Early learning in mother tongue

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

ON October 22, the federal education minister, Lt Gen (retd) Javed Ashraf, made a presentation on the “Education scenario in Pakistan” to the president and prime minister. At this meeting some key decisions were taken that were communicated by the prime minister’s secretariat to the federal education ministry for onward transmission to the provincial education departments to ensure their implementation.

These decisions, marked as “top priority”, reached various sections and departments concerned with education in Sindh on Dec 21. Some of these decisions have far-reaching significance, that is if they are actually translated into reality. Others will not have the desired impact — in fact they will have negative repercussions — because they are unscientific, unnatural and go against the basic mental development of a child.

The most important of the decisions taken on Oct 22 which needs re-thinking is the one on language teaching. Para 7 of the communication states, “English language will be compulsory from class 1 onwards.” Para 13 goes on to state, “Introduction of English as medium of instruction for science, mathematics, computer science and other selected subjects like economics and geography in all schools in a graduated (sic) manner was endorsed.”

Have our education policymakers pondered the implications of these decisions? A child is generally five years old when he is admitted to class 1. Apart from a minuscule minority coming from homes where children’s exposure to the English language is considerable, how familiar would the students generally be with English? At an age while they are still struggling with one language — in most cases not their mother tongue — would it be fair to burden them with another language of which they have no comprehension at all?

Another key question is: does it make sense to get teachers who are not proficient in a language and which is equally alien to them to teach it to a child of five? This is not an exaggeration. Whoever formulated the expression “in a graduated manner” (quoted verbatim above from the presentation made to the president and the prime minister) is a good example of the problems we can expect from the teachers who will be involved in this exercise of teaching English.

As though this were not disastrous enough, the children are to be taught science, mathematics and other “selected” subjects in English. Even without these experiments we have failed to give our children a fairly good understanding of science and mathematics. Once the teacher proceeds to speak in a language the students can’t comprehend, science and maths will be reduced to mumbo jumbo for them.

Prof Anita Ghulam Ali, managing director of the Sindh Education Foundation, who finds it difficult to swallow policy decisions of this nature without uttering a word, promptly fired off her comments to the federal and provincial ministers of education, the president, the prime minister and the secretary of education.

Describing the decision on teaching English as “strange” — an understatement — she rightly points out that the government is not clear about the ramifications of the following: — If English is taught for the purpose of being the medium of instruction. — If English is taught as a second language. — If English is taught to improve the standard of vocational and technical skills. — If English is taught to help Pakistanis be comfortable in the global village.

It is important that our policymakers should first be clear in their minds about the purpose of this decision. No one would question the wisdom of learning English not just as a spoken language for communicating orally in but also as a language in which one can read and understand texts on various subjects.

This is important because English taught for different purposes will have to be taught differently and at different stages. Psychologists, for instance, insist that a child should be taught initially in his mother tongue until he is nine or 10 and his language skills have been established. After that he can be taught in other languages with ease.

According to John Clegg, a British educational consultant, a student learning through the medium of a second language is doing more things, cognitively speaking, than he does if he is learning through his own tongue. He is not only learning subject matter, knowledge and skills, but he is also concurrently learning the language which is the vehicle for that subject-learning. This means that he has less mental processing capacity than when learning in a language familiar to him. He cannot, therefore, do some classroom tasks without help and teachers must have extra training for that.

Language has a direct bearing on the level of comprehension of a child. It must be remembered that a young child who starts attending school is at that stage in his mental, physical and emotional development when it is advisable to allow him to learn and adjust at his own pace. By pushing him to learn more than his mind, intellect, memory, cognition and temperament are ready for we only derail the learning process. More importantly, we also cause the child to lose interest in education and knowledge. Some schools are going to the extent of forcing children, their siblings and their parents to speak only in English in a bid to make the child fluent in the language.

In a study he presented to the seventh international language and development conference in Addis Ababa, John Clegg emphasized that students must learn in their local language (mother tongue) throughout their school years. He said, “Education through the medium of European languages depresses school achievement in Sub Saharan African countries. Education through the medium of a second language normally works under certain conditions, which are not fulfilled in Sub Saharan Africa. In contrast, education through European language limits levels of individual and school achievement.”

His argument that “policies promoting second language medium education could be constraining learning” came as a challenge to parents and educationists.

The general belief not just in Africa but in our own country too is that children who start learning early in English enjoy an advantage over their peers who “stay longer with their mother tongue”. But Clegg questions this belief. He argues, “Learners who do not have good foundations in their mother tongue are disadvantaged if taught in a second language and that this situation is compounded when teachers using the second language themselves lack confidence in that language.”

The main factors giving rise to the bias in favour of teaching English from an early age is first the tendency to link language with the standard of education and secondly to equate language with social status and political power. If English medium schools are by and large imparting better quality education it is not because good education is simply not possible in Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi or Pushto. After all, many of our forefathers received their schooling in their mother tongue. They learnt English at the secondary level and learnt it so perfectly as to study at college and university in English.

It would be worthwhile to introduce some pilot projects in which children are taught in their mother tongue — and all care should be taken to observe high standards by training the teachers accordingly and using good textbooks which are now available in plenty. Let English be introduced when a child is 10 — but again the language should be taught by a well trained English language teacher. At the Addis Ababa conference, Clegg suggested the establishment of African pilots of bilingual education to explore the available forms, their affordability and their acceptability to parents and planners.

It is time education policymakers in Pakistan also studied the language question not as a political issue but from the point of view learning and education. No one would question the need to teach English to all students. But a child would not lose much — in fact he may gain more — if he starts learning English in secondary school and learns it really well there.