A major achievement in the study of the failure of our language and education policies
By Dr Tariq Rahman
Tyranny of Language
The Problem and its Solution
By Zubeida Mustafa
Publisher: Ushba Publishing, 2011
Price Rs. 200
Like many concerned Pakistanis, Zubeida Mustafa has been worried about the unjust and dysfunctional education system of the country. Unlike most of us, however, she started investigating the phenomenon and wrote a series of
articles — some of which she has reproduced as appendices in this book — in the press. While most journalists and columnists would have sat back satisfied with these, she decided to delve more deeply into the relationship between language and education and this book is the product of that labour.
Mustafa starts off the book with outlining the reasons for this study and the lines on which it has been conducted. She argues that although language is a vital aspect of any education policy, it has been subservient to “politics.” The power structure determines such policies as we have and, predictably, they are in the interest of the powerful sections of the society.
In the following chapters Mustafa has given cogent arguments citing credible sources — linguists, educationists, psychologists etc — that our class-oriented education system, in which the rich and the powerful begin their schooling with English, is potentially disastrous. First, she describes the history of language policy in education and then Mustafa has investigated how children acquire language in the Pakistani context. In this context the theories of B. F. Skinner, Noam Chomsky, Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner have been outlined succinctly. Briefly, the behaviourist school of which Skinner is an example contends that a child imitates the linguistic behaviour of the people around it. Chomsky in his famous refutation of Skinner contended that people speak disjointed sentences so that could hardly explain language acquisition unless a child had an inborn mental capacity to learn language. Piaget said it was part of cognitive development while Bruner argued that input from people — interaction — must be the key to acquisition. In a sense, then, Piaget and Bruner give variant forms of the innateness and behaviourist theories.
Further, Zubeida Mustafa goes on to include the work of Maria Montessori (1870-1962) who actually anticipated Chomsky’s innateness theory when she mentioned “language apparatus” in the brain which Chomsky later called Language Acquisition Device. These aspects of Montessori’s work are not known in Pakistan and it is useful to have them better known. Further, the author also refers to the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) who argued that language serves psychological and cultural functions also. In short, if one is operating in a foreign language in childhood, perhaps one is missing out an aspect of one’s culture and group psychology. From all these theoretical perspectives Zubeida Mustafa concludes that the most suitable language for early childhood education is one’s mother tongue and not English.
However, Pakistan is a multilingual society so it is imperative that our education system comes to grips with this phenomenon. The author argues on the basis of a small survey she herself conducted in April 2010 as well as evidence from a number of other sources that students actually perform better in Urdu than in English because they do not understand concepts in the latter language as clearly as they do in the former. The most interesting part of Mustafa’s study on this particular aspect of education is her interviews with students. These offer insights into the actual impact of our colonial policies on the ordinary students of Pakistan.
The same quest for meeting people who are the victims of educational policies took the author to the schools for the poor in Orangi Town which gives the reader a good insight into such kind of schools. There is also a sub-section on madrassas here which, however, is somewhat synoptic.
The last two chapters of Tyranny of Language in Education are on the possible solutions. Here the author emphasises equity which is the key for the formulation of a new policy. The point is that if the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider, resentment will increase among the have-nots. And “the extremism and militancy that is tearing our social fabric are the manifestation of this resentment.” The solution for this, as she has been arguing from the beginning is a policy of teaching “the language of environment” up to Grade-6. After this, up to Grade-10 it can either be Urdu or the same language. Only in Grades 11 and 12 will the choice between Urdu and English be offered. However, English and Urdu will both be subjects of study from Grades 4 to 6. This is basically the same model as was proposed by the present reviewer from 1996 onwards and has also been suggested by Howell Coleman of the British Council recently. However, Zubeida Mustafa has given more emphasis to “Language of environment” than anyone else.
Tyranny of Language in Education is eminently sensible and cogently argued. It is not cluttered with technical jargon and is, therefore, accessible to ordinary readers. It is obvious that the author cares for education sincerely and has mastered a vast array of scholarship on the subject. My only recommendation for a subsequent edition would be that the author should refer to more sources — and there are several — on madrassas if the small sub-section she has included is to be fleshed out.
Similarly, while Mustafa’s brief survey of schools is most interesting, perhaps a larger survey using statistical methods — an adequate sample and verification of hypotheses with control groups, pre-and post-texts and null and alternate hypotheses about the relationship between academic performance and language — would provide the kind of evidence on language and comprehension no researcher has adequately investigated as yet.
Another small alteration would be to delete the honorific titles (such as Dr) before names at least in the references. I realise that the statistically valid survey I am talking about cannot be undertaken without enormous resources, time and a fairly large number of research assistants. That is why no researcher — including the present reviewer — has undertaken it yet. That it needs to be undertaken has been suggested not to belittle the author’s single-handed achievement but to point out that such a work needs to be undertaken by rich institutions. As for the other minor alterations they do not detract from the academic significance of the book. Thus, to sum up, this book is a major achievement in the study of the failure of our language and education policies.