By Zubeida Mustafa
A QUESTION we are still grappling with in Pakistan after 58 years is, what should be the language of instruction in our schools? Given all the scientific research that has gone into the language and literacy issues worldwide — but surprisingly not enough in Pakistan — one would have thought we would have found the answer by now. Unfortunately, we haven’t.
Those who have studied the psycholinguistic development of a child are very clear about their findings. They say that language and cognitive development are intimately related. According to them, a child learns best in his mother tongue because he is not doubly burdened with the task of acquiring literacy skills simultaneously with learning another language not his own. That is why very often the student taught in a non-mother tongue learns to read syllable by syllable with very little comprehension.
Thus Prof Mujib, the renowned academic from Jamia Millia (Delhi), used to say that it takes 17 seconds for the child’s brain to translate a word from an unfamiliar language into his own and then another 17 seconds to re-translate a word from his mother tongue into the ‘foreign’ language he is being instructed in.
That would give one an idea of how much time and effort is involved in learning in a language not your own.
Hence researchers, who have tested children who are taught in their mother tongue and those whose medium of learning is a language that is alien to them, have found the first group to have a better understanding of what is taught to them and better verbal skills. In fact, when they move on to learn a second or even a third language at a later stage after the lateralization of the brain has taken place these children do so with ease and proficiency.
One researcher at the University of Toronto is of the view that to reject a child’s language in the school where he goes to study amounts to rejecting the child himself. He at once senses this rejection and is less likely to participate confidently in classroom activities.
Why is the medium of instruction question still such a hotly debated issue in Pakistan? We want to teach our primary school students in Urdu because it is the national language (and not in Punjabi, Balochi, Pushto or Sindhi), or in English because it is the international language that matters today. That would also explain why our education system is so stagnant and why the standards are falling so drastically.
We have politicized the language question in education to such an extent that now we don’t know how, when and where to teach a language. We can’t decide which languages should be taught as the core subject or which language should be used to teach a student other subjects. We have ethnicized the language question that learning or not learning a language is now taken to be a political statement.
The fact is that a child should be taught in his first language in the primary school — that is until the age of 9 or ten. Prof Anita Ghulam Ali, managing director of the Sindh Education Foundation and a well-known educationist, has a rule of the thumb for deciding what is a child’s first language. “It is the language he dreams in,” she says.
Then one wonders why our eminent policymakers and educationists are so confused and ill-advised in taking a conclusive decision on the medium question. This is partly because there are many factors relating to education interwoven into the medium of instruction question. To name a few, the quality of education (that includes the standards of textbooks and teachers), the applicability and need of the language he learns in the life of the child when he becomes an adult, and the social and political accessibility provided by a language that is taught in school.
There is also the misconception that the only way of making a child fluent in a language is to use it as the medium of instruction.
But from our own experience and that of other countries we know that these are separate issues that must be dealt with in their own right and not be confused with the language issue. Thus it is widely believed that English medium schools in Pakistan are doing a better job of educating the child and their products are faring better in life.
Hence to be successful and well educated a child must be taught in English in school from day one. And so the anomaly of corner schools in slum areas with boards declaring them to be English-medium written in the Urdu script! Needless to say they teach in Urdu while striving to use some form of broken English as the medium.
A look at the school education sector reveals a lot about what is going on. The schools which are teaching in English are predominantly the private schools that are charging exorbitant fees from their clientele who come from the elite and affluent classes. They have the resources to get the best teachers and the best books (of course foreign produced in English). If they are doing a good job should it surprise us?
A true comparison can only be made if these schools were to use their pedagogical expertise and some of the excellent textbooks being locally produced in the indigenous languages (mainly Urdu) to teach students in their mother tongue.
Such an example does exist. The Montessori Teachers Training Centre in Karachi which trains Montessori directresses is bilingual in the medium it employs. Students can enrol for the English/Urdu class and both sections are provided equally good education — Maria Montessori’s famous books having been translated into Urdu by Dr Ismail Saad and the teachers are fluent in both languages. It has been observed that the students in the Urdu section who come from Urdu medium schools do better in their diploma course because of their better comprehension of the subjects taught.
If the quality of our schools were to be improved in every way and they were to teach in the mother tongue of the majority of students enrolled in them, the academic skills of the children would automatically go up. In fact one even feels that the high dropout rate would also come down.
One does not deny that for our people to get on in life, especially in the globalized world of today, English is indispensable. There is need to teach English and also Urdu (to the many
children whose mother tongue is not Urdu) as a second language. It is time we learnt that teaching any language as a second language is a specialized field. This has been highly developed by the countries which try to disseminate their language and culture abroad as a tool of diplomacy.
Be it the Goethe-Institut, the Alliance Francaise, the British Council or the Farhang-i-Iran, each of them teaches or has taught German, French, English and Persian respectively as a foreign language to Pakistanis. We would do well to learn from them and also from the Society of Pakistan’s English Language Teachers the methodology of teaching English to our children. This process should ideally begin in secondary school so that when he reaches high school and college the child would be bilingual with mastery over English and thus have access to the treasure of knowledge stored in books in English and many other languages.
Another very important reason why the people want their children to learn English is that it is tacitly recognized as the language of power, as termed by the linguist Dr Tariq Rahman. Even the illiterate labourer who sends his children to school knows that their prospects in life will improve immensely if they study English.
The misfortune is that our failure to teach English as a second language in which children can communicate correctly – verbally as well as in writing — has stratified society between the brown sahibs and the desis. The former speak English fluently — even with an acquired Cambridge accent — and know Shakespeare better than Ghalib or Shah Latif.
They come from the wealthy classes who send their children to the elite private schools. This generation is gradually speaking English as its first language at home.
The others learn English from their teachers in the low-fee schools who never really acquired proficiency in the English language. They are ghettoized in the job market and never reach the lucrative jobs at the top. Language — because it is so pathetically taught in most schools — is becoming a big dividing factor in society today.