Which language?

By Zubeida Mustafa

ONE aspect of the Single National Curriculum that has yet to be resolved is the medium of instruction. It came under the spotlight when the National Curriculum Council announced in March its outlandish idea of making English the medium of instruction from preschool to Grade 5. Strangely, many in Pakistan have argued endlessly in support of English. They believe that without fluency in English one cannot get a job.

On the other hand, there are some who want Urdu, the national language, as the medium of instruction. But Urdu is not the mother tongue of 90 per cent of the people even though it is the language of wider communication. That leaves the mother tongue (a native language) as the only feasible option for the medium of instruction. A decision has to be taken. For six months, the government has been wavering and the consultations are becoming endless. Yet another conference was held on Wednesday. Here it was decided to set up a committee to take a ‘final’ decision on the medium issue.

Not having conducted any research/ surveys on the matter, the government has no firm ground to stand on. It would help if the education ministry would look up its own archives and dig out Javed Hasan Aly’s massive White Paper on Education (2006). It is the only thoroughly deliberated official policy document on education that I have read in Pakistan. It is a pity that the education minister at the time (an ex-army general) rejected it because Aly had proposed that the mother tongue be used as the medium of instruction.

So we are back to square one which means ‘ambivalence’. Hence the linguistic status quo will continue and the new policy when it is announced will apply only to public-sector schools. English will continue to dominate and distort our education.

Most people do not have the vaguest idea of what is happening on the language front in education and how it affects their children’s learning outcome and their mindset. The government speaks of an ‘education apartheid’ and the need for undoing it and making the playing field level for all. But what it does is actually promote inequity of the worst kind. The nation is divided into two classes: the elite English speakers (call them the privileged ones) and the majority non-English speakers (the have-nots) striving for upward mobility by learning English. This is the real divide which can be bridged only by adopting an appropriate language policy in education and developing the capacity to teach 50 million children well and certainly not in English.

If the government is seriously determined to upgrade the education system, the first step it should take is to improve the performance of teachers. This will be a challenge and we don’t have to make the challenge insurmountable by adding proficiency in English as an additional qualification which the majority will fail to achieve. They would, however, qualify in a local language with some good training. Teachers to teach English as a second language could be treated as another category with specialised training.

Let children begin their primary education in their mother tongue, learn Urdu additionally a few years later and start learning English as a foreign language at the end of their primary school. If the language is taught well the child will acquire competency in it fast. I speak from experience.

It needs to be emphasised here that for a new approach to work it is also important that corruption in the education department should simultaneously be addressed with a firm hand. Corruption neutralises efficiency and performance.

What impact will this change have on children? When they learn in a language they understand from a teacher who knows pedagogy children will start enjoying their lessons, gain confidence and above all start THINKING and communicating. They will show better understanding of what they are taught. Education will become a participatory exercise as it should be. Above all, students will not suffer from a sense of alienation and inferiority which is being fostered by English.

Thus will begin an exciting journey of self-discovery for the child. The miraculous improvement in her learning outcomes will do wonders for the teachers’ self-esteem and their performance will also improve.

The taste of the pudding is in the eating. Till this policy is actually tried and positive results produced the sceptics will remain. Let the government start this reform process in its own institutions. Success will create its own momentum and low-fee private schools will follow suit. The elite English-medium schools may not come on board immediately but will definitely lose enrolment and the elitist private sector will shrink.

Why do we hesitate? We have already dumbed our children by robbing them of their own language and have also failed to teach them English. Is there more to lose?

Source: Dawn