Language: Conudum in Education

By Zubeida Mustafa

OVER the years we have appointed a gatekeeper in our education system who is pretty stern and manages to frustrate the dreams of many underprivileged students.

This gatekeeper is the English language. Every examination board in the country has made English compulsory and no one can obtain his Matriculation certificate without clearing this paper. Maleeha Sattar, who teaches at a private university in Islamabad, did research on the language issue for her MPhil thesis. Her finding was that a third of the students who appeared from the Rawalpindi Board of Intermediate and Secondary Examination in the previous five years had failed in compulsory English and had to discontinue their studies. The tragedy is that Pakistan doesn’t even have teachers who are proficient in English and can teach it correctly to the students.

Maleeha’s finding is in line with what Hywel Coleman, an internationally renowned linguist, has been persistently saying: the cause of high dropout rates of children in Third World countries is the English language that is thrust on them. Since they find it difficult to cope with it, they fail or find their studies extremely boring as the language is beyond their comprehension.

Prof Robert Phillipson who coined the term linguistic imperialism says that a child must be taught in her own language and any other language which is taught must be additive to the mother tongue and must not replace it. That is why mother tongue based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) is now universally recognised by linguists as the ideal solution to the dilemma posed by the existence of multiple languages in a society and internationally in an increasingly globalised world.

In Pakistan English is not the only challenge.  Other languages such as Urdu and Punjabi can also create difficulty for a child whose mother tongue is some other language. The basic principle that needs to be recognised clearly is that a child should begin her/his education in her/his own mother tongue. That is the language the child is comfortable with in their early years. A child will gradually pick up other languages as the language mechanism she is naturally endowed with develops.

For a Punjabi or a Sindhi boy to initially learn in his mother tongue is not difficult. Thereafter he can move to Urdu (the national language and the language of wider communication in Pakistan). That will not be a major challenge, as all our languages have a similar syntax and vocabulary.

Then he can be taught English which admittedly will pose a challenge as it now does. The main problem in teaching English is that it is a foreign language for us — more foreign than our numerous regional languages.

It is not the language of the environment. In the absence of good teachers children learn English that is gibberish. Many manage to learn enough English to just understand some words and no more. They cannot express themselves in English and scrape through their exams by memorising from key books.  They can neither write nor speak in English.

This is also the major reason why our students are lacking in critical thinking. One needs a language to formulate one’s thoughts and ideas. If you are not fluent in any language how will you think?

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The worst effect the language divide in education is having on society is that it is stratifying it. The elite speak perfect English. The non-elite are not fluent in English at all and seem to have forgotten their own language.  Language determines the status of the speaker. Because of the linguistic factor education has become a divider instead of an equaliser.

Jobs are also given out to people not on merit but on their language ability. A person knowing some English is likely to get a better job than his compatriot who may not be proficient in English but is more qualified. Similarly, two people working in the same company doing the same job are paid differently in accordance to their English skills.

As a result Pakistan is encouraging mediocracy in professional ability.

My own experience at a school for children from low-income families is quite interesting. The school has two shifts — one using English as the medium and the other uses Urdu. Children from the first shift are far from proficient in English and their Urdu has been undermined as well over the years. The children in the second are poor in English but excellent in Urdu.

For me, the second shift offers hope. If I can improve the English language skills of these children sufficiently they could do well academically. They show great aptitude for hard work. I feel the second shift will do better in life. They understand what they read and can explain themselves in Urdu coherently. Their English is improving by the day. In a few years they will become fluent English speakers — better than their colleagues who have struggled with the language since they were admitted to school.

My second shift students would also have retained their cognitive skills and their mastery over Urdu. They will be bilingual in the true sense of the word. Their strength would be their comprehension and intelligence which will be preserved due to their initial education in their own language.

Source: Alif Ailaan, Taleem Do