The language enigma

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE fate of the National Education Policy (NEP) continues to hang in the balance. A revised draft was to have been taken up by the cabinet in early August but it was not.

Meanwhile, some NGOs working in the education sector and grouped under the umbrella body called the Pakistan Coalition for Education reacted strongly to the new document.

This should have provided an opportunity for a public debate on the policy. Unfortunately it didn`t because education is too mundane a subject for our media.

The draft that has been posted on the Ministry of Education`s website, and which will presumably be considered by the cabinet, should be taken up not just by educationists but also parents, the youth and enlightened citizens who care about the future of Pakistan. The fact is that many issues addressed by the NEP need to be debated fully so that there is a broad national consensus and not simply an agreement between the governments in Islamabad and the provinces.

One issue that needs careful consideration is the language policy that could well become politicised and cause serious harm to the growth of education in Pakistan.

The NEP`s current draft speaks of the government developing “a comprehensive plan of action for implementing the English language policy in the shortest possible time, paying particular attention to disadvantaged groups and lagging behind regions”. Fine. There is no disputing the now universally accepted fact that English is the international language of diplomacy, science, commerce and communication. It must be learnt.

Our English-language teaching is not at all up to the mark and the NEP admits that. Hence the problem has to be addressed mainly by training good English-language teachers. Correct.

Thereafter the policy draft stipulates that English will be taught as a subject from class I onwards and the curriculum will include Urdu, one official regional language, mathematics and an integrated subject. From class IV onwards science and mathematics will be taught in English only.

However, the provinces have been given a grace period of five years to effect this change-over. They are expected to train the teachers to teach in English. Until then they can use Urdu/an official regional language as the medium of instruction for science and mathematics. Theoretically correct too, though it would make greater sense to change the medium in science and mathematics after class V at the secondary level when the child is about 10 and would have had five years of English-language learning.Next comes the core issue that has been cloaked in ambiguity. What is to be the medium of instruction in the primary section? The choice has been left to provincial and area education departments with no guidelines provided.

No marks for guessing that things will continue as presently. Given the commercialisation of education in the private sector which is also the trendsetter — both good and bad — every institution will naturally vie to be an English-medium one, including those with signboards that proudly announce in Urdu that the school is `English-medium`.

In view of this calculatedly indifferent approach to language, can we expect any change for the better after the NEP is announced and implemented? Language is basic not just to the development of the education system but also to a person`s mental growth. Therefore the government`s hesitation in adopting a clear-cut position on the medium issue is difficult to justify.

Given the appalling standard of English-language teaching in all schools, with the exception of a few private elite schools, it will prove to be a formidable exercise to upgrade the knowledge of English of thousands of language teachers as well as thousands of those teaching science and mathematics to ensure their proficiency in English. Most of the latter also require courses to teach them their subject anew. But without this effort no strategy will work.

It would be best to make it compulsory for schools to adopt the mother tongue as the medium of instruction at the primary level. Simultaneously there must be a lot of stress on language teaching as a subject (Urdu, English and regional languages) and developing communication skills. There is no reason why a child being taught in his mother tongue with which he is familiar cannot be taught excellent English as well.

It is time the language controversy was laid to rest. The failure of our educationists generally to understand the integral link between language and the mental development of a person is shocking. Language is the basic tool for thought. It is instrumental in expanding a young child`s mind and developing his creativity at an age when his faculties are growing and his thought-language (to use Paulo Freire`s term) is being formed. As the White Paper on Education in Pakistan (2007) observed, learning in the mother tongue allows for better self-expression and conceptual understanding.

Dr Maria Montessori is another expert whose observations about language and the child are most relevant. In her monumental study The Absorbent Mind, she writes that in a child a special mechanism exists for language, which responds to speech and accumulates the words that the child hears. Thus the environment — especially the verbal one — makes a deep impact on the language learning

process in a child.

Not surprisingly a child`s mental growth is slowed down if education involves comprehending new concepts in an unfamiliar language, mastering that language and its vocabulary as well to enable him to express himself. It is for this reason that students of elite schools are also found wanting in terms of `critical thinking`, a quality Freire considers so vital.

The students in these schools are taught in English and get good grades because as Ismat Riaz, a Pakistani educationist, aptly points out the focus in these schools is on the acquisition of knowledge and memorising. One may add, English as a medium of instruction at an early age stunts the child`s capacity to think critically and isolates him from his surroundings.