The language conundrum

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE government is once again about to experiment with the education system in Pakistan. The federal education minister, Lt Gen (retd) Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former ISI chief, has now announced a revised schedule for the language reforms to be introduced in schools.

From September 2007 (instead of 2006) students of class one will be taught science and mathematics in English, while Islamiat and Pakistan Studies will be taught in Urdu.

It is not very clear where the mother tongues, namely Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushto and Balochi, will fit in the new scheme of things. According to the minister, in five years the language policy will allow the authorities to eliminate the distinction between the English and Urdu medium schools and “homogenise them in one single entity”.

This makes one wonder if our education planners have ever analysed the problems that beset education in Pakistan. From what Mr Qazi has said time and again it appears that he believes there are two major problems that he has to address as the education boss. First is the failure of our schools to teach English to our students which will handicap them in the globalised world of today. Second is the class divide that has grown because of one section of the population being fluent in English and the other barely knowing the language at all.

For once the education minister has identified the two problems correctly, though one must hasten to add that these are not the only problems faced by the education system.

The strategy Mr Qazi has devised will hardly resolve the ills that beset education in Pakistan. Taking the language of instruction issue first, it is a pity that we have still not been able to make up our minds about the language in which a small child should be taught in school.

Believing that English is the language of progress and development — which it is, but not necessarily to begin a child’s education in — our education planners want that children should be taught subjects like science and maths in English so that they can compete at the international level. But is it not going too far to attempt to teach a child of five various mathematical concepts in a language to which his only exposure has been through TV ads. He would never be able to understand it. At the most he would memorise whatever the teacher tells him. The basic flaw in our teaching methodology is the lack of emphasis on comprehension and undue emphasis on learning by rote. As such the child never develops the capacity to analyse logically any information that he receives to enable him to ask questions. By switching over to English, our education planners will ensure that the child never learns to think for himself.

What Mr Qazi has failed to understand is that a small child learns best in the language he is familiar with and can communicate in — that is his mother tongue. Another basic fact which our education planners refuse to recognise is that teaching a language as a second language is different from using a language as the medium of instruction. Students can acquire proficiency in English if they learn it as a second language through the modern methods of language teaching at a stage when they have come to grips with the idea of going to school to learn.

By using English in a half baked fashion for teaching science and mathematics, our teachers, many of whom are not familiar with the language themselves, will fail to give a sound understanding of science and maths to the young ones. As it is the Punjab and Sindh governments have been complaining that they have not been able to find teachers who know enough English to be able to use the language as the medium of instruction.

At the most, the introduction of a small measure of bilingualism at the early stages should be acceptable but with the mother tongue being used in generous doses to explain concepts. At the same time, the educational planners also need to be reminded that there is need to improve the teaching of our own languages as well. Our failure in this field has led to the poor communication skills demonstrated by our graduates even from the best universities.

The second problem worrying the education minister in Islamabad is the polarisation in society caused by some children studying in English medium schools and others being the products of schools that use Urdu as the medium of instruction. No one would deny that this polarisation is the bane of Pakistani society today. But it needs to be pointed out that a class divide is being created more by the disparity in the quality of education being imparted in the elite private sector institutions and the government schools. It is not the language but the academic quality that makes the difference.

When the government switches over to English as the medium for the teaching of science and mathematics the condition of the government schools will deteriorate further because the majority of their teachers do not know enough English. They will be teaching their students poor stuff in poor English. How that will remove the polarisation is not at all clear.

The basic truth that has still to gain recognition in our education circles is that the standard of education is to a very large extent determined by the quality of pedagogy. Good teachers produce good and accomplished students. A good teacher is one who not only knows his subject. He also has mastery over the language in which he communicates and has communication skills as well.

Under the new reforms the government’s first priority should be to upgrade the teachers’ knowledge of their subjects and impart to them pedagogic skills through crash training programmes. This is not the time to focus on teaching the teachers English — that too from scratch. The immediate goal should be to reinforce their knowledge of science and mathematics. Let them teach these subjects in the child’s mother tongue. The need is to re-train a cadre of English language teachers to enable them to make the child fluent in English.