The language conundrum revisited

PAKISTAN has failed to educate its children. This is shameful and now we have the proverbial insult added to injury.

It is in the form of the numerous myths and misconceptions about language circulating on the Internet and in conferences on education that have caught the public imagination. This creates pressure for education in English.

An article by Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian syndicated columnist, in this paper spoke of ‘The triumph of English’. It was a clever piece of writing in that it dwelt very convincingly on the importance of the English language in the globalised world of today. It also said, “The amount of effort that is being invested in learning English is so great that it virtually guarantees that this reality will persist for generations to come.”

Dyer refrains from highlighting the negative aspects of this triumph of English which a blogger suggested should have been headlined ‘the triumph of colonialism’. The fact is that an indiscriminate and wholesale adoption of English or its pseudo version as the language of education is undermining our education system. The focus is so much on English that knowledge, information and critical thinking are being sidelined by the effort to teach English.

I am all in favour of our children learning English in school, albeit as a second language. I also wish that more effective methodologies were adopted so that the child actually learns the language. That, however, does not mean that the medium of instruction should be English. Teaching English is different from teaching in English.

Quick to jump on the English bandwagon are a number of people who have little understanding of education and even less of language acquisition. They also fail to look at the ground realities in Pakistan. There is no attempt at any self-analysis. This is what one of them wrote, “Anyone who is opposing the English language and its value in Pakistan must read this eye-opener (Gwynne Dyer’s article). Our ideologues will still not want to buy it but that is precisely why in Pakistan we have pressed the reverse gear of history on all counts.”

I am not very clear who he is referring to when he speaks of ideologues. I know this much that those championing the use of English as the language of education are the ones pressing “the reverse gear of history”.

To help readers recall what Thomas Babington Macaulay, a member of the governing council of the East India Company, had to say about education, I cite from his famous Minutes on Education (1835), “…it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of people Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

Nearly 176 years after these words were written, it seems our makers and shakers have reverted to what our colonial rulers were saying. The articulation is different. A bureaucrat-educationist told me that the language myths are now promoted by the power wielders who don’t want the masses to be educated. Gone are the days when a wadera could stand up and refuse to allow a school to be opened in the area under his control. Now he allows a school to be set up but ensures that the children learn nothing.

What about the children themselves? I conducted a small survey in which about 85 children from four schools participated. All the children came from the low-income classes (their family income was said to be about Rs10,000-15,000 per month). Apart from one school which claimed a literacy of 50 per cent among parents thanks to its community programme, the others said barely two per cent of the parents are literate. Run by various organisations which raise funds and are trying to improve the lives of the deprived children, the efforts of the schools are to be commended. While two are using English as the medium — the Pakistani way — the other two have opted for Urdu.

Some initial observations are instructive. The grade 5 children tested were of ages ranging from 11 to 13 years. They were given a simple paper of grade 4 level with questions in English on one side and Urdu on the other.

They were offered a choice of language in which they wanted to write. While all 10 of the children from an ‘English-medium’ school opted for Urdu, two out of 17 from the better ‘English-medium’ school did the entire paper in Urdu. Six were bilingual — doing one question in English and the other in Urdu. Nine wrote their answers entirely in English. This indicates the comfort level of the children in language. Forty-one of the 85 children tested did not speak Urdu at home. Yet all of them found it easier to communicate in Urdu than in English since Urdu is the language of the environment in Karachi.

Broadly speaking, the children from the Urdu-medium schools could articulate their ideas better and showed better critical thinking. Of course we still have to go a long way to reach satisfactory standards in Urdu too.

A beginning has to be made but first we must sort out the issue of which language should be the language of education. The children’s concerns must be kept in view.

Source: Dawn

19 thoughts on “The language conundrum revisited

  1. This debate may now be a bit passe; i still think that the 'three language formula' suggested by Nehru offers the best recourse–mother tongue, hindi/urdu, english; and all elementary education to be imparted in the mother tongue.

    badri raina,

  2. Thank you for once again raising this critical issue. In our experience, children forced to learn in any language other than their mother tongue are not only slower in becoming critical thinkers but are also becoming the cause of a social divide among the community of children. That can only lead to negative results in the future. By contrast, those children being given the opportunity to learn in their native language are being seen to develop more empathy for their community; something that can promote positive change in the future.

  3. Agreed. But what to do with schools like Grammar and Beacon that have become the symbol of status only–and only–because they impart 'quality' English teaching. Who will tell them to start teaching young kids in their own language, i.e., Urdu because they will know the subject at hand much easily and without much fuss? Easier said than done, but the fact is you yourself would not like to send your grandchildren to Urdu-medium schools or to those whose focus is on improving children's critical-thinking skills instead of making them 'kala angrez' who can only speak in twisted American accent and can't write even a single sentence in correct, readable English.

  4. n her write-up " The language conundrum " in Dawn today, the reputable Zubeida Mustafa remarks that the wholesale adoption of English as the language of education is undermining our education system. I am quite positive that it is not going to be the case in this province, the former NWFP, where Urdu also is not easy to learn for most of the Pakhtuns who prefer to converse in no other language but Pashtu. Urdu no doubt is the language of Ghalib, Igbal, Faiz and Ahmad Faraz and their words in rhyme never fail to raise man to ecstasy. It happens to be our court language with our precious documents whether in the revenue department or police FIR and Investigating Officers' case diaries are all written in Urdu. I agree that the wholesale adoption of English will not be advisable or even possible in the near future. However, steps should be taken sooner than later with the object of adopting English for maximum use in our every day life particularly official matters. I know our brothers living in rural areas can not be expected to adopt English soon enough but I know for sure that there is no village today from where matriculates, graduates and quite a few with Master's do not take the beaten track to the urban area, the main cities, for their livelihood. This Province will be well advised to treat English as the most favourite subject for students, in the interest of their future generations. The Province should try to get good teachers of English from anywhere in the world. I am sending a copy of this mail to Mr. Afrasiab Khattak.

  5. It seems we are fighting a uphill battle is trying to promote Urdu. However, it must be fought. If our children are going to be competent, thinking individuals, they must learn their basic concepts in all subjects areas in their mother tongue and/or in Urdu. After all, these are the languages they think in. The larger and more ominous problem is they are not being taught to think, just to memorize at best and to go through all their years of schooling without learning much, at worst.

  6. Your concern and worries over the actual development is justified.

    "Teaching English is different from teaching in English" is all fine but how many of us are able to draw a line between learning English and learning in English. The fact is also that The British ruled over many countries and as a result thereof English has become world language. Even in some countries all official work is well understood in English as compared to their national language. The best example is INDIA – though Hindi is our national language but many, particularly south Indian, hate to talk and speak in Hindi. English has become the language of well educated people and a person who speaks in other languages on any plateform is hailed as uneducated and uncultured person.

    You have rightly said "The children’s concerns must be kept in view". But is it easy to do?

    Before The East India Company, Indian were enough to express themselves in Hindi or Urdu or Bengali so we can revert this system.

    Let us all support ourselves so that generation may not accept English is mother language.


  7. While citing from Minute by T.B. Macaulay (1835), Ms Zubeida Mustafa makes a very interesting observation. According to her, "nearly 176 years after those words were written, it seems our makers and shakers have reverted to what our colonial rulers were saying". It will also be interesting to note that this long-time dead mentor of many from Pakistan's ruling elite also wrote that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
    Minute by the Hon'ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835: "…I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education."

  8. Your article is a biased towards Urdu. Urdu being mother tounge of none is adopted to be the national language. It has subjugated the provincial languages and every one is made to learn in that language. What you have written against English also holds good for Urdu. You know what happened to east Pakistan then. Teach primary education in Provincial language and higher studies in English. Urdu has no place actually.

    1. Thank you Mr Krishna for pointing this out. The bias you see is because of the survey I did. It was in Karachi where the language of the environment is Urdu. I don't have the resources to conduct such a serviey all over the country. I can assure you in the interior of Sindh you can hold a similar survey but compare Sindhi and English. Sindhi will come out with flying colours. In Punjab the language of the environment is Punjabi, except in big towns.

      You say Urdu has no place. In this survey I found that the children whose mother tongue is not Urdu could transit to Urdu more easily than to English. First it is the language of the environment in many places, hough it is the mother tongue of only 7 per ecnt of the population. Secondly Urdu has greater affinity to all the regional languages of Pakistan which includes script, syntax and vocabulary.

    2. On paper, it surely looks that Urdu is a language of 8% people but in practicality, the number is higher. Many people, especially the younger generation, have adapted Urdu in their normal lives. People in the urban centres of Pakistan are quite accustomed with Urdu. Lahore, the capital of Punjab, has the largest Urdu fiction publisher.

      Problem does not lie with the language; it lies with education not being spread far and wide.

  9. Regarding your recent post, being well-versed in English has little to do with colonialism and other heady stuff, it is simply a matter of being prepared to face the enormous challenges of a global economy. India's success in securing outsourcing contracts from a large number of US companies is due to east availability of English speaking representatives, bad accents and all.

    The sad part of all of this is that Pakistani students are woefully inadequate in their knowledge of Urdu as well. Bad system of education overall.

    1. The problem with the current-day corporate culture led globalisation is that it attaches a lot of importance to gloss and overlooks the substance. Do you think by teaching our children bad English but not giving them any knowledge and without putting our economy on the road to success, we can really get contracts from the West. We need to improve our economy and increase our capacity to produce quality goods, on time to meet deadlines and be able to meet the commitments they make. Learning to speak English will not help. You yourself that the knowledge of Urdu of the Pakistani students is equally poor. It is the system of education that is at fault as you say. I believe the system can be set right if you stop focusing so much on English. Teach the language certainly but give education in a language the child understands. That language is certainly not English.

  10. I read your paper in the daily dawn, and feel not completely with you. I have been educated in Urdu medium schools and we started English learning as a language at the age of 9 – 5th class in old times. By the 10th class, we were very good at English. In the college, it was professional and English was not taught any longer, and we had no problem with English studying all over scientific subjects in English. I remember that is what Dr. Qadeer Khan, our atomic scientist, also wrote. Even our Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam was educated through the same old system.

    Zubeida, you cite Macaulay, and I agree that the British had their own designs. But it was a blessing in disguise for us: Had we not gone on Macaulay's route, and not established institutions like Government College, Lahore and Punjab University, we would have been today another African country in terms of knowledge.

    Zubeida, today is an era of science, and English being the language of science, we cannot afford not to learn English. Do not quote examples of Japan and German and other countries which are imparting scientific education in their own languages. We have not developed Urdu despite all our efforts to the level that it can easily absorb scientific terminology. It is because our Urdu scholars they are more passionate and devoted to Urdu novels and poetry; Science is not their field, nor they are interested.

    Another aspect worthy of consideration is the two system running parallel in Pakistan – one Urdu medium and the other English medium, the latter students doing much better in their grades. I know their comprehension of the subject is a problem, and there is no easy solution.

    I think it should suffice for the present. But I like to know your reaction. If I don't hear, I better do not waste my time in commenting on your articles.

    1. You have identified our problems correctly. But you do not suggest a solution. You yourself say that those who study in English do not have a good conceptual understanding of science. It is time we took a bold step. Begin education in the child's first language. It may not necessarily be Urdu. It could be Sindhi or Pushto, etc He should be taught English as a second language from the primary level but the medium should not be English. It is important to have one system in the country. It can be done if we stop believing blindly that English offers a solution to our problems. The solution lies in knowledge, understanding and critical thinking. Since English cannot provide these it is important that we stop sacrificing these at the altar of English.

  11. It would be unfair to use words like conundrum which without fail would confuse the issue. It is a very straight-forward statement to say that English is the language of the future and the best vehicle to carry one to the destination of gaining knowledge—-all kind. Let us clamour for it at least in the interest of this God–forsaken province the former NWFP.

  12. there is no controversy on mother tongue as medium of instr at primary level. Ideally,mother tongue ought to be developed to the extent that a student can reach Higher secondary level in his/her mother-tongue.introducing english and urdu from class 3 onwards as a language would do no harm to cognitive development of the child.

  13. Your writings are a source of awakening of our nation. this nation is running desperately after the foreign language, we are also not aware that this country came into existence because of attaining a separate identity by speaking,writing and understanding urdu. Thanks alot for writing such heart touching articles

  14. Having safely educated your own daughters in English Medium upper class schools you have taken up the cause of the national language.

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