Language and thinking

By Zubeida Mustafa

EDUCATION is a much talked about issue in today’s Pakistan. Unfortunately it provokes little serious thinking and even less action. I keep hoping that this talk will turn into action sooner than later. Until that happens we need to continue talking to keep the matter alive.

At the Karachi Literature Festival recently the session on education which brought a number of top-ranking educationists together was, therefore, a positive move. As could have been expected, the speakers could only touch the tip of the iceberg.

One issue that came up in the course of the discussion that followed was that of critical thinking. Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a very articulate example of a critical thinker, was spot on when he said that no school was teaching its students how to think — be it an elitist expensive institution or a low-fee community school.

book-world-languageOne may well ask why. It is because educationists have created a comfort zone for themselves and do not want it to be challenged by “cheeky” students asking uncomfortable questions, which they are bound to do if they are prodded into thinking and analysing issues.

Conformity is highly valued in our society. Since we are still confused about the goals of education in Pakistan — apart from making people good Muslims and employable — the need for instilling critical thinking in our youth is not recognised. Passing examinations by rote learning or resorting to unfair means seems to be the foremost aim of all students. Actually one doesn’t have to teach critical thinking. It is a faculty every child is born with. What we manage to do very effectively is to suppress it. This act of destruction is first carried out by the parents — the mother, if the father does not regard parenting to be his duty — and then the teachers. This feat has been accomplished by the time the child reaches his teens.

The child’s natural curiosity is the first manifestation of his ability to think. When he asks questions — many of them seemingly meaningless — he is trying to reach the depth of whatever is agitating his mind. If this process is interrupted because the adult does not have the time or the patience or the inclination to answer these questions, the message conveyed to the child is a simple one: “shut up”.

The practice of using the television as a babysitter also dumbs the child’s mind. TV images may convey a lot of information to the viewer but they do not make him think.
The teacher carries the process further when he suppresses his students’ creativity by discouraging innovation. The highest marks go to the student who reproduces answers faithfully from his textbook.

Even if this approach to critical thinking were to change, no success is possible if the language issue is not addressed concurrently. Many educators concede that it is a well-established fact that children learn best in their mother tongue. Yet the emphasis on English — and even Urdu in communities where this is not the home language — continues unabashedly.

What is most worrying is the failure to use the home language at the elementary and primary level. Education begins from bottom upwards. It is therefore important that more attention is paid to child psychology when a student starts school. The best language strategies at the higher level of education cannot undo the damage that has already been wrought.

Worldwide research has now clearly established that language acquisition is a biological process which has a symbiotic relationship with the development of the brain and cognitive growth. As the child’s language skills grow his capacity to think also increases and this in turn promotes his language. After all, one needs a language to think.

That explains why a child with poor language skills — due to lack of “motherese” and being denied enough human contact — also has weak cognitive skills. While he is still passing through this phase, if an unfamiliar language is forced on him which he doesn’t readily understand and which cuts him off from his home language, his cognitive development is bound to suffer. New research on the human brain which has become possible with the development of technologies such as CT scan and the MRI has resulted in a new wealth of knowledge about the minds of babies. “Babies know and learn more about the world than we ever imagined. They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments,” the book How Babies Think by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl informs us.

What is more fascinating is that science now tells us that the child is born with quite a deal of the neurological structure of its brain in place. But the brain changes in the first few years of life in response to the experiences of the child. The process of the neurons growing connections with one another is deeply influenced by the experiences that the baby draws from its sensory organs. This re-wiring of the brain in turn stimulates cognitive development. This learning of the baby is intrinsically connected with language. So how can anyone say that language is not an issue? In Pakistan where a huge majority of parents are illiterate and even among those who are educated a minuscule minority is fluently bilingual, how can you try teaching a small child in a language that is alien to him?

The writer is the author of Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution.

Source: Dawn

11 thoughts on “Language and thinking

  1. Actually that is the crux of the matter–the reason why we are not producing 'quality' human resource.

  2. I agree with your argument but we can not deny the fact that the vast majoirty, if not all the world knowledge is available in one language and one of the largest economies of the world (soon to be the biggest) speaks another. We can advance critical thinking in our children by teaching them in their mother tongues but at the same time we can not be ignorant of the current knowledge in other languages, otherwise we will be reinventing the wheel.

    Maybe there is a need to research how multilingual people manage to excel. With a small fraction of our brains used during our lifetimes, i believe the human brian has the capacity to take on the new challenges. We may also want to know the right time to introduce a new language to our children.

  3. Fascinating topic once again. If one "inherits" a school of teenage children who have been taken through the rote system, how can one once again begin the process of inculcating critical thinking in them? Any practical suggestions? Would love to try to implement something like this on the ground at our adopted govt middle school in Khairo Dero village.

  4. Such an excellent article. Everything you say is so true.
    I hope someone is listening!!!

  5. actually first time ur article ‘Language and thinking ‘ I have read,

    but its realy good,

    agree with your thoughts about our system of education..

    its really good to read..

  6. I agree fully with your views. critical thinking itself is a very complex issue which not only involves teaching but also how syllabi are actually developed. Here in Pakistan there is no emphasis on real education but only fill in the blanks.

  7. Agree with you.Maria Montessori has elaborately explained the phenomena in her books on Early childhood education,including mother-tongue.Most educationists also agree on mother-tongue being the best medium at primary level.This does not mean we shun foreign languages.With us,in pakistan,we are still enamoured by the colonial mind-set and refuse to accept the richness of our culture.We need to experiment with this.Maria's theories clearly explain how a child is a naturally born scientist.We only have to nurture him in his own environment to develop his cognitive abilities.But it all demands the right kind of teachers and curriculum.

  8. I agree about the importance of mother tongue as the initial language of learning and even acquiring enough skill in it for it to be a medium for fairly sophisticated thinking – but we have to have enough literature for children to learn the language beyond basics and think in t properly. My first language of study was Sindhi at a basic level and I was able to read in it extensively from the age of four – so that by the time I was about 9 or ten I was I think able to think and write in Sindhi- then I went to an exclusively English medium school and was able to acquire that language quite painlessly. But an essential requirement is being able to access to suitable for the age – literature for the children to acquire proper skills in the language and to learn to think in it. This is where we miss out because there is just not enough reading material and not attractive enough in the local languages.

  9. Several studies suggest children can learn about 4 languages, simultaneously, in the first 8 years. The Language Workshop for Children in the US is an institute established by François Thibaut that enrolls kids as young as 6 weeks old to start learning foreign languages, which may sound crazy but by the time they are 4, they can speak at least 3 languages fluently. It’s also been observed that children who are exposed to foreign languages early in life are better problem solvers, capable of divergent thinking and generally perform better in school, not to mention would earn more once employed.

  10. The true and core fact has been stated by you as "Education begins from bottom upwards." And this fact has been narrated in earlier para as "This act of destruction is first carried out by the parents".

    We all know that mother language or the language of one's mother is best and fine language. Due to this fact mother has been declared equal to 100 teachers.

    Let all mothers come forward (not only of Pakistan but throughout world) and groom her kids on family language and other languages be respected or learnt equally.

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