Language and Vulnerability: How Educational Policies Exacerbate Inequalities in Higher Education

By Zeena Zakharia | Gebran G. Tueini Fellow - Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Oct 13, 2010
United States Agency for International Development
United States Agency for International Development
Language and Vulnerability: How Educational Policies Exacerbate Inequalities in Higher Education

It is well documented that conflict creates new vulnerabilities for students that negatively impact their learning. In this essay, I argue that language policy in education can exacerbate these vulnerabilities, particularly for students from underserved or minoritized populations.[1] Drawing on extensive research in Lebanon at schools with different religious, socio-economic, and linguistic profiles and varying levels of bilingualism, I consider how language policies, as enacted by schools and understood by various policy actors, including youth, create new forms of inequality in relation to higher education. Schools with strong bilingual models have the potential to mitigate these disparities and to empower underserved and vulnerable populations through responsive educational practices that address language asymmetries and that recognize language policy and bilingualism as a complex social practice with political and socioeconomic dimensions. This essay suggests that the broad strokes of how such schools conceptualize and implement bilingual policies that are productive of new possibilities.

Language and Sociopolitical Conflict

Lebanon has a long and rich history of bilingual education that can be traced at least as far back as the early 19th century when various European and American colonial and missionary groups with competing interests in the Ottoman-controlled region established their schools alongside their Greek and Russian predecessors.[2] The schools taught in Arabic and the language of the mission, such as French, English, German, and Russian, thus establishing a tradition of bilingual schooling. However, the role of foreign languages in education remained hotly contested, implicating formal schooling in religious inequality and sectarian struggle.

In particular, the positioning of the Arabic language in national educational policy and in local schooling practices has been intimately connected to political and economic processes that have alternately positioned Arabic as both cherished and devalued in relation to other languages.[3] School, state, regional, and global actors have served both to promote the Arabic language and to undermine it, particularly during periods of instability and conflict.[4] In contemporary schooling, this is best illustrated by the ways in which youth across schools articulated both a strong connection to the Arabic language as well as strong multilingual ideology during a period of sociopolitical conflict (2006–2007). Evidence suggests that conflict creates a push to learn foreign languages at the same time that it creates a pull toward Arabic to demonstrate patriotic ideals.[5]

Language is a complex site for ideological contestation, where asymmetrical power relations exist between groups of speakers and individuals.[6] These asymmetries are particularly poignant for speakers of languages for which there is a rich literary tradition, and even more so during periods of conflict. In Lebanon, language-power asymmetries in education have been attributed to distinct missionary and colonial policies in which Arabic was relegated to a secondary position in schools. For example, when the American-founded Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut) changed its medium-of-instruction policy during the late 19th century, Arabic was assigned a literary function, as the language of the arts, religion, and humanities, while English was assigned a scientific and modernizing function. This policy left a lasting impression on the educational system. First, the medium-of-instruction policy of the national curriculum persists in this vein: mathematics and sciences are to be taught in the first foreign language (French or English); and humanities and social sciences are to be taught in Arabic. Second, schools promote a widely accepted discourse: that to be “modern” one must have command of a (Western) foreign language. Furthermore, English and French medium-of-instruction policies at elite universities have required schools to adjust their language emphases accordingly. Thus today, significant disparities in linguistic resources at schools contribute to limiting students’ access to elite universities and to certain university majors in Lebanon.

Language and Unequal Access to Higher Education

Until recently, higher education in Lebanon was defined by a handful of leading private institutions, established in the last century, and one public university, founded in 1951. However, the past two decades have seen a proliferation of exclusively private universities, amounting to over 40 institutions. These institutions have established English as the medium of instruction for higher education in a historically francophone country. In addition, the public Université Libanaise, which has traditionally operated in Arabic and French, has opened degree programs in English due to increased demand. Yet, the large majority of Lebanese children continue to be schooled in the Arabic-French medium.

This reality has created new vulnerabilities for students. Therefore, parents have played an active role in pressuring their children’s schools for an increase in English language teaching to improve their children’s chances for university placement, employment, or to leave Lebanon as a way to secure their life chances. The perception that employment in the Arab Gulf states requires English and the observable growth of English in global communications, science, and technology, coinciding with economic hardship and political instability have together reinforced concerns about youths’ future opportunities in the job market based on English language proficiency.

Youth are conscious about these disparities and associate the observable levels of bilingual variation across schools and neighborhoods to social inequality, injustice, and insecurity rendered by political instability. Schools with poor linguistic resources or low levels of bilingualism are commonly perceived as deficient. Similarly, monolingual Arabic speakers are widely perceived as inadequate. The stigma associated with being a monolingual Arabic speaker has been made more visible through recent displacements,[7] and students articulate what they perceive to be their own bilingual deficiencies in terms of shame.[8] Youth narratives highlight the tension between national pride and other values associated with the Arabic language and the knowledge that without proficiency in a Western foreign language, and English in particular, opportunities for higher education and socioeconomic advancement will be limited.

Students articulate this issue in terms of linguistic discrimination. In the words of one secondary student enrolled in a French program, “companies in Lebanon don’t give any importance to any person holding any kind of diploma or having any specialty if the applicant does not have knowledge of a foreign language” (original in Arabic, 2007). This statement not only implicates the economy, but also, seen together with the widespread perception that English will open doors to universities and opportunities beyond, it points to the ways in which youth seek to reduce their vulnerabilities through language learning.

Empowering Minoritized Populations Through Strong Bilingual Models

Language policies in schools exacerbate educational inequalities and vulnerabilities engendered by forces beyond the classroom. Bilingual education practices can serve to maintain language asymmetries, and in an apparent contradiction, limit bilingualism, and in turn student possibilities. By devaluing the Arabic language through the perpetuation of a deficit discourse about the monolingual Arabic speaker, and through mundane school practices, which place a lower priority on learning Arabic, schools create tension for the development of dynamic bilingualism that is grounded in valuing of the mother tongue in concert with other languages. For students with low levels of foreign language proficiency, this tension leads them to resist foreign language learning, viewing it as irrelevant to their lives, which until this point have been circumscribed by their neighborhoods. Often this resistance is expressed in terms of Arabization as a cause. However, I contend, and when questioned, youth have concurred, that this resistance to language learning is an expression of a deficit in an educational system that deprives them of fulfilling their potential as emergent bilinguals.

Schools with strong bilingual models have the potential to mitigate educational disparities and to empower minoritized youth through responsive educational policies and practices that address language asymmetries through intentional pedagogies. Responsive bilingual pedagogy recognizes bilingualism as a complex social practice with political and socioeconomic dimensions. This requires a heteroglossic perspective that views the languages of the emergent bilingual as dynamic and interdependent. While commonplace language management in Lebanon seeks to separate languages in the classroom, creating discrete areas for usage, a heteroglossic approach would favor translanguaging.[9] This approach recognizes the linguistic repertoire of students and allows them to draw from that repertoire as they interact with each other, with the educational materials, and with teachers and other school staff. In this way, students are allowed to draw on their strengths in both languages as they negotiate meaning. In the classroom, such practices signal to students the value of the mother tongue as a significant resource for developing the second language. Whereas commonly held notions of languages view code-switching as a deficit in student bilingual competence, translanguaging allows for an active engagement of the student’s bilingual resources. Furthermore, purposeful use of code-switching by teachers can be productive, when it is part of an intentional set of practices that address language asymmetries.

Teachers are significant policy actors who negotiate the terrain of student vulnerability and the demands of external standards in education through their language pedagogy and personal practices. In one strong model of bilingual education at a Shi‘ite school in Beirut, language teachers integrated real-world and community-centered concerns into language teaching to engage students in language learning while meeting, or surpassing, government educational standards during a period of violent political conflict.[10] A clearly articulated school language policy, heteroglossic vision, and use of translanguaging as a pedagogical tool all contributed to their success in delivering a multilingual education to students from largely monolingual and war-affected neighborhoods. School policy included language expectations for teachers, students, and other school personnel regarding French and English, as well as measures for the development of Modern Standard Arabic. In this way, the school addressed language asymmetries, while promoting a multilingual ideology in which languages are viewed as avenues for empowerment, for reversing disparities in higher education, and as an integral component of personal and community development.


[1]. I use the term minoritized here to refer to populations that are not necessarily numerical minorities, but rather, have been socially, politically, and economically marginalized historically through asymmetric processes of power.

[2]. K. Shaaban and G. Ghaith, “Lebanon’s Language-in-Education Policies: From Bilingualism to Trilingualism,” Language Problems and Language Planning, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1999), pp. 116.

[3]. Z. Zakharia, “Positioning Arabic in Schools: Language Policy, National Identity, and Development in Contemporary Lebanon,” in F. Vavrus, L. Bartlett, eds., Critical Approaches to Comparative Education: Vertical Case Studies from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas (New York: Macmillan Palgrave, 2009), pp. 215231.

[4]. Z. Zakharia, “Positioning Arabic in Schools: Language Policy, National Identity, and Development in Contemporary Lebanon.”

[5]. Z. Zakharia, “Language-in-Education Policies in Contemporary Lebanon: Youth Perspectives,” in O. Abi-Mershed, ed., Trajectories of Education in the Arab World: Legacies and Challenges (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 157184.

[6]. Y. Suleiman, A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[7]. See Z. Zakharia, “Positioning Arabic in Schools: Language Policy, National Identity, and Development in Contemporary Lebanon.”

[8]. See Z. Zakharia, “Language-in-Education Policies in Contemporary Lebanon: Youth Perspectives.”

[9]. O. García, Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

[10]. Z. Zakharia, “(Re)constructing Language Policy in a Shii School in Lebanon,” in K. Menken O. García, eds., Negotiating Language Policies in Schools: Educators as Policymakers (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 162181.

Language is a complex site for ideological contestation, where asymmetrical power relations exist...