Parents should stand up for good education otherwise things will get even worse with the Single National Curriculum which has a mish-mash of both Urdu and English as mediums of instruction for different subjects, which has no place for local languages.
A series of articles on education in the form of a multi-installment letter to the parents
By Anjum Altaf
I hope you are convinced by now that children learn best in primary school if they are taught in the language they understand best — this should be a matter of common sense; it would be very difficult for anyone, let alone a child, to learn in a language they didn’t know. Children can easily transition to other languages as they advance in school. All the evidence I have cited in earlier letters should leave little doubt about the global acceptance of the superiority of the paradigm of Mother Tongue Based Multi Lingual Education (MTB-MLE). In Europe, where many languages are spoken, this has been endorsed as the “Mother Tongue Plus Two” formula — children start in their home language, learn the national language if it is different from the home language, and the third language is left to the choice of the student.
One can ask why, in the face of this overwhelming evidence from theory and practice, governments in Pakistan continue to be obdurate and use as mediums of instruction either Urdu or English, neither of which are the home languages of the majority of students. There must be some very strong reasons for overriding a practice that is universally considered best for children.
Let me consider in turn the reasons that are offered and convince you that all of them are weak. First, it is claimed that English is a global language and we will be left behind if we don’t teach our children in English and in order to give them a flying start we should not lose any time but start teaching them in English from the first day in school. All these premises are incorrect. Begin with the actual evidence: We have been doing this for 70 years and have still been left far behind other countries that were at par with us but are now very far ahead despite teaching children in their home languages and not in English — China, South Korea, and Turkey are some examples. I am sure you can think of others. We cannot even say as a consolation that our children have learnt good English or Urdu — test them by having them write an essay in either language.
Then, very little reflection should convince you that teaching English does not require teaching every subject in English. Many students from the countries mentioned above learn enough English to go for higher study to the US or UK and succeed without having English as the medium of instruction in their own countries.
Finally, there is no evidence that there is any advantage in starting to learn a foreign language from the first day in school. In fact, many experiments have proved that the opposite is true — shifting to a foreign language after a planned transition as recommended by the MTB-MLE paradigm yields better outcomes. Once again, the examples of the countries mentioned above should provide convincing evidence. Students learn a foreign language when they need to and are motivated to do so.
The second reason for favoring English in Pakistan is that it is the language of science and we have to prepare our children for the world of science. Once again, the evidence of 70 years belies this proposition. In 70 years Pakistan has produced only one scientist of international stature, Dr. Abdus Salam, who surely didn’t start his education in an English-medium school. Becoming good at science requires teaching science well in the early years not teaching it in English. One should look at the increasing numbers of high schools without science labs to realize that Pakistan would never be good at science no matter in which language it is taught.
The third reason offered is that while we are ready to teach in the home languages good teaching materials are not available in them. This is another disingenuous argument. Why would anyone produce teaching materials for which there is no demand? As soon as there is an official announcement that primary schools would shift to teaching in the home languages after a period of, say, three years, the supply response of teaching material would be forthcoming. This can be promoted by organizing competitions and prizes for the best books in various languages.
One should not lose track of the fact that very little printed material is required at the primary school level. Overburdening young children with books at the cost of experiential learning is in any case a bad pedagogical practice only designed to make life easier for unmotivated teachers and lucrative for book publishers. Nor should one lose track of the fact that countries that have advanced in science have invested significant amounts of effort and money in translation bureaus dedicated to making new material available in local languages. Pakistan has done nothing in this regard — as always, a case of big talk and no action. One hundred years ago professional education in medicine and engineering was being provided in Urdu in Hyderabad (Deccan) and Roorkee on the back of such initiatives in translation.
Moving to Urdu, this is the medium of instruction available for children of parents who cannot afford to pay much for education as opposed to those whose parents can afford to pay for a “good” education in an English-medium school. Leaving aside this discrimination, which cannot be justified by any logic, the argument offered in favor of Urdu is that it is the national language and teaching everyone in Urdu would enhance national integration. Once again, both evidence and common sense are ignored. The attempt to force Urdu on Bengalis in the name of national integration resulted in a huge human tragedy. It is also another matter that Bangladesh, the one-time basket-case and millstone around the neck of West Pakistan, promoting its own language since 1971, is now running far ahead of the rump Pakistan — the joke has started doing the rounds that soon Pakistan will be taking its begging bowl to Bangladesh.
More importantly, the same argument applies to Urdu that was applicable to the case of English. Teaching everyone Urdu does not require making it the medium of instruction nor does it require teaching it from the first day of school. Urdu can be taught as a subject at the age recommended by the language ladder contained in the MTB-MLE paradigm.
The third reason offered for not teaching in the home language is that the home languages are not really languages at all but dialects which change every few hundred miles. So, which dialect is to be chosen as the medium of instruction? This argument is offered most often in the case of Punjabi. Interestingly, this is exactly the same argument offered by the colonial government when Urdu was declared the official language in the Punjab — there was no standard Punjabi to do the job. In making this argument, it is conveniently ignored that no language was born with a standard version. Spoken Urdu differed markedly between Hyderabad, Lucknow, and Delhi. Spoken English differed within parts of London itself as anyone who saw My Fair Lady would know. Spoken Arabic is often mutually unintelligible across its geographical expanse. But each language has evolved a “Kings” version for its written form that has become standard. Once again, the tendency to use excuses rather than doing the hard work is quite obvious.
The fourth reason offered is that parents don’t want their children educated in their home languages but prefer English or in Urdu. This sudden respect for democratic voice is rather touching in governments that ignore most other democratic demands. But more seriously, parents want an outcome — their children knowing adequate English and/or Urdu by the time they matriculate — which should, and can, be honored. But how to obtain this outcome most effectively is not something that most parents would claim to be experts in. Here, they too would agree, proven best practices should guide the methodology — their concern is with the outcome not the process.
One can also ask about the democratic rights of those parents who do wish to have the primary education of their children in their home languages. Why is such a democratic demand not respected? It can be easily accommodated by allowing private schools the freedom to use local languages as the medium of instruction. In fact, by allowing a hundred flowers to bloom, there would be the opportunity to prove with real evidence that the learning outcomes from such schools are better than those of equivalent schools using either Urdu or English as the medium of instruction.
The fifth reason given for not choosing local languages as the medium of instruction is that there are schools in which children speak a mix of local languages. Which one should be chosen as the medium of instruction without discriminating against some? The response is that the best should not be the enemy of the good. Pakistan is 60 percent rural where this problem of mixed languages does not exist. Even many urban neighborhoods are segregated by ethnicity. And in most places with mixed ethnicity, children find a common language in which to communicate. That common language can serve as the medium of instruction. This is a second-best alternative for sure but a compromise has to be tailored for a minority without sacrificing an effective education for the majority. It is stupid to hold the wellbeing of the majority hostage to the constraints of a minority.
The sixth reason offered is that while we cannot allow home languages to be used as mediums of instruction for the reasons listed above, we can consider them being taught as subjects in primary school. But what would be the point of teaching a language that children already know? There are two responses to this argument. First, children know only some aspects of their home languages; in general they do not know how to read and write in them which means that they cannot access fully, or at all, the wisdom that is available in the literature of their home languages. This wisdom which is the shared heritage of the community is the most contextually relevant in their lives. The quickest and easiest way to integrate children into this wisdom, knowledge, and ethical framework, is by making them proficient in their local language. This also sustains the bond across generations, which has been sundered because the existing school system has alienated students from parents who are considered backwards for not knowing English or even proper Urdu. One might also ask why children in UK are taught English in school when they already know it? Why isn’t the great opportunity availed to start them right away in a some language they don’t know? And finally, by this same logic, why is Islamiyat taught in schools when it can easily be taught at home or in the mosque? Why not allocate that scarce school time to science?
The seventh reason offered is that there would be no point teaching a local language when that skill is of no value in the job market. This argument also has two responses. First, it is tragedy to consider education merely a preparation for the job market. Education is meant to inculcate in students a love of learning, an ability to ask questions, the confidence to articulate their thoughts, to argue on the basis of reason, and to give them the foundation to decide what they want to do in their lives. None of these can be achieved by making children memorize things in foreign languages in order to pass exams and obtain paper credentials. The millions of children who have dropped out of school is one result of taking all the enjoyment out of schooling by foisting on them languages they don’t know or understand. And those who remain are either being trained or indoctrinated instead of being educated in the real sense of the term.
Equally importantly, the job market was not created by God when He was creating the world — it is the doing of ordinary mortals who are driven more by their self-interest than by anything else. We saw this during the colonial era when the objective was to produce “babus” who would serve their English masters faithfully or during the neocolonial era when the Americans came up with the Jihadi curriculum to create “jihadis” for their job market. The masters remain, only their color is not as white. Anyone who cares about the immense amount of talent being wasted in Pakistan by privileging English in the job market knows that this can be changed at the stroke of a pen. Students could be allowed to appear in admission tests in the languages of their choice. Once the most talented students are selected, they could be taught English and/or Urdu within one year using standard immersion methods. This is much more sensible than using English language as the filter for selection allowing entry to many intellectually weak students while closing the door on many brilliant ones. Only someone very stupid would equate knowing English with being smart — for evidence, just look around or watch the talk shows.
Just this minor change would spur the demand for learning of local languages and at the same time yield a much more talented pool of individuals to participate in the governance of the country. To gauge the behavioral response of students to such a policy change, look at the amount of time they spend (or are made to spend) in schools (and colleges and universities) learning Islamiyat which, for all its other claimed benefits, is even more completely useless for the job market. As for its other claimed benefits, the evidence is contrary — all that time and effort has resulted in a country run by mafias in which no project large or small is without an associated scam. How can this failed experiment in the allocation of time be justified while rejecting the claim of local languages if all that matters is the job market or inculcating morality? Wouldn’t Bulleh Shah be more effective for the latter?
It is time to reject all these flawed arguments and pay heed to the vast amount of global evidence on what constitutes a good education and what is the most effective way to deliver it. Parents need to come together on the first step and demand primary schooling in their home languages with Urdu and English taught properly as subjects at the right time. Without such a demand, their children would continue to be taught poorly — they would neither learn adequate English or Urdu nor will they respect their own languages and become proficient in them which will leave them alienated from their roots — they will be the “babus” of the modern era while the “masters,” no longer white, would continue to do all the thinking. And you know what their thinking is like.
Parents should stand up for good education otherwise things will get even worse with the Single National Curriculum which has a mish-mash of both Urdu and English as mediums of instruction for different subjects, which has no place for local languages, not even as subjects, and which overdoses on Islamiyat which now spills across all subjects — just take a look at the model textbooks. This is neither good education nor good preparation for the job market. This will be like Zia ul Haq on steroids. I quoted in the last letter what the Minister of Information said about the outcomes of the curriculum introduced by Zia ul Haq — the flourishing of extremism and terrorism although he claimed with a straight face that it was a conspiracy of the CIA which duped the mard-i-momin. To move even further along the same path, knowing that result, should be a cause for a lot of serious thinking. What exactly is going on in our ruling circles? At what altars is the welfare of our children being sacrificed? What kind of Pakistan will we have when these cohorts of students reach adulthood? Would we have the luxury of pressing the rewind button when these adults are ensconced in positions of authority?
A lot rests on the shoulders of parents.
Dr. Anjum Altaf