By Zubeida Mustafa
The following video is doing the rounds on the Internet. It is a talk by Patricia Ryan titled ‘Don’t insist on English’. It is one of the TED productions that definitely lives up to its claim of disseminating “ideas worth spreading”.
Ryan is a teacher of English who has worked in the Gulf states for over a decade which has given her a profound understanding of foreign language teaching. The talk is worth listening to, and can easily be located on the Internet.
What clearly emerges from this talk is that languages must be protected from the onslaught of the globalisation of English. Why? Because language is the main carrier of thought and knowledge, and if you do not allow a child to learn and talk in his own language many brilliant ideas he may possess will never reach the world and will die with him.
Ryan warns that our present emphasis on English is obstructing the spread of rich ideas because we tend to equate the knowledge of English with knowledge itself. She even poses the provocative question of what would have happened if Einstein had to appear for TOEFL. In our own context, I think Ryan’s talk explains the misconceptions we have nursed for years and which are unfortunately growing.
Whenever I have visited schools for children who are first-generation school-goers in their family I am struck by the barriers many of them face because of the language factor. Many critics point to the shoddy state of textbooks, the poor pedagogy and the curriculum of hatred that are stunting our children’s intellectual development. But few add to this list our failure to formulate a clear-cut language in education policy. Even if an ambivalent policy is in place it is not implemented in its spirit. As a result, misconstrued social perceptions dominate the approach to education.