Get issues right

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE discourse on language in education has taken the intelligentsia by storm in the wake of the Single National Curriculum (SNC). The polarisation between various points of view is so intense that a meaningful debate is impossible. It is intriguing why the supporters of English distort some issues beyond recognition. Hence here is another attempt to clarify issues.

First it must be restated that the discussion is not whether children should learn English or a local language. Those who support the local languages as the medium of instruction have always added ‘and English must be taught as a foreign language’. I have yet to figure out why we are accused of pushing out English from our education system to make our children backward and incapable of handling technology. It seems to imply that even if we are failing to teach English correctly it is fine so long as we stick to our mantra of English and English alone.

The supporters of English also imply that if a child starts her education in one of our indigenous languages, her education comes to a dead end and she can never learn English thereafter. We must remember that we are not a country of fools. All the highly qualified people from earlier generations began their primary schooling in a native language and that includes Prof Abdus Salam, our only Nobel Laureate in science.

My position, like that of many others, is simple. When the child starts schooling, let her continue her education that began in her cot in her mother tongue or the language of the environment with which she is already familiar. She can start learning Urdu, the language of wider communication, a few years later. English should be introduced even later and as a foreign language. It is the language ladder that needs to be discussed. That means we have to decide which language should be introduced when and how. For instance, if English is introduced before the child’s hold over her mother tongue has been consolidated she will be dumbed. In other words, she will not learn any language or communicate coherently.

It is the language ladder that needs to be discussed.

Language experts in Pakistan mainly study socio-linguistics and do not go into the physiology/anatomy of language acquisition which is a natural process. Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, psychiatrist and educationist, wrote about the language organ more than 100 years ago. Noam Chomsky is now speaking about it after retracting his universal grammar theory. This organ comprises the speech and hearing mechanisms and the Broca’s centre in the brain where comprehension takes place. These develop in coordination in a child from the time of birth and follow a certain pattern. This is Mother Nature’s way. Our attempts at tampering with it amounts to trying to make an infant walk even before it can sit.

Even Lord Babington Macaulay didn’t try to perform this miracle in his infinite wisdom. The brown sahibs he envisaged began their English learning at the secondary level.

What is the result of our misconceived language ideas? To see that, just step into the classroom of a so-called English medium school in a low-income area. You will be shocked at the hybrid language system it follows. The textbooks are in English but the teachers have no competency in the language. They read the text in broken English, explain it in Urdu, write the questions in English on the board, and copy the answers in English from key books (which should in any case be consigned to a bonfire). The children dutifully memorise what they copy from the board. They understand nothing. This is the rote culture which stays with them for life. Since the teachers don’t know any better nothing can change. It demoralises them for life.

There is another insidious evil this hybrid system breeds. The child struggles with an ‘alien’ language at a time when her mind is growing and cognitive development is taking place. She fails to learn how to think critically or write coherently. This phenomenon of a struggle between cognitive development and language learning is present in the students of the elite English-medium private schools as well. The focus on mentoring in their pedagogy and the overload of private tuition manage to mask the shortcoming. This damage is irreparable.

Finally, an appeal to private English-medium schools. They are trendsetters and owe a moral and ethical responsibility to society to think of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Admittedly, it is the government that is basically at fault. The poor learning outcomes in government and low-cost private schools are due to corruption, misgovernance and poor learning tools that include the language of instruction. Reform is needed and only the government can undertake it. Without the language issue being addressed, reform will not be a holistic and integrated process and will not work. Unfortunately, the SNC is diverting attention from the real issues.