mother tongue or
a regional language, Hindi and English. English is considered
ethnically neutrally, though it is not class neutral since it is a language
of the elite. Making English the medium of higher education has
heightened its demand and made it more prestigious. There is also no
commitment from the government to change medium of instruction
from English to Indian languages since it has been argued that the
Indian languages have to develop first to handle technical terminology
and textbooks have to be written before the languages could be used
in schools. Annamalai argues that these conditions are unhelpful since
a language develops in use and texts are easily produced when there
is demand for them. Parental demand for English-medium of
instruction put the government under pressure. Annamalai argues that
the "solution to the problems of education through the medium of
English is to teach English effectively while imparting education
through the medium of Indian languages" (p. 191).

Hassana Alidou presents a critical review of medium-of-instruction in
post-colonial Africa. Although the continent is vast, she successfully
shows striking similarities between francophone and anglophone
Africa. She observes that colonial education was created to serve
European economical and political interests. Colonial administrators
used a common language for learners since they did not speak the
same language. In former British colonies African languages and
English were used transitionally as medium of instruction and English
became a dominant language after the fourth grade and the only
language in secondary school and higher education. In former French
colonies, on the other hand, African languages were excluded
completely from the education system in an attempt to civilize and
assimilate African students into French culture. However in post-
colonial Africa, in avoidance of ethnic wars, African governments
ironically retained colonial languages which were viewed as neutral
means of communication. Political independence did not lead to
educational and economic independence. This created problems for
learners resulting with higher levels of dropouts and lower levels of
pass rate. Alidou finally argues that medium-of-instruction issue in
Africa can only be resolved through courageous leadership that will
seriously address "both Western and African-based linguistic, cultural
and economic hegemony" (p. 213).

Vic Webb argues that although South Africa has 11 official languages
(9 Bantu languages, English and Afrikaans) which constitutionally are
of equal status and esteem, English is used as the de facto official
language because of its prestige and partly because of a lack of a
clear policy of the implementation of the language policy that will see
the other languages used in official public domains. English though
having a smaller number of native speakers, it has prestige and it is
politically, economically, and educationally dominant. On the other
hand Bantu languages, although numerically in the majority, they lack
prestige, economic and educational value. Afrikaans remains
stigmatized as a symbol of apartheid. The constitutional
pronouncement binds the national and provisional governments to use
at least two official languages for the purposes of government. Webb's
criticism is of the government's "escape clauses" which may allow the
government to avoid the full and meaningful implementation of future
policy. One of these escape clauses states that policies should take
into "account usage, practicality, expense, regional circumstances,
and the balance of the needs and preferences of the population" (p.
220). While Webb has a positive view of language policy development
in South Africa, he believes it is too soon to determine conclusively
whether it is a failure or success.

Kendall A. King and Carol Benson argue that the gap between official
policy and daily practice in the implementation of the language policy
in Bolivia and Ecuador can be traced to ideological and
implementation challenges and resource constraints. Both countries
experienced long Spanish colonial rule that marginalized indigenous
people and their languages. They therefore argue for an educational
system in mother tongue with Spanish being introduced gradually as a
second language and that the mother tongue should be developed in
parallel with Spanish throughout primary school. However they note
that there is a lack of resources for and in indigenous languages.
These include human and material resources. Untrained teachers and
those who lack confidence in indigenous languages pose a great
challenge to the teaching of indigenous languages. Ideological forces
that could undermine the teaching of indigenous languages include
expressed ideals which are not matched with actual actions on the
ground. King and Benson are optimistic of the future of indigenous
languages in Bolivia and Ecuador as more minority individuals take
leadership roles in the society. Many indigenous languages also have
written forms and are used in basic schooling.

James Tollefson discusses the languages policies in Slovenia focusing
on the tension between the process of integration and ethnolinguistic
nationalism. He argues that between 1945-1980 language policies in
Yugoslavia were characterized by great pluralism. This was central to
the maintenance of a united state comprising Serbs, Croats, Moslems,
Slovenes, Albanians, and Macedonians. Linguistic pluralism therefore
maintained peace, stability and unity. However in the mid 1980s,
Slobodan Molosevic imposed Serbian nationalism and blamed
pluralism for a plethora of problems in Yugoslavia. The resistance of
Serbian nationalism led to the independence of Slovenia which
established Slovene as the official language but offered Italians and
Hungarians a right to mother tongue education in Slovenia. Tollefson
argues that the case of Yugoslavia illustrates that to avoid tensions
dominant groups must deal with minorities fairly and embrace

In the final chapter James W. Tollefson and Amy B. Tsui reiterate the
central theme of the whole book; that medium of instruction policies
are not formed in isolation but rather in the context of complex political
and social forces, changes in government and competition for
resources. They summarize central themes across all chapters. These
include amongst others, the gap between between official policy and
everyday practice, limitations of resources to support minority
language development, the relationship between ethnolinguistic
diversity and social conflict and many others.


Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda? is a
must-have text for all those working in sociolinguistics, language policy
development, education research and I recommend it as critical
reading for all education and linguistics students. It covers medium of
instruction matters in amazing depth and scope than any book I have
ever read on the subject. It is well written and the contributors have an
impressive mastery of their subject.

Having said that, there are weaknesses that must be pointed out.
Although the book is divided into three main categories: Part one:
Minority Languages in English Dominated States; Part two: Language
in Post-Colonial States, and Part Three: Managing and Exploiting
Language Conflict, these classifications are not helpful since there is
considerable overlap between the classifications rendering them
unhelpful and even misleading. This is partly because the
classifications are not mutually exclusive. For instance papers that
deal with Minority Languages in English Dominated States are found
in a different section since states like India and South Africa have
minority languages in an English dominated environment but are also
post-colonial. Alidou's paper on medium-of-instruction in post-colonial
Africa traces how African states have managed and exploited
language conflict although it is not under Managing and Exploiting
Language Conflict. This observation is true for other papers in the

What I found striking also is how different writers characterized a
country which is the focus of their paper as multilingual (e.g. Indian
with about 200 languages, South Africa with about 80 languages and
the US with over 300 languages) and then proceeded to ignore the
vast majority of other minority languages and their status in the
country and instead focused either on those languages which had
been declared official or those whose speakers rendered the loudest
protestation. While most writers argue for mother-tongue education,
most stayed clear of addressing how each child could be guaranteed
learning in their mother tongue in highly multilingual communities.
Watson has observed that "the poorest countries are amongst the
most plurilingual, especially in Africa" (Watson 1999:06). How then
can states facing the scourge of Aids and with pitiable economies
guarantee mother tongue education to each child in a highly
plurilingual community? Related to this matter is the lack of an
economic justification of how states can sustain the implementation of
mother-tongue education. While the collection of chapters argue that
medium of instruction policies are better understood within the a socio-
political and economic framework, the papers succeed in illustrating
the socio-political parameters but fail in showing the economic ones.

Having said that, I still consider Medium of Instruction Policies: Which
Agenda? Whose Agenda? the best book on the subject of medium of
instruction policy today.


Honey, John (1997) Language is Power: The Story of Standard
ENglish and its Enemies. London: Faber and Faber Limited

Watson, Keith (1999) Language, Power, Development and
Geographical Changes: conflicting pressures facing plurilingual
societies. Compare, Vol. 29, No. 1.


Thapelo Otlogetswe is a PhD student at the Information Technology
Research Institute, University of Brighton, UK. His research is in the
area of corpus lexicography focusing on how minority languages can
build robust corpora for lexicographic research.

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