Globalisation and languages

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AT A conference on elementary education organised recently by the Sindh Education Foundation in Karachi, an issue which came under discussion was that of globalisation and language. In his well researched and enlightening presentation, Dr Tariq Rahman, professor of sociolinguistics at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, pointed out the snags in Pakistan’s language policy in education. He also explained how globalisation was affecting the state of languages all over the world.

Quoting Dow Templeton Associates, he said, “English will become the universal language and capitalism will become the dominant social system.” Dr Rahman continued, “If this vision comes true, most languages will die and English will be the great ‘killer’ language. It is already moving towards that role.”

One may further add that in Pakistan the situation is worse because we are still so ambiguous about which language we want to teach our children in school. According to Dr Rahman, increased and rapid communication, which is a by-product of globalisation, has given the English language a special status as the most pre-eminent international language.

Therefore, English is perceived as the language of power, and is the language of choice for most students as an agent for self-empowerment. Students are disowning their mother tongue and consider English to be “the most useful, sophisticated and superior language out of all they encounter in their daily life”. This in turn fosters a feeling of alienation from one’s mother tongue that is deleterious for the self-esteem of a person. How can a person who feels ashamed of his mother tongue feel positive about his identity? Language is also becoming an additional factor in the stratification of our society.

In the last few years, there has been a widening social, economic and political gulf between the people who have studied in private English medium schools and those attending public sector institutions where the language of instruction is generally Urdu or one of the regional languages. This had never happened in the history of Pakistan before because the gap in the academic standards of schools run by the government and the private sector was never so wide.

What should the solution be? Of course, the first priority should be to raise education standards in all sectors. It is also important that the government should define its language policy clearly. The first point that needs to be impressed on the people is that at the school level language and academic standards are not necessarily linked directly. To neutralise the false esteem granted to English at the expense of a child’s mother tongue it is important that a concerted move is made to revive pride in one’s own language and culture. Let the child learn in a language he understands and is familiar with. That will make learning a pleasurable experience.

There is also need to emphasise to parents and demonstrate by example that good education can be imparted in Urdu or Sindhi or any other language. It is more important that the books are well produced and the teachers well trained. If anything it will be found that it is easier to teach children in the language they understand. Thus the rote method will not be so indispensable.

But it will not be possible to abandon English altogether. It will have to be taught for its utility. This should be introduced gradually over a period of time in a system which accepts bilingualism. If we stop perceiving a person fluent in English as a socially superior being it may be possible to convince parents that knowledge and academic excellence cannot be equated with fluency in a foreign language especially at the primary level.

Teaching English in a bilingual system requires some preconditions. John Clegg, a British educationist who has done research on language in education, says that education through the medium of a second language normally works if the children come from an educated background, have a sound foundation in literacy in their own language, have adequate exposure to the second language and have a good level of ability in the second language before it is used as the language of instruction for other subjects. John Clegg also advises that subject teachers who teach in English should be provided language supportive education in their subject.

In this context some questions that need to be honestly asked are:

— Given the poor language skills of teachers generally can they really impart knowledge to students who are not familiar with English either?

— Can schools raise their standards by teaching children in their mother tongue while appointing a well-trained English language teacher to teach English as a separate subject to the students?

Since we have been pretending that English is the panacea of all evils the standards of schools are falling and will continue to fall if this trend is not reversed.

If a change has to come it will have to start with the teachers. It will be easier to train teachers who understand comprehensively the language they teach in and are articulate in it. They can be familiarised with the skills of pedagogy. The focus needs to be on excellence in teaching and the first precondition for this is proficiency in the language of instruction.

Secondly, we need to transform our approach to language teaching. The main function of a language is to enable the user to communicate. But children are not being taught communication skills in any language. Hence the falling standards of education. The fault lies in the method of language teaching. In fact, it is more likely that a child taught in his mother tongue initially would be able to communicate better and would enjoy it too.

So one can only ask what should be done about the language dilemma in Pakistan. No one questions the need for learning English if the country is not to be left isolated in the globalisation race. But under no circumstances should the language and culture of a people be allowed to be swamped by the forces of globalism.

It would be wisest to introduce bilingualism in the country — English along with the mother tongue or Urdu — but it is imperative that the child’s first exposure to learning and knowledge should be in the language he understands and is comfortable with. In other words, the first step in his journey of a thousand miles should begin in his mother tongue. Let another language be introduced at a stage when he is firmly set on the road to learning and is enjoying it. But let the learning of the second language be a fun activity and not a painful experience.

It is time some language experts studied this problem scientifically and dispassionately to dispel the misgivings that surround language teaching. It needs to be made clear that language should not be equated with academic standards which are determined by the teaching methods, the training of the teachers, the textbooks used and the curricula. It is also important that all languages are taught correctly and scientifically to optimise their use as the medium of communication. If students are taught English as a second language and gain proficiency in it by the time they are ready to leave school, they would enjoy all the advantages of knowing English in global competition. It would also facilitate the process of their higher education.

The advocates of English adopt the attitude that if a child is not pushed into English from day one, he will never be proficient in the language. That is why we have the elite schools ordering parents to speak only in English with their children. What damage this approach does to a child’s psyche we would never know. One cannot even be sure that this raises their standards significantly because there is no comparative yardstick for them to evaluate the merits of teaching in the mother tongue or in English.