Why English?

By Zubeida Mustafa

A 9781783095841YOUNG mother recounted to me her harrowing experience of her daughter’s schooling in Lahore. The child was asked by her teacher to report on her classmates who spoke a language other than English in school.

When I heard this I was saddened but not shocked. Many parents have had a similar experience. Worse still, many believe that this is the only way to learn English.

A few weeks ago, a similar incident in an elite school network confirmed that the battle of languages is still on in Pakistan. The headmaster of its Sahiwal campus sent a notice to the parents of his wards that carried strangely worded instructions. It forbade ‘foul language’ on the school premises. “Foul language includes taunts, abuses, Punjabi and the hate speech,” the notification elucidated.

Parents are impressed by the ‘English argument’.

I came across this intriguing notice right when I was reading a book that must be read by each and every educator in Pakistan. It is titled Why English? Confronting the Hydra. Edited by four distinguished linguists (Pauline Bunce, Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana and Ruanni Tupas), it shows how damaging it is to deny the child the use of her own language and insist on English as a unilingual medium of instruction and speech in school in non-English speaking societies.

In the introduction, the editors write, “The expansion of English continues to impact in negative ways on other languages and their cultures. While English opens the doors of privilege and access for some, often the few, the way many countries organise education systems means that the English door is closed for the many.”

It is hypocrisy of the highest order that the government constantly harps on poverty reduction and bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots, while promoting inequity spawned by its ill-advised language policy.

As this book states, its contributors — all 26 of them — are not against the English language or any other language per se. What is important for them is how English is used in Third World countries to exclude the majority — the non-English speakers — from the privileged club. People are being duped and exploited.

The popular myth is promoted that English offers a solution to all our education problems. Parents who know no English themselves are impressed by the ‘English argument’. What they do not understand is that their children are not learning critical thinking because they are handicapped by a language in which they cannot even express themselves fully.

This should not surprise anyone. If teachers, like the Sahiwal headmaster, are not proficient in English, how can they teach any better? They are after all the products of our degenerate education system.

The language conundrum has serious repercussions. While it is killing our own indigenous languages and culture, it is also stultifying our children mentally. Not being taught in a language they have learnt since birth, students resort to rote learning. They can never outgrow this habit as they fail to learn how to express themselves in any language.

Then what is the solution? English is the international language of the day and there is no escape from it.

The editors of Why English offer a solution. They call for greater respect for languages other than English, and to build education on the languages and cultures that children know. They write, “Research shows that this leads to higher levels of competence in English. We want English to take its place alongside people’s first languages and other relevant local languages. Unfortunately, and tragically, this is not what is happening in many learning contexts. English is fast replacing local languages … Initial literacy skills need to be taught in a language familiar to the child, so as to provide a foundation for all later language learning.”

It is clear that if the language of instruction has to be the yardstick to measure learning outputs of students, the mother tongue or the language of the environment wins hands down. Yet rumours are afloat that Sindh is planning to introduce English as the language of instruction in the misplaced hope that education will improve. It will not. The first need of the hour is to address pedagogic issues. If the government has the political commitment to do that it will have to concede that teachers can be upgraded only in a language they are familiar with. In other words, they can teach best in their own language after some in-service training.

As for teaching children English, some teachers can be trained to teach English as a subject. That would require longer and more intensive training. Meanwhile, improvement will become visible in all subjects taught in indigenous languages that the children understand and in which the teachers have expertise.

According to Why English? “The research evidence on mother-tongue based multilingual education is unambiguous: it leads to improved educational results, including a better command of English.”

Source: Dawn