by Zubeida Mustafa
STILL mired in its indecisiveness about an effective language in education policy and its implementation, the Sindh government has decided to move a step further into the realm of mass confusion on the education front.
It has now announced that children in the province will have to learn the Chinese language (does it mean Mandarin?) as a compulsory subject from Class 6 onwards. This policy is to take effect from 2013.
Why the government is so overly keen about this policy, described by critics as ‘stupid’, is not known. As an incentive, it has even promised to offer foreign scholarships to students studying Chinese. As is our wont, a handful of unqualified policymakers have taken the hasty decision with no planning having gone into it. We have been assured that the issue will be taken up on a priority basis. In effect it means that the curriculum will have to be drawn up, textbooks printed and teachers trained in the next 18 months.
The motive? Ostensibly to win the goodwill of an “all-weather friend and neighbour with whom trade relations are growing with every passing day”. But few are convinced of the need to thrust another foreign language on children.
Expectedly, the decision has caused quite a ruckus. But unfortunately, the online chatter, bordering on hysteria, has not taken this as an occasion to demand that the government revisit its language in education policy that can be described as equally ‘crazy’ as making Mandarin compulsory. Our present language policy poses as many challenges as the teaching of Mandarin would.
This is a pity because we have already made quite a mess of education in the country. Sindh has been the worst off and a recent report on the knowledge of rural schoolchildren tested nationally in 2008 places Sindh at the bottom of the heap.
Without going into all the causes of this failure, one can confidently identify the key ones — the poor quality of teachers who are selected on grounds of political loyalty and not academic merit. The teachers lack proficiency in the mother tongue of the child. There is the misplaced overemphasis on teaching English as the panacea of all ills. Wouldn’t it make sense if efforts are first directed towards revamping the school system, focusing on the home language of the child as the medium of instruction, improving textbooks and using the modern methodology of language teaching?
If we have to follow the Chinese example, we would gain by studying China’s education system instead, which is rated quite high internationally. A big poster that greets incoming passengers at Pearson International Airport (Toronto) announces: “The number of Chinese currently learning English is five times the population of the United Kingdom.”
Teachers who have lived and taught in China confirm that learning English is a high priority area in many schools in that country. But before our champions of English jump to the conclusion that I am advocating a switchover to English in our schools, some more information about the Chinese education system would be helpful.
True, English teaching is highly coveted in China, but all schools up to grade 10 are required to teach in their own language.
Sarah Siddiqi who taught science in Souzhou for a year found the level of knowledge of the schoolchildren in the basic sciences equivalent to world standards. International assessment tests confirm this.
In its eagerness to compete with the industrialised world, China has introduced a parallel three-year international curriculum taught at the high school level in English. But the condition is that the child must have completed high school in the Chinese system in his own language. A-level comes another two years later. .
Only a handful of schools offer these international courses, mostly, Cambridge/International Baccalaureate/American Advance Placement. Thus Souzhou, a city of six million, has only four schools offering the international exams for which they hire education agencies mainly from Britain. Since the Chinese are focused in their planning, they concentrate on subjects that do not require as much language skills as the social sciences.
Physics, chemistry, mathematics, accounting business studies are generally the subjects offered. Of course the students’ proficiency in English — especially the spoken language — is not at all adequate, but they rote learn to success. But I feel what must be noted is that they have already acquired their basic knowledge in various subjects in the 10 years of schooling in Mandarin.
English has been introduced as a subject in many schools in the major cities of China from the primary level. But Siddiqi did not find the children very fluent in the language. According to her most children carry an electronic English-Chinese dictionary with them and refer to it throughout the lessons. She describes this as being “helpful and distracting” at the same time.
Foreign teachers in the universities are provided the help of interpreters in the classroom. Lack of English language skills is compensated by the amazingly large number of Chinese books translated from foreign languages that are freely available. This handicap in English notwithstanding can one say that China is not doing well on the world stage?
Have the Chinese been consulted about this brainwave of the Sindh government? Do they think it is feasible? But the Chinese are famous for maintaining a discreet silence when necessary.
The writer is the author of Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution.