Published On: Sun, Dec 29th, 2019

Why (Which) Language of Instruction is Critical: The Role of Language Education in Nation-Building

Language Culture Identity St. Martin - Rhoda Arrindell

Dear Editor,

I have always argued that a sound education policy should be based on “a triad of effective teachers, involved parents, and committed students working from a curriculum explicitly designed to mold the whole child (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and culturally). The enterprise of nation-building in St. Martin cannot be carried out by ignoring the St. Martin national identity, which must be grounded in the St. Martin history and culture. ”[i]

Listening to the recent discussions (even the campaign rhetoric) about education and language of instruction, I sense that there is consensus that education is the key to not just personal development but also our development as a nation. I imagine some of the ideas thrown out are well intentioned, but I also recognize that many comments made during this time are done for political mileage, playing on the sentiments of the St. Martin people, but most times void of linguistic wisdom, though it is clear that language is the vehicle through which education takes place. Because of this knowledge, these days I tend to ignore the conversation and press on with the conviction that one day we will get this right.

However, in a Christmas Eve discussion on the topic with two elderly St. Martiners, I was challenged by one of the gentlemen to find a way to explain to the masses, in the same way I had done with him, why English should be the language of instruction in all schools on St. Martin to guarantee greater academic success for all students. While this forum does not permit me to do so adequately, I present a simplistic version of the argument, and I recommend further reading of my book Language, Culture, and Identity in St. Martin for those interested in a fuller understanding.

First of all, a distinction must be made between language of instruction (LOI) and language instruction/ language education, and from the discussions I’m hearing, it seems that either some do not understand the difference or intentionally conflate the two. Secondly, the politicians are aware that the relationship with the Dutch (language) is an emotionally charged topic and use it to score political points, even if their claims go against logic or linguistic wisdom, negating the very thing that the language of instruction debate is supposed to promote: functional multilingualism. Thirdly, language is power.

Take the average college (even secondary school) graduates in the Netherlands, for example, who come here to work. When they arrive on the island, they usually have a strong command of their language (Dutch) and they are usually competent in English, in many cases more versed in English grammar than some St. Martiners. This is primarily because they have had their foundation in their language and learned English as a foreign/second language. Though they may not have all the language skills needed to be fully functional when they arrive, because of their foundation and knowledge of the foreign language, they are able to make the mental transfer to English in order to become more functional in the St. Martin society, and this improves the longer they live here.

English is a world language and the primary medium of global communication, particularly in today’s world of information technology. English is also the primary language of St. Martin and the one most St. Martin children learn first at home. By the time they start school, St. Martin children have already acquired the language and are prepared to begin learning other content material. That is not the time for students to first learn another, foreign language through which they must at the same time learn content, as this retards the learning process and promotes poor academic performance. Rather, it is the time to build on the students’ linguistic foundation to transfer knowledge and introduce other foreign languages (the possibilities are infinite), taught by properly trained foreign language teachers.

Also, reasoning that Dutch must be maintained as language of instruction because it is the language of law enforcement is fallacious and has no legal basis. This form of circular reasoning prevents the nation from moving forward in creating a strong cadre of legal professionals to serve justice to our people and further denies them a universal tenet of justice, namely to be judged by their peers. Not having English as the language of instruction in areas like law studies on St. Martin only further precludes the St. Martiner from having the upper hand in the discourse and empowers, if not emboldens, outside forces.

In the same way the student from Holland comes here and is able to be fully functional in the St. Martin society, so too will the St. Martin student be able to function in the society in Holland (or France or anywhere else) if s/he has had proper language instruction/education, with his/her language as the vehicle through which all other academic content is transmitted.

With English as the foundation, and with proficient multilingualism as the goal, a national language policy should declare English the language of instruction in all schools, and have Dutch (and French in the North) maintained as official languages and taught as compulsory foreign languages (also recognizing and making provisions for exceptions) from kindergarten onwards. In this way, all of St. Martin’s children will have the same opportunities to be proficient in these languages and perform better in all academic areas, including law.

Just as it would not be wise to heed advice regarding the operation of a plane from a medical doctor—and vice-versa—educators and policymakers would be prudent to heed the advice of linguists when they suggest that language of instruction is critical to academic performance. Rather than denounce linguistic wisdom gleaned from decades of research around the world, educators must work with linguists and other experts to create the best education system that will guarantee the highest level of comprehensive education to all of St. Martin’s children. It is the only way to truly build an empowered nation of self-sufficient, self-reliant, functionally multilingual people.

Rhoda Arrindell

PS: the author respectfully requests that the media not change the content herein, especially when quoting the author and with reference to the spelling of St. Martin.

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[i] Taken from my book Language, Culture, and Identity in St. Martin (p. 211). Great Bay: House of Nehesi.