So your child will be starting school – what language will he learn?

By Zubeida Mustafa

When your child is old enough to go to school and you are planning the start of a new adventure in his life and your own, you would do well to learn something about the role of language in learning. His success in life would depend on that. As the school-going age becomes younger and younger and the demand on nursery pupils and pre-schoolers increases, the quest for knowledge about language has acquired a new urgency.

What is most surprising is that parents weigh all the pros and cons that have a direct bearing on their child’s formal education and his future but they remain so misinformed about language acquisition. They look into the school environment, its pedagogy, the teachers’ approach, teaching aids used, etc. However when it comes to language, they just want to be sure that English is the language their child will be taught.

Shattering myths

But language is the key factor that can make or break a child’s education. Then why are parents so indifferent towards learning about the role of language in education, especially as the medium of instruction? This can be attributed to the prevailing misconception of equating knowledge with English. Then there are numerous myths that surround the issue of language. Here are some of them.

  • Language is neutral.
  • It is merely a tool for communicating and whichever language is taught will become the tool.
  • A child can learn any language and he will learn it as well as he is taught. So why not English?
  • There is an age (generally between two and six years when the child learns a language very naturally and smoothly, so grasp and optimise this ability by teaching him English.
  • If a child is not taught the language in which his life-long education is to be imparted at this critical age he will never learn the language and that will affect his education.

But the reality is different.

A few words about language acquisition

Before we address this issue, it would be instructive to see how a child learns – or acquires — a language. It is now widely recognised that the human brain has a language mechanism. But linguists and educationists have not addressed it sufficiently. If people knew more about this they would not want to force their child to go against what comes so naturally to him – speech in his mother tongue or Language 1. After all people don’t ask their children to eat grass because they know very well that it will not be accepted by the human digestive system.

We owe a lot of our knowledge about speech and language to Dr Maria Montessori, the Italian physician and educationist, who opened Casa de Bambini in Rome in 1907 to teach ‘retarded’ children. From her medical knowledge and her own observation of young children in her school, Maria Montessori wrote about this subject in her book The Absorbent Mind. According to her the human brain has a Language Mechanism (that many decades later the renowned American linguist Noam Chomsky called the Language Acquisition Device).

Montessori wrote on the basis of her observation and medical knowledge that the Language Mechanism controls the capacity of a child to acquire a language. The centres in the brain that process sound and those that enable a person to reproduce those sounds and comprehend them are a part of the Language Mechanism.

Hence the child is born with this capacity but the language he learns initially and which activates his speech device depends entirely on his sociological environment. That is why a child in Sindh who is born in a Sindhi speaking family starts speaking Sindhi when he is growing up but another child with the same physiology born in England to English speaking parents learns English as his first language.

Neurologists now believe that a child’s brain also grows and develops after birth and the factors that determine this development are his experiences – notably his socio-cultural interactions with his surroundings and the sounds and speech he hears.

In other words, a child’s immediate surroundings even before he goes to school are important for his cognitive development and language acquisition. His creativity, understanding and mental development in the initial years take place in the language he has been hearing since birth and learning to speak soon thereafter. If he is exposed to two languages he will pick up both and his mental development will take place in two languages making him bilingual. But most children are exposed to only one language in the initial years, namely the language the family speaks or the mother tongue. It will be only much later that he will hear other language speakers when he comes out of his home and meets others who might be his neighbours or friends of his family or much later his school mates. All along his cognitive development continues without any interruption.

It is important to understand that cognitive development is closely linked with language especially as cognition becomes more complex and the child’s exposure grows he needs a language to formulate his thoughts and ideas. You cannot really have thoughts without a language and vocabulary to express them.

A child’s cognitive development and language

Now imagine a child who has been undergoing this process since birth. At the age of two or three his parents decide that he is ready for school. So they look around for a nursery school if they have already not registered him in one at the time of his birth. They are satisfied – and should be – that he already has a fairly good understanding of his surroundings as well as the people he interacts with. According to speech experts, if his development is taking place normally his vocabulary would be comprised of about two hundred words which he finds enough to express his needs and to communicate and make himself understood.

When he is admitted to a school he suddenly finds himself in a strange environment. He is scared and uneasy. The only tool he has for expressing these feelings is a teary one. He cries and howls but in due course he finds that these strangers who have taken the place of his mother are also his friends and not someone to be afraid of. So he stops crying and settles down. After a time he even starts enjoying school.

The parents are satisfied that their child has been taken care of. But they have not been concerned about the language the school has chosen to adopt. Many schools try to rush the child into learning English as fast as he can. Some even ban the use of any language other than English. They try to distance the child from his Language 1. If he has been exposed to English as is the case in many families seeking upward mobility the linguistic transition may not be too drastic. It may not be a shift at all for children whose mothers have been speaking with them in English from the start and they have picked it up quite naturally.

But now visualise a child whose family doesn’t speak English with him at all, which is the case with most children in Pakistan. In fact this majority constitutes children who are pioneers of sorts. They are the first generation in their family to go to school. Their parents are not only uneducated. In many cases they are illiterate. They speak their own mother tongue which may be any of the regional languages that we have. The fathers may be familiar with another language because of the compulsion of their job and the resultant interaction with people of all linguistic backgrounds. When a child from this background lands in school he may be required to transit to another language, especially when his mother tongue is not even Urdu.

But even if we take the case of children of educated parents – though not proficient in English – we find that in schools using English as the medium this language becomes a barrier to their progress. Their cognitive development is interrupted. Their creativity is blocked for two reasons. First, they do not know enough (if any) English to think up new ideas in this strange language. Secondly, the development of their own language is slowed down or even stopped as they focus on the new language that is thrust on them which they have to master. They cannot even revert to Language 1 when their thoughts wander into new domains to dream up a new world. So they stop thinking. They recede into a culture of silence and rote learning becomes their norm.

I never tire of illustrating this with an example. Once I was visiting a school which tries to teach children from a low income neighbourhood in English. I asked a little boy of three from a class that had greeted me with a loud, “Good Morning” what he would like to be when he grew up. The child remained silent. The teacher who was accompanying me told me that he was too young to know what he wanted. I then asked the child in Urdu, “Aap baray ho kar kiya karna chahtay hein?” To my surprise there followed a torrent of words informing me that the young owner of that speech wanted to be a pilot and fly aeroplanes all over the world.

This experience has been confirmed by many teachers I know. They say that an unfamiliar language can push the child into a world of silence and also rob him of his confidence. Think of yourself, an adult. When you enter a room full of strangers who speak another language you do not speak or understand, how do you react? You remain silent. You do not feel confident and you may even leave the room fast because you are an adult and have the capacity to act independently.

Importance of English and the myths

But then one may well argue that English is an international language and Pakistan cannot hope to move ahead in this globalised world of ours without its people knowing English. Students who ultimately want to go in for higher studies, scientists and medical professionals would also need to be proficient in English to make scientific and medical research accessible to them, aviators must be fluent in English to be able to communicate with traffic controllers, diplomats can negotiate better with other governments in one of the international languages and English is the most popular. Trade and commerce as well as banking transactions would benefit if we have a sufficient number of English speakers involved in economic activities. So how can you deny your child the benefits of learning English?

Here what needs to be emphasised is that it is a myth that to learn English well a child must learn it from the first day in school. Nor is it correct to say that he must abandon his own language to learn English well. Again a distinction needs to be made between teaching English and teaching in English. What needs to be understood is that a child who starts his education in the language he is familiar with – that is his Language 1—is definitely at an advantage in his mental growth.

The fact is that even those who shield their children from the local languages and strictly adhere to their own code of communicating with him in English from his infancy, cannot escape what we call the language of the environment. This is impossible. After all the child hears the native languages as soon as he is old enough to venture out with his mother. That is quite frequent and very early in his life, given our culture. If there are servants in the house and visitors keep dropping in, and there is no escape from television how can the language of the environment be kept out of the hearing range of the child? If in these circumstances you try to create a foreign environment for a child in terms of language and cognitive development, you are actually denying him the advantage which other children enjoy.

Hence the most feasible approach would be to adopt the language of the environment (which fortunately is the mother tongue in most cases) in schools providing early childhood and primary education. Our policy makers who never probe the depth of a problem have generally moved towards English. Now there is talk of introducing English as early as possible in the course of a child’s schooling and making English the language of education. Suggestions have been mooted that public sector schools be converted into English medium institutions. Thus the trend catches on.

That is why in the last few years the thrust towards English has grown enormously. Schools in the private sector – and there are many of them as 35 per cent of Pakistani children are said to be enrolled in private schools – have been left to their own devices with minimal regulations although a law requires them to be registered with the authorities and submit themselves to inspection. Most of these schools go in for English in a big way because that is the public demand. The private upscale schools that cater to the children of the elite have already been using English as the medium of instruction. Now the private schools in low income localities have begun to follow suit. Previously they were teaching in the local language but are now trying to enhance their clientele by shifting towards English. Their signboards announce in Urdu that they are English medium.

Disadvantages of English as the medium of instruction in early years

Hence introducing English as the medium is hardly a solution to the problem. Not only does this approach damage a child’s intellectual and social development it has several other disadvantages The two categories of schools – the elite ones and the others that cater to the needs of the not so affluent economic classes — have different problems but teaching in English certainly has a negative impact on both. Here I shall take their cases separately.

Taking the second category first, I shall list all the disadvantages that teaching in English will give rise to. The state of our education has been in the doldrums for decades now. As a result the standards of the teachers has gone down miserably. Every one knows that if education is to be uplifted, a crash programme of in-service teachers training will have to be undertaken. Without improving the pedagogy we cannot improve the quality of education our children will receive.

Now the key question is: can you train teachers in a language they are not even faintly familiar with? Teachers who do not know English will not be able to learn how to teach if the language used for their training is English. If they cannot even learn the pedagogical skills in English how will they be able to upgrade their teaching? Above all, suffering from this linguistic deficiency, how can they use English in the classroom?

There is also their poor knowledge of their subject that has to be addressed as well. It will be a huge challenge to motivate them to apply themselves to the subjects which they have neglected for years. If you also create a language barrier for them and make it more difficult for them to master the knowledge they should have acquired as students, the whole programme is bound to fail. The need of the hour is to facilitate their training and create the desire in them to improve themselves. This can be done in a language they are familiar with in which they can express themselves somewhat better.

True the local languages have also suffered from neglect as our educators were busy chasing English. But it will be easier to improve communication skills of teachers in our own languages than work on their English language communication skills. If the political will exists and training courses are devised this will not be an impossible task. But it will be impossible to achieve in the short term if English is to be the language to be adopted.

With teachers not adequately trained and not proficient in English, the child will suffer. He will be taught poorly by teachers whose knowledge will be deficient and whose communication skills will be poor. The child will also be at a disadvantage because he cannot be called upon to participate actively in classroom discussions, develop creativity in himself and become a good communicator. For children of parents who are not educated themselves this is a double disadvantage. It is the state’s duty to provide them quality education and facilitate their access to good schooling.

One may well ask how does education in the English language work to the detriment of children who are good English speakers and whose parents as well as teachers are also good English speakers? This is an issue that requires social understanding of the circumstances of our country if that is what we are interested in. It is imperative for us to develop this understanding because it is in the interest of the child that we seek to make Pakistan a socially stable country where people can live with dignity. This is not possible if the people are not at peace with themselves and the bulk of the population is alienated from an elite chunk. This is not in the interest of any child who lives in Pakistan, whether he speaks English or any other language.

As for the children whose parents can teach them English from early childhood it is not a happy situation to be in a country where he cannot identify with the majority of the people. Given the social and class implications of the English language one can only describe such a society as a fractured one lacking harmony. The child who speaks English and no local language is bound to be maladjusted. That does not reflect well on him. He will be taught to look down upon the majority of his fellow countrymen and will never be comfortable with children not from his socio-economic class. Is this the kind of person you want education to make of your child? But unfortunately that is what he will become if you insist on his becoming a good English speaker. He will not have any appreciation of his own culture and language and all the cultural and social traditions Pakistan lays claim to. He will have no sense of belonging to the land he was born in. Neither will he feel any connection with the people who constitute the vast majority. Language is the vital element that can connect him with his own people.

English in Pakistan

All this does not mean that there is no place for English in Pakistan. As pointed out earlier English is needed if the country has to progress and develop. But what is important is to clearly define why the language is needed, by whom and the measure of proficiency required. The fact is that not every one in Pakistan is required to have knowledge of English to reach his optimum potential. This needs to be made clear because at present we are sacrificing the standard of education in an unsuccessful bid to teach English of a high standard to every one who enters school.

It would make sense if children enrolled in school are taught in their own language and in Urdu at a later stage while English is taught as a subject – as a second language. The aim should be to familiarise the students with the script so that they can read and write simple English, while learning basic conversational English. Everyone does not have to be taught literature and given an endless list of vocabulary for high flown conversation with technical jargon woven into it. The grammatical foundation should be sound so that it provides those wanting to build their English proficiency on it can do so by enrolling for advance language courses. They will obviously be the ones who need it – for higher education (especially abroad), foreign travel, business, diplomacy and so on. There should be provision for such courses.

Obviously, this would call for training a cadre of English language teachers. Again, not every teacher will be required to go through the rigours of learning how to teach English or teach in English or study the contents of his/her subject in English. Only English language teachers will be required to study it and do it efficiently. All this presupposes that we have a genuine desire to improve our standards of education.

This is something the country will have to start preparing for. One very important requirement is to make large scale facilities available for translation. We need to translate books from all foreign languages into our own languages as well as from one of our own languages to another to make them accessible to our people. Globally the importance of translation is recognised if people are to keep abreast with what is going on in other parts of the world. This should be done on a wide scale so that people do not lose out on knowledge.

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

10 thoughts on “So your child will be starting school – what language will he learn?

  1. I just admitted my 4-year-old in a renowned private school. She has scored poorly in the congnitive domain because of the school's policy of "teaching in English". Me and my husband strictly spoke Urdu at home to make sure that she learns her mother tongue i.e. Urdu which several kids of our family are unable to. And now after seeing her assessment report, we regret the decision because she could have learned the vernacular – "launguage of the environment" in any way. We have shifted our focus on English and French and now my daughter's speech is nothing but a jumbled mess of multilingual words and accents.

    Me and my husband are totally at ease with English language but not our daughter and the reason is – "an unfamiliar language can push the child into a world of silence and also rob him of his confidence".

    1. Dear Maria, I can imagine that you are worried, as we parents want to give our children the very best. But I think your daughter's speech will clear up soon, as long as you teach her to distinguish between the languages. If you start a sentence in English or French, finish it in the same language. Yes it takes time and effort but my experience is that it is worth it. I am a Hungarian mother of 3 children living in the Netherlands and although I am completely at ease with Dutch, I have always spoken Hungarian to my children at home. Of course at school they have to speak Dutch. They all reached a certain point in their development where they started mixing up the languages, just like your daughter does. …see part 2

    2. @ Maria

      Your experience and my experience is almost same. My mother tongue was Punjabi but in primary school there was a choice to select the language of education. As Hindi was our national language so was selected. Then after 5th there came English. Further there was rule to read Punjabi in Punjab. So parallel Hindi, English and Punjabi were on syllabus. As I reached in 9th standard, in 1966 my father engaged a private teacher for URDU.

      Now the result is that I am not good for any language either to read or to write or to listen. Mixture of all the four languages work and keeps me on.

      So the selection of Media of Education right from the start should be seriously taken. Mother is BEST. Either it is Mother herself or Mother Language or Mother Land.

  2. part 2
    Be patient, but be firm and clear in you message, and repeat her sentence in one language and then maybe in the other language too. My children have learned English as a third language by now and my eldest attends a bilingual secondary school where he learns 6 languages! (English,Dutch, German, French, Latin and Greek – and he speaks, writes and reads perfect Hungarian). I believe the trick is that we, the parents present languages to our kids as something natural, not as something that is a big deal and our children will follow our attitude and example. If you are insecure about it, you wil only cause confusion and insecurity, so be be firm, calm and clear. I beleive every language we learn opens up a new world for us. I wish you all the best with your daughter. Kind regards, Katalin Balint

    1. Dear Katalin, I found your experience very helpful. And yes I totally agree that languages should be presented as something natural. Regards, Maria

  3. A language is not just a series of words and communications; it’s the product of a culture of people. Language is a product of history and culture. The more we destroy our linguistic diversity by only using English, the more we lose the diversity of our cultural and historical identities. Erasing languages is erasing history. Erasing history leaves people without identity and a sense of identity is what makes us human. Learning languages teach us different ways of thinking, a worthwhile and enlightening mental exercise. Languages keep us apart from animal world. Human diversity is a part of God’s plan of creation. It is something to be encouraged as a social good, not something to be annihilated in a melting pot of national cohesion. If we force the whole world to speak only one language, we are forcing the whole world to lose its own identity and culture. Languages make the world a better place. It helps us to realize that we are all different and hopefully to be more tolerant with our differences.

    1. @ Iftikhar Ahmad!

      I completely agree with you. Overtaking of Mother Language is injurious to the academic record. One may learn other Languages as many as one can but not at the cost of Mother or National Language. No doubt English is now an INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE and one must know it without ignoring Mother Language.

  4. Thanks for taking the precious time to discuss this topic with us. Fine information, many thanks to the author. It is puzzling to me now, but in general, the usefulness and significance is overwhelming. Very much thanks again and good luck!

  5. I wish I could agree with these comments–having seen how important English is and how a deficiency in it can hold an otherwise capable person back, I would recommend more rather less of it, and the earlier the better. The argument about a 'sensitive age' for learning a language is not yet settled–your cognitive linguists say there is no such thing as LAD/LAS, but the Chomskeyans still hold a good bit of the field. Urdu is losing ground. It might end up something like Punjabi, a spoken language with a weak base in literature and (more importantly) with very little serious work in medicine, the sciences and technology. We have not modernized Urdu, mainly because English opens doors to a rich treasury of knowledge. We have left it too late. Let Urdu find its own level, probably as the oral lingua franca of the country, but English is (and will continue to be in increasing volumes) the language of information and development, apart from its obvious benefits at the international level.

  6. @ Mustafa!

    Perhaps this is your most favorite topic and concern. Really it is a accurate selection as foundation of human being is to be founded so parents must posses acumen to analyze the all factors.

    I have already put up my comments in earlier posts.

    However, I would like to improve your statement on one count that a person starts learning right from the WOMB of Mother and after Birth (as you said) it becomes visible to others. This fact has been aired by DISCOVERY CHANNEL too many times.

    And the second important point is that a kid though learns from his surroundings and other family members. But sometimes he/she becomes scientist and develops own way also. A kid of 6/7 month cannot walk nor can stand but can sit. Now he/she sees all others walking so he/she applies brain and starts crawling.

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