Language question in education

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LANGUAGE controversies have been a sensitive issue in Pakistan. Half the country was lost in 1971 when, among other things, we could not concede the right to the people of East Pakistan to use Bangla, their own language, in the affairs of the state.

In 1972, language riots took place in Karachi when the “new Sindhis” were unwilling to recognise the right of the people of Sindh to use Sindhi as the language of the government. The alienation that was caused ran deep and has still not been bridged.

Now we are heading towards another disaster induced by an ill-advised language policy. This time the policymakers want to use language as a tool to deprive the masses of Pakistan of the right to acquire good education and, by virtue of that, good jobs and a respectable status in society. How? The government is determined to teach English from class one upwards and use it as the medium for teaching science and mathematics at the secondary level.

For the common man this means that he should forget good education for his children who will never be able to grasp the various concepts they are taught in a foreign language they are not too familiar with.

The federal education minister, Lieutenant General (retd) Javed Ashraf Qazi, has made up his mind on this count. He initiated the process of consulting the stakeholders to make recommendations for informed decision making.

For that purpose he set up a national education policy review team under Javed Hasan Aly. When the stage was reached for formulating recommendations, the minister instructed the team leader not to suggest anything that ran counter to the minister’s policy. As could have been expected Mr Aly resigned and the education policy and the White Paper have been left in the doldrums.

The federal minister insists that all children should begin to learn English from class one and from class six onwards the medium for teaching science and maths should be English.

The revised white paper, unlike the first draft, also recommends this, albeit conditionally. It states, “Such compulsory education of English should only start after suitably qualified and appropriately trained teachers for the English language are available to staff positions in all primary schools of the country to ensure that the benefit is assured to all the citizens, and not just the elite.”

What we have at present is a dual system based on a class divide. Since the children of the elite are exposed to English at home and also outside, they acquire proficiency in the language fast and derive advantage from it. The private schools they attend use English as the medium of instruction and their familiarity with the language enables them to understand to some extent the concepts they are taught.

On the other hand, we have the vast majority for whom English is an alien language. Many of them have had no exposure to it at all. At a time when their minds are beginning to understand a variety of concepts, which a good system of education should ensure are explained in the child’s mother tongue, is it fair to load the children with the burden of learning a language that makes little sense to them?

Worse still, the teachers who teach the children of the poor are the products of a system that has been in decay for quite some time now. They are not fit to teach English. The children learn by rote whatever they are taught in the name of English.

In the process, Pakistani society is being stratified and the gulf between the classes is growing. The policy of ignoring the mother tongue is having a negative impact on the culture of the various regions and the ethnic chasm is widening. It is time the language issue was addressed seriously, scientifically and dispassionately.The revised White Paper takes note of the hurdles that will be faced in adopting the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in the early years of learning. It concedes that “a number of local languages, including Punjabi and Balochi, have never been formally used as medium of instruction and, therefore, it would take some time and effort to get them on the ground, especially the preparation of textbooks in these languages will take some doing.”

The most sensible recommendation made by the White Paper is that a national language commission must be set up to help operationalise “the policy options and cater to the demand of the development of regional languages.”

The problem is that when one argues for teaching a child in his mother tongue, the critics of this approach misconstrue it as an attack on English. This is not the case. We do want our children to learn English but as Zakia Sarwar, the honorary director of Spelt, so aptly observes, “Ten years of teaching bad English cannot produce a proficient English learner.” She also emphasises that for three years a child must be taught in his mother tongue if he is to make a good start.

“It has been scientifically proved that it is a myth that a child can learn a language only up to the age of six,” Sarwar says. A language can be learnt at any stage provided the resources and the environment are provided, she adds.

Farida Akbar, the director of Pakistan Montessori Training Centre who understands the working of a child’s mind very well, is worried that teaching a child in a language he is not familiar with restricts his vocabulary and understanding. “That amounts to limiting his mental horizons since ideas are directly linked with language and words, and a child learning in a foreign language does not have a vast repertoire of words to express ideas,” she says.

Tailpiece: An education department functionary when asked from where will we get good English language teachers was overheard saying, “We can import them from Sri Lanka.”