The power of language

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THIS was in the days when computers and the Internet did not rule the world of communication and only a few people in the West had the facility of what was then popularly called electronic mail.

A gentleman from the International Labour Organisation commented that he did not know how to handle a computer and that made him feel like an illiterate person who lacked access to the knowledge available on the World Wide Web.

Using the same analogy, should a person be regarded as illiterate when he has mastered his own language and may actually be highly educated but lacks reading and comprehension skills in another language spoken by a small but powerful minority?

When this happens to people in your own country, does it not amount to reducing millions of literates to illiteracy and keeping them out of the magic circle of the so-called educated? That is what I feel is being done to the bulk of our population. English is a foreign language for them. When their children go to school they are taught English in Class I (the education ministry insists on that) by teachers who hardly know the language.

Against this backdrop, one can ask, can students really learn very much in English? We know they can`t as our own experience testifies. The tragedy is that this approach takes away the focus from teaching them to comprehend their lessons which they could if taught in their mother tongue. From this ill-educated common pool are drawn the teachers for the bulk of Pakistan`s 150,000 schools. This perpetuates the class identity that language and education construct in our country where social inequality is a fact of life.

In his latest book, Language Policy, Identity and Religion, eminent academic Dr Tariq Rahman brings this out succinctly. “Thus the humorous programmes on Pakistan Television used to use `Urdu medium` for unsophisticated. The implication was that students from schools, which used English as the medium of instruction — and these were expensive schools — were sophisticated.”

English in effect creates a kind of apartheid by dividing people into rigid, water-tight compartments with it being virtually impossible for a member of a disadvantaged class to seek upward mobility in society. This ugly reality is ignored by policymakers because their own children are not affected by this criminal approach to education and language-teaching.

Their lack of understanding of the issue is shocking. An elitist educationist from Lahore very proudly announced in a seminar that if her four-year-old son could learn English, Urdu and Punjabi, why couldn`t other children speak English if they are also taught the language? As a consequence of this thinking the likes of her decided to make all teachers in Punjab attend a three-week course in English to qualify them to teach children the Queen`s English!

Her brazenness was shocking. If she had only heard what the disadvantaged have to say. Nadia, the 10-year-old daughter of my maid explained why she had failed in her English paper but performed brilliantly in Urdu “My mother does not know any English.” Her mother Parveen is the privileged one in her katchi abadi. She can read and write Urdu which she learnt in the three years of schooling she had the good fortune to receive before marriage, some 25 years ago. She was not taught any English; even if she had been, she would have forgotten it since she would not have been required to use the language in her daily life.

No one would deny that the knowledge of English helps people in today`s globalised world. English has emerged as the international language of the day and it would be foolish to ignore it. But can we learn English merely by educating our children in English from day one? This policy places the children of the poor at a great disadvantage. The majority of them are first-generation school-goers. Leave alone English, their parents often cannot read or write in their own tongue. Besides the majority of the teachers are shockingly poor in English while their understanding of the subject they teach is no better. What will the child learn?

The children of the elite have no such worry. Their mothers are educated and most of them speak with their own children in English which facilitates their English language acquisition skills. They study in private schools which recruit teachers who are good in English and relatively better in their pedagogy.

But the social pressure to teach English is immense. English has been projected as the magic wand that will resolve all the problems of the poor. It is the language which empowers the one who speaks it. Hence in many low-fee private schools which I have been visiting in recent weeks I found that the teaching is done in Urdu — there is no option — but the textbooks are in English. Worse still, the student has to write in English. Needless to say the child memorises his lessons without any comprehension. This he does easily given that one of the wonders of the modern world is the memory of a six-year-old!

This is evident from the student`s inability to communicate anything outside the two covers of his textbook. It also kills his creativity and critical thinking. After all, English is not the language he learnt in his cradle.

Why cannot we use our own languages to teach our children? By all means teach them English, but as a second language and after the “expansion of their mind” has occurred, to borrow Dr Maria Montessori`s words.

In this way they will be proficient in English, thus gaining access to the world of knowledge in that language. But having begun their education in their own language their intellectual growth will be healthier. Did not Henry Kissinger, the American politician, and Joseph Conrad, the author of Heart of Darkness, learn English later in life? Who can fault them for their English, notwithstanding the native German and Polish accents which they could never shed?