Language fracture

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

geust-contTHE importance of education is reiterated so passionately that the phrase has become an end in itself: We stop dead after asserting its importance. Duty has been done and homage offered.

There has not been a single attempt at government – civil or military – that has not set up its own national education reform commission, taskforce, or whatever rubric the jargon of its moment favours. The labels change but one may comfortably hazard a guess that the substance of reports, the diagnosis and prognosis of the malady, are rather similar. The same sage recommendations and prescriptions have been heard over and over again, and whatever is attempted never really gets going. Yet, outstanding blunders perpetrated in the field resonate despite policy change or retraction – think Bhutto’s nationalisation and Zia’s madressas.

This article’s purported focus is higher education and language: the medium of instruction. I will forbear – but only after reminding clichés survive because they are valid – from the clichés as to the advantages of instruction in the mother tongue and the advantages of English as a global language. Look instead at what we have and what we want – not from the perspective of the arbiters, the consultant expert advisers on system – but from the point of view of their captives – Pakistan’s students and teachers: For students approaching higher education, and teachers as they receive and dispatch them, what does the existing diversity of language choice and the varying proficiency in command over the medium of instruction which is evident in both students and teachers signify?

The first step up the ladder of higher education is the university graduate’s Bachelor’s degree. Be it a ‘top’ national institution, low-to-middling university overseas, or the hallowed Oxbridge Ivy League demesne; and be it a committed would-be academic or a brand-conscious purchaser of that commodity a good education, Pakistan’s students knock at the door of graduate education on the basis of the local secondary or the A-level/Baccalaureate international exam result.

Their elders may recall an undivided India with a few institutions where Urdu was the medium of instruction and academic standards competitive and stimulating. Pakistan lacks these. Local colleges where English is the medium of instruction are the students’ preferred ones. Postgraduate qualification abroad is also most sought and found where the medium of instruction is English. It follows naturally that the more competitive applicants for entry to a graduate degree programme are usually products of – to use ugly in-house speak – the ‘English Medium’.

But which English medium’s? The local Matriculation Board schools, further sub-categorised private and government? Or the O on to A-levels CISE schools which are only private? The language levels of English medium schools playing-fields are woefully uneven.

The child whose parents can afford what are unkindly termed elitist schools acquires better language skills in English and a resultant advantage over his equally, or sadly all too often, more intelligent peers when seeking college admissions even locally. Children with grades that did not meet highly competitive post O-level/matriculation admission standards, whose parents have enough money, can venture individual registration and tuitions for A-levels. For both parent and child, an English Medium education is associated with privilege and affluence as well as academic excellence.

Whether it favours the English or the Urdu medium for education the system has to end vacillation and equalise.

That may seem tangential. But the perception has a seeping nationally insidious effect, warping communication between social strata. In the transit through middle school education, teachers and students already have a fairly horrifying compound of cultural snobbery and associated inferiority-superiority complexes to add to the peer pressure and ‘attitude’ induced by social-media interaction and adolescent understanding of student-youth empowerment that pave the undergraduate’s road.

You may say that has little to do with the intrinsic worth of one language over the other as the medium in higher education, but only if you think the material people are working with and upon in education does not matter all that much. Persons who teach or study at the Secondary level are in daily contact with the repercussive social injustice and economic impact of dualities in the medium of instruction: Our country does not fully tap its human resource potential; and that human resource itself feels deprived.

In A-level admission testing you will find students with a high potential in Science and Math who score well. They may not have come from ‘good’ English medium schools be they matriculates or O-level certificate holders. Their innate analytic and synthesising ability allows them to soar above their language limitations in the classroom if the teacher has capacity and sensitivity and administrators the inclination not to overcrowd and allow individual attention. But eventually the student’s exam will demand language skills in the presentation of ideas and enunciation of method even in a discipline like Math. Think then of the impact of the student’s use of English in Business Management, Economics, the Social Sciences, History and Political Theory. Simply on the basis of non-proficiency in the language which is their tool for communication, students can find the door to higher education stays closed. Even if they gain entry, they can fall behind or be outstripped in exams despite their knowledge and comprehension. Frustration and resentment are natural.

Whether it favours the English or the Urdu medium for education the system has to end vacillation and equalise. That end is the one to focus on realistically and courageously.

Pakistanis have yet to ask themselves several uncomfortably keen questions as to what they want education to do for their own environment and their children. Citizens are rendered inarticulate by self-exacerbated conflicts between provincial language, national language and international language. The mother tongue and which mother tongue factor in polyglot trans-provincial primary schooling muddies national waters at the very outset of the education process. When and how to transit from the right of a child to instruction at primary school in its mother tongue, to the child’s right to standard national middle and higher schooling is a fundamental issue. It is barely broached let alone resolved. How many different languages may one reasonably expect a child and a country’s educational system to function with? Urdu widely acknowledged as having been a lingua franca in the subcontinent is placed within ethnic bounds.

The individual citizen’s subjective bias helps politicians to sustain and exploit the language dilemma that cripples national education at every level in different ways but always perniciously. Personal contradictions and reluctances have to be acknowledged and addressed in what slowly becomes a public discourse. Undoubtedly being able to use a global language like English is an asset. It is already here as a medium. Why throw it away?

But being able to speak English poorly and write it badly is not the same as being able to use it as academically. True, there is a deficit of syllabus and text material in our regional languages. But how useful are excellent textbooks and syllabi if they connect with a minority of teachers and students? Worse still if that limited availability inhibits the development of resources in a wider indigenous context! Escapist political and psychological commitment to English is, from first degrading and eclipsing, now polarising the approach to and the content of instruction in native languages. This too has profound national impact, and we return to the truism that education is crucial in a society.

In the specific context of higher education we can proudly showcase some English medium institutions. But we also bemoan the fact that there are nowhere near enough local institutions like the IBA, NUST, LUMS, to meet student needs and do justice to their talents. The immense pressures in the provision of higher education also arise because the education norms and mores Pakistan fosters initially misdirect the student mass.

The ‘babu’ mentality downplays technical training and the ability to earn one’s livings with one’s hands or small-scale business enterprise. A bookish academic degree is a social marker; and the system does not think to turn out matriculate or O-level students who are equipped or oriented to set about earning their living. It is a state failure that there is no gold standard of educative adequacy for a compulsory school-leaving certificate. The brutal truth is that even where the common Pakistani has middle-school education it is largely economically useless.

What then of the bright Pakistani youth’s quest for internationally recognised higher education at home? It exists as an essential or luxury for those who access the English medium. But higher education as available for the merely capable and deserving or those who stayed with the Urdu medium: A frightening vacuum.

Personally I would rather see that educational injustice addressed from the primary level. Reform there would inevitably thrust upwards.