AT the inaugural session of its 70th anniversary conference, the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, Karachi, did us proud when the proceedings were conducted in Urdu. It was a pleasure to hear chaste Urdu perfectly articulated at an occasion not dominated by our Urdu litterateurs.
I was told that this was at the suggestion of President Mamnoon Hussain who was the chief guest. Masuma Hasan, the chairperson of the institute, confirmed it, adding that it was her idea as well. Urdu is Pakistan’s national language, so no one should challenge Masuma’s decision. However, the smooth sailing at the PIIA function made me wonder why the demand for other provincial languages being given the same constitutional status cannot be considered favourably. Continue reading It wasn’t English→
READING is an essential element of education, and textbooks are an integral part of the curricula of formal education that can’t shrugged off. But reading books other than course texts helps children enrich their minds and makes them superior to their ‘non-reading’ peers.
Yet the general impression is that our children are not into the reading culture. This is surprising because in the last few years children’s books have flooded the market and some of them are really good. They have all the qualities a book should have to grip the readers’ interest — a lively style, strong storylines and characters with which our children can connect. Continue reading Storytelling→
The book under review is a collection of 24 articles with a foreword by Professor Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, and an introduction by the editors. An afterword by Ahmed Kabel brings the work together as a conclusive whole. As anyone at all familiar with the academic discourse in the teaching of the English language will immediately understand, this is the latest endeavour by people who have not accepted the hegemony of English without question: rather, they have chosen to make people conscious that English has become a hydra, in the sense that it is weakening the other languages of the world.
Indeed, writers, like Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, have been raising key questions about this hegemony for a long time. In a sense then, this volume revives some of these old anxieties, with the help of new case histories of countries as diverse as Iceland and China, and helps explain what precisely is at stake in the field of education in general, and language-learning in particular. Continue reading Mother of all tongues→
A SILENT language revolution is changing the face of Pakistan in the public discourse. There was a time when proceedings in most dialogues were conducted in English. As could be expected, the message conveyed by the speakers would not get across to the entire audience.
Mercifully, things have begun to change. Bilingualism is the order of the day with greater weightage being given to indigenous languages. Those who really want to communicate with the audience — politicians and the electronic media — are aware that they would have few takers if they were to speak in English as not many understand the nuances of this foreign language and even fewer can speak it. This acknowledgment of the reality is a positive development, especially when we claim to be a democracy. Continue reading Creeping changes→
MY last column on language-in-education evoked interesting comments from readers. Some raised valid concerns. Others betrayed unfounded fears about language — and also education. Quite a few of the comments were more an outpouring of emotional biases and not based on rational thinking.
First of all what needs to be clarified is that there is a world of difference between using a language as a medium of instruction (MOI) and teaching it as a subject. Whenever there is a discourse on the language-in-education issue we seem to get carried away by our passion for English. It needs to be understood clearly that a child learning history, geography or even science in an indigenous language can still learn English as a second language just like any German or Korean child does. If English is taught by competent teachers using the correct methodology the child will learn it well and quickly. Continue reading Language whims→
SINCE 1999, when Unesco first declared Feb 21 International Mother Language Day, this issue has received much attention throughout the world. In Pakistan, where the language issue has always had a complexity of its own, educators, linguists and activists are now more vocal than ever.
Will the ruckus being created have a real impact on the language situation in various sectors of national life? The courts have given two major language-related verdicts in the past two years. One was the Supreme Court’s directive of 2015 asking the government to use Urdu as the official language of administration. The second is the recent order of the Lahore High Court asking the Federal Public Commission to conduct CSS examinations in Urdu.
There is a logical link between the two. A person who is to conduct the affairs of governance in one language should be fluent enough in it to pass an exam to qualify as an administrator. The conclusion that follows is that the CSS candidates should have studied Urdu in school as well as college to be able to take examinations in that language. Continue reading Why English again?→
A YOUNG 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. Continue reading Why English?→
Nadia (aged 14) is a typical victim of the tyranny of the English-language Hydra in Pakistan. Coming from an underprivileged socio-economic background, this girl is required to master an alien language if she wants to realise her dreams. Thanks to the easy accessibility of electronic media and a concerted movement for reform by concerned members of civil society, public interest in education has been stirred, and expectations are high. There are millions of teenagers like Nadia who want to acquire a good education to uplift their socio-economic status. But many are headed for disappointment. The facilities needed to educate such large numbers have not been created in Pakistan by the state, notwithstanding the growing demand. Worse still, the curricula and textbooks have not been designed to meet the specific needs of these children. Hence, aspirations and motivation will not prove to be enough to help Nadia and others like her to achieve upward mobility.
Although there are many hurdles in Nadia’s way, language − especially English −is a major one. Even though the government institutions may not be insisting on English as the language of education, their poor performance disqualifies them as trendsetters. Given the ambiguity in the official education policy, the English-language Hydra has become the driving force. This policy was announced in 2009 by the education ministry in Islamabad, as it was its prerogative to lay down the guidelines for the entire country. The policy defined in detail its vision and strategy, but it was vague about the language to be used as the medium of instruction. It was left to the provinces to decide whether they wanted to use the national or regional language in the public-sector primary schools in their jurisdiction. But it was specified that English would be used to teach science and maths in Years 4 and 5 in these institutions. Private schools were given a free rein. They generally opted for English. In 2010, constitutional amendments devolved powers to the provinces. To the detriment of all, the provincial governments chose to be equally vague and adopted an ad hoc approach to language in education. There has been no clarity in the governments’ policies ever since, on account of the policymakers’ ignorance of education and language-learning matters and their misguided belief that English promotes progress. Their failure to adopt a firm approach on the medium issue has allowed market forces, societal pressures, élite private-school owners (some with political clout) and the leverage of foreign aid givers to gain the upper hand.
Going by the number of education policies announced in Pakistan since 1947, the volume of reports produced by commissions on this issue of direct concern to human development and the statements issued by government dignitaries pledging their commitment to universalising education, one would have thought that by now Pakistan must be heading the world education league.
What is the reality? The UNDP, which compiles the Human Development Index using schooling as one of the criteria, tells us another story. In its 2015 report, Pakistan is categorised as a Low Human Development country and ranks 147th out of 188 states. The mean years of schooling for children is 4.7 years and only a third of the population above 25 has had some secondary schooling. Continue reading Keeping them illiterate→
LAST week Karachi hosted the Teachers’ Literature Festival — an innovative experiment — to introduce an alternative discourse in education.
Here a lively session on language in learning was held. That teachers should be interested in this is understandable. The issue impacts their work directly. The fact is that the language used in education determines the learning output of students. Their poor performance in independent assessment tests such as ASER actually reflects on the quality of pedagogy they receive. That in turn is a clear measure of our teachers’ skills and professional standards. Continue reading Language myths→