Language in education

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

A CLUTCH of letters has appeared recently in Dawn debating the language issue in education. A very sensible one by Fazal Muhammad Khan from Lahore published last week reads, “There is no denying the fact that students find it very hard to understand subjects when they are taught in English or Urdu, the languages not spoken in their homes and society.”

Mr Khan adds that by making the mother tongue compulsory as the teaching language for primary-level students we can ensure the students would not only remain in touch with their culture, we would also be taking a reformative step towards the betterment of the educational system in Pakistan.

Under the heading, ‘Little sign of English in China’ Mr Umar Mohamad Sajid, an engineering instructor, writes from his five-year experience, “English is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in our progress.”

He says he has “had students who memorised large sections of books and excelled in examinations but they did not understand what they have memorised.”

The issue could not have been summed up more succinctly. These and other letters confirm what language experts — Dr Tariq Rahman of the Quaid-i-Azam university at once comes to mind — have been saying for decades. Dr Rahman has been pleading the case of the mother tongue as the language of teaching at the primary level.

Whether it is Zakia Sarwar who has been striving since 1984 to improve the standard of English language teachers in Pakistan through SPELT, or Farida Akbar, the director of the Montessori Teachers Training Centre who is best qualified to understand the process of language acquisition in a young child, the consensus is, “Use the mother tongue as the language of teaching at least at the primary level.”

The arguments put forward are logical and convincing. Beginning with the physiological aspect, a child learns best in his mother tongue or the language of his environment. English which has been over-emphasised is not the language our children are exposed to in the early years of their childhood (I am not talking about the elite classes but the vast majority).

A very large number of children enrolled in schools are first-generation school-goers in their families and their parents are either illiterate or can read, write and speak only Urdu or their mother tongue but definitely not English. Which means it is left to the teachers to teach them as best as they can.

Most teachers are also new recruits to the English brigade and, as Zakia Sarwar would testify, they are not the very best in English. They also have many other failings but requiring them to teach in the English language when they do not even understand and speak correct English is equally unfair to them as to the children they teach.

True, many teachers are not brilliant in Urdu or their mother tongue either as they have had no training in pedagogy and their knowledge of the subject is poor. But if provisions have to be made to train them in a crash programme it would be easier to teach them their own language rather than English.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against English or the teaching of the language. English is now accepted as the international language of communication in an increasingly globalised world. It offers distinct advantages to those dealing with the outside world whether in higher education, trade or diplomacy.

English is also the language of science and aviation. Hence the language cannot be ignored. If it is taught as a second language to all children to give them basic knowledge of the subject it will be possible for those who need it in later professional life to build on the initial introduction they have already had.

That hardly requires us to adopt English wholesale as the medium of instruction and entail all the disadvantages listed by Mr Khan and Mr Sajid above. But it does mean that English must be taught correctly and well as a second language. It also means that a core group of teachers must be trained to teach English as a second language.

This calls for shedding the social prejudices we have nursed against non-English speakers and carefully cultivated in our society. I do not find this prejudice against non-English speakers even in countries where English is the language of the people.

The greater use of English to the exclusion of indigenous languages in our society creates a false status for the language which benefits a privileged class by virtue of its command over English. That helps it perpetuate its power and privilege by grabbing the best education facilities and thereby the best jobs. This is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. Since 9/11 English has become a prop for Pakistan to project itself as a state trying to modernise itself and emerge as a moderate society.

In this context I found an article written by Sir Michael Barber, the British educational expert, who heads the task force on education along with Shehnaz Wazir Ali, intriguing. He speaks of many factors that determine the success or failure of educational reforms in Pakistan. Most of them have been identified ad nauseam by educationists here. It is good that an expert from Britain has been familiarised with the challenges we face.

But the language issue, which I think is at the root of our failure to teach our children effectively, has not been given the importance it merits. Sir Michael Barber writes, “Drawing from the global literature on education reform, the task force’s account combines accountability with capacity-building or, in simpler terms, pressure and support. The pressure for change will come from three sources. First, there should be clear standards for all students in Urdu or the mother tongue, in English, and in maths and science.”

There is a need to address the language issue squarely. Fudging it or being diplomatic about it serves no purpose. Sir Michael Barber would understand that better. It is time we understood it too.