No one denies the importance of English, but we must teach the children in languages they understand
A series of articles on education in the form of a multi-installment letter to the parents
By Anjum Altaf
I have been trying to convince you that you need to pay attention to the quality of the education your child is receiving in return for the money you are paying for it. I have also alerted you to the fact that based on all available evidence one can make a strong claim that the general quality of education being provided to children in Pakistan is quite poor.
In this connection, I had mentioned in my last letter that there were some things that are being done completely wrong in our method of education and unless they were identified and corrected no improvement in inputs like the quality of teachers and textbooks is going to make a significant difference.
In this letter, I will start with one thing I believe is completely wrong and that is the LANGUAGE in which a child begins to be taught when he or she enters school in grade 1.
This has become a very emotional topic in which all logic and global evidence has been ignored. It is claimed that parents want the education of their children to start in the English language because English is needed to do well in the job market. And this demand has resulted in the proliferation of private schools that advertise themselves as English-medium.
I want you to be reassured about one thing. No one is denying the importance of English in Pakistan and no one is arguing that English should not be taught or that children should not learn English. These would be extremely stupid arguments to make. The question that should concern you is the following: How can your child get an education that is good enough to give him or her, a real advantage in the job market? It is obvious that such an education would include competence in the English language.
To answer this question, please reflect on the following: In order to learn English, is it necessary to start teaching all other subjects in English right from grade 1? Where is the evidence for such a judgement? In fact, all global evidence shows that this choice is bad and that it hurts the ability of a child to learn. Fortunately, now The Citizens Foundation (TCF) that operates over 1,000 schools has compiled all the evidence and made it conveniently available for parents in Pakistan to consult. I would urge you to access the report (TCF Research Report on Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education) and read its introduction.
The main conclusion of the report is that “for children to learn, we must teach them in languages they understand.” This is a matter of commonsense that should become obvious to everyone after the briefest of reflections. How can you expect your children in grade 1 to understand anything if they are taught in a language they do not understand? They, without a doubt will be confused, lose confidence, and end up memorizing class material instead of talking and thinking about it which is the essence of learning. And these bad habits of memorization instead of thinking will inhibit learning for the rest of their lives.
Please note that there is very big difference between learning English as a language and learning all other subjects like mathematics and science in English. All qualified educationists will support the teaching of English as a language but will strongly advise, based on decades of evidence, against teaching other subjects in a language that children do not understand.
In thinking about this issue, please keep in mind two other facts. First, most schools that advertise themselves as English-medium do not have teachers who know English well enough to teach competently in it. Which is why that even after ten years of education most students do not achieve acceptable competency in the language. These schools are just fooling you into paying money for something they are not providing and taking advantage of the fact that you are not paying sufficient attention. They are like medical facilities that advertise themselves as hospitals but don’t have trained doctors or even oxygen. Would you take your sick child to such a ‘hospital’?
Second, the argument I have made does not hold for everyone. There are certainly households in Pakistan where English is spoken at home and where sounds in the language are heard from the day a child is born. Such children have no problem learning in English from grade 1. But such households are a very tiny minority and their advantage of inheritance should not result in the destruction of the educational experience for the majority of the children of the country.
The common sense solution is for children in grade 1 to be introduced to English as a language but to be taught everything else in languages that they understand and that they have learnt at home or in their neighborhoods. After three years of learning English, the child would understand the language enough to start learning other subjects in it if the parents so desire. Remember, the child is too young to say what would be good for it. This decision is left to parents who bear a huge responsibility to ensure a sound learning experience for the children.
So the bottom line is that your child can and will study in English if you want but after three years which are needed for him or her to learn enough of the language to switch to it as a medium of instruction in which other subjects are taught. All available global evidence supports the conclusion that children taught in a foreign language after they have first learnt it for a few years do better than those who start with it in grade 1. So, the question for you is the following: Are you going to ignore all this evidence and hurt your child by rushing him into an education in a foreign language that he or or she does not yet understand?
I have used the word ‘rush’ deliberately in order to offer an argument that should make it easier for you to understand what I have been saying. Think about this: Every parent wants his or her child to walk firmly and to run. But you don’t force your child to stand up and run from the day he or she is born. If you did, you would permanently hurt the child’s legs without any doubt. It is necessary for the child to crawl for a while before it develops the strength to stand, walk, and run.
This is easy to understand because it is a physical phenomenon and is visible to the eye. The mind works in exactly the same way — it also needs to crawl before it can run. It has to learn the essential basics of comprehension before it can deal with unfamiliar topics and processes. And the basics can only be learnt happily, easily, quickly, and confidently in languages the child understands when it enters school.
Parents take a lot of interest in the physical development of their children and are careful not to give them nourishment that is harmful to their bodies. You need to take a similar attitude about the mental development of your child and think about the nourishment that is entering his or her mind.
I will take up this topic in my next letter.
Dr. Anjum Altaf