By Zubeida Mustafa
LANGUAGE continues to be an enigma in Pakistan. For the umpteenth time education is being ‘reformed’ in this country. Federal Minister of Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal has now announced that ‘Urdish’ will be used as the medium of education in the country.
This is the first time Urdish (not Urlish) is being introduced officially. According to the minister, this initiative will rid the country of the “English medium-Urdu medium controversy that has damaged education standards and adversely affected the growth of young minds.”
Explaining the connotations of Urdish as a medium, the minister said that English terminologies of science and technology would be blended with the Urdu narratives rather than adopting Urdu translations. No one has really quarrelled with that; many English words have become so integrated into Urdu that they are generally familiar and it would create problems to introduce newly coined convoluted Urdu terms. I always use the word television when I speak of the idiot box in Urdu as I don’t know of an Urdu equivalent. But I do protest when the Urdu word ‘awam’ is substituted by the word ‘commoners’.
When children are denied their own language, they never learn to think.
However, if the minister believes such gimmickry will satisfy those who clamour for English, he is wrong. Moreover, the introduction of Urdish will not boost students’ academic achievements or teach them civic responsibility and respect for diversity and tolerance, as the minister seems to believe.
That said, the three other initiatives Mr Iqbal promised simultaneously could change the education scene if implemented honestly and in earnest. They are: altering the curricula, reforming the examination system while making it transparent, and training the teachers. These as well as the language issue lie at the crux of the education crisis in Pakistan today.
It is shocking that even very intelligent and highly educated educationists fail to understand the direct relevance of language to academic standards.
Primary education is the base of all education. If it is flawed it will be difficult for it to sustain the weightier structure of higher education. Since ours is not a child-centric society we tend to ignore the needs of children when they start school. We also tend to confuse the use of a language as a medium of instruction and the teaching of one as a second language.
Our ignorance and politicisation of language issues has led to mass confusion and also resulted in the unnecessary controversy that the minister referred to. Young children instructed in their mother tongue have a better understanding of what they are taught which facilitates their cognitive development. Moreover language is the vehicle for thought and when children are denied their own language, they never learn to think.
It is time we re-thought our aspiration to use English as the medium in school, something that the minister has tried to gloss over with his idea of Urdish. We need to shed the myth that by using English as the medium we can kill two birds with one stone: teach children English as well as the subject being taught. In reality they learn neither.
If these arguments make no sense, the basic facts should be more convincing. There is empirical evidence that a preponderant majority of teachers in Pakistan are not proficient in English. When the Punjab government tried to introduce English as the medium of instruction in 2013, it had to rescind its orders a few months later. The teachers actually pleaded with the authorities to spare them this torture as English was not their forte.
As it is, teachers also need to be trained in pedagogy and the subjects they are teaching. Burdening them with English as well is a recipe for disaster. Why not make a beginning in our own languages?
That doesn’t mean that children don’t need to learn the basics of English as a second language. That can be taken care of by training only the required number of teachers as English language teachers who should know the modern methods of language teaching.
Language also has a social dimension that impinges on the employment sector. We are made to believe that English is good, Urdu/indigenous languages are bad. This is not true. The quality of education depends on the quality of teaching, textbooks and, above all, how much a child is motivated. The argument that we do not have books in our own languages smacks of ignorance. Textbooks are developed in response to demands. If this approach is adopted, by the time children complete their schooling, the small percentage of children who opt for higher/technical education could build on their basic knowledge of English to become bilingual. The others would still find productive jobs that do not require expertise in English. We must shed our bias against our own languages.
The writer is the author of The Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution.