English as a barrier

By Zubeida Mustafa

The following video is doing the rounds on the Internet. It is a talk by Patricia Ryan titled ‘Don’t insist on English’. It is one of the TED productions that definitely lives up to its claim of disseminating “ideas worth spreading”.

Ryan is a teacher of English who has worked in the Gulf states for over a decade which has given her a profound understanding of foreign language teaching. The talk is worth listening to, and can easily be located on the Internet.

What clearly emerges from this talk is that languages must be protected from the onslaught of the globalisation of English. Why? Because language is the main carrier of thought and knowledge, and if you do not allow a child to learn and talk in his own language many brilliant ideas he may possess will never reach the world and will die with him.

Ryan warns that our present emphasis on English is obstructing the spread of rich ideas because we tend to equate the knowledge of English with knowledge itself. She even poses the provocative question of what would have happened if Einstein had to appear for TOEFL. In our own context, I think Ryan’s talk explains the misconceptions we have nursed for years and which are unfortunately growing.

Whenever I have visited schools for children who are first-generation school-goers in their family I am struck by the barriers many of them face because of the language factor. Many critics point to the shoddy state of textbooks, the poor pedagogy and the curriculum of hatred that are stunting our children’s intellectual development. But few add to this list our failure to formulate a clear-cut language in education policy. Even if an ambivalent policy is in place it is not implemented in its spirit. As a result, misconstrued social perceptions dominate the approach to education.

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2 thoughts on “English as a barrier

  1. Excellent thoughts and ideas. Education in US for about 7 years, I can speak and write English like a native speaker. But, the real joy and depth of ideas comes even to me in my mother tongue, Urdu, so i am bilingual, even at BS IV year and MS, considering it to be the most efficient and effecftive mode of getting to the forefront of knowledge. I don't belive that we should have full Urdu teaching, translating everything in Urdu and limiting the access of students to translated material. On ther other hand, inflicting a full 2 hour lession in Englash would bring headache to our students. So, let's compromise, use Urdu where necessary for clarility of thought and expression and use English to access up-to-dat material and doing mathematics (I attended 16th annual Science Conference in 1972 in University of Karachi, where they attempted to translate equations in Urdu, my God! Russians don't do that with their scientists).

  2. It is not to be believed that English language can be a barrier for a child to express rich ideas. We have to convince ourselves that English language is not a barrier but a tool for a modern child, a tool for modern student, a tool for a modern thinker, a tool for a modern philosopher, a tool for modern expression and a tool of the modern age to express our rich ideas. What we need here, we need to think in English and in doing so we find it easier to produce creative ideas in English language itself. There will be no obstacles and hindrances a child will be facing by thinking in English. Our school children think in their own mother languages and find it difficult to expresst themselves in English language. There are many reasons. First, teachers themselves need to have a fluency in English language while teaching in schools where English is a medium of education. Second, when the same school child returns home, he finds that the parents talk in their own mother tongue with each other and with their child. Consequently, child finds it almost impossible to express himself either in his own mother tongue or in English language under the influence of the atmospheres of two different places. In this regard, family, teachers and society contribute to a the development of a child’s brain to think in English language. Thinking in English will help a child to produce high number of rich ideas in his mind because of English language’s wide scope than that of a limited scope of his own mother tongue. We need not to teach a child to acquire the knowledge of English but we must focus on the English language itself. Our child should not be concerned with the knowledge of English but he must play with the English language as his childhood game.
    Fact cannot be denied that English language is rich in form and expression. However, it is more complex in nature. Most of people I know who have rich ideas but unable to attract world audience due to the lack of English language. English language helps us to share our rich ideas to the different people living in different parts of the world. We need to take a first step by letting our child to think in English language and when he will be in his youth he attracts world stage by sharing his rich ideas around the world. Removing English language as a medium of education from our schools ultimately we restrict our children to their own mother languages. In future, when they will face a real life; will they hire any language translator to express their own rich ideas? How many of us know different languages of this country? One single Mother language differ from place to place according to its area. Urdu is one language but used in different styles of expressing our rich ideas. Can Urdu language which is used in local communities of Pakistan be equivalent to the Urdu spoken in literate communities? Rich ideas cannot be given to child but instead rich ideas come from direct knowledge and it is possible only when a child comes into contact with direct knowledge by having English language as a medium. Our text books, books on inventions, discoveries, men’s findings and books on different human knowledge is in English language. If we are really anxious and consider English language as a barrier for a child to create rich ideas and find it difficult to express then we must have these books in our own languages.
    There is the law that the quality of what we understand depends upon the quality of person’s speaking. Quality of our Speaking is the result of our creative thought and quality of creative thought can only be expressed through the quality of richness of a language with we express our rich thought and quality of richness in present only in English language not any other language in modern age. Modern philosophers, thinkers, writers use English language as their medium of their work. For example, Slavoj Žižek who is a Slovenian continental philosopher and critical theorist. It was in past centuries that philosophers and thinkers like, Plato, Aristotle, Sartre, Gurdjieff, Chekov, Heidegger, and Nietzsche use their own languages to produce their works but if English language would not be used to translate their works then perhaps we might never have happened to know them, their rich ideas and their wisdom. Moreover, great poets of our country were the teachers and professors of English. The best example was FAIZ AHMAD FAIZ.
    Last but not the least; it is to conclude that Rich ideas and wisdom do not depend upon any language. It comes from purity of wisdom. It comes when in a real sense, it comes from self-searching and secret of it is hidden somewhere within ourselves. We think lot but know little, we talk lot but act little, we teach lot but learn little, and we experience lot but face little. We should not need to brain wash our children by telling them English language as a barrier in construction of a rich thought. We should improve our own language; our children will improve their language instinctively

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