Monday September 20, 2021

SNC and the language question

September 12, 2020

Imagine reading a book where you understand only 50 percent of the content due to lack of competence in the language the book is written. Would you enjoy that reading experience?

Now, imagine comprehending only 20 percent of the material and being tested on it in a week’s time. What would you do? You would surely commit as much of the content as you can to memory to reproduce it next week. This is called rote learning, and the reason it takes place in Pakistan is the lack of competence in the target language which is invariably English.

The Urdu vs English medium debate is never-ending. Every government has a new take on the issue and rolls out a poorly planned policy in terms of imposing a medium of instruction without considering any advancement in language acquisition research. This government has recently revealed a Single National Curriculum (SNC) for grades 1-5. This curriculum aims to level the playing field in the classist education system of the country by providing minimum thresholds to be met in all subjects across all schools: public, private and madressahs.

Although there have been many debates on the content included in this curriculum, few have focused on the language/medium of instruction to be adopted. Why does so much work and discussion go into ‘what’ we are going to teach our children, yet almost none goes into ‘how’ we are going to teach them?

If we were to draw a language pyramid, English would sit at the top with Urdu coming in on the second tier and the rest of the regional languages at the bottom. English enjoys an exceptional status in our society. It is part of the colonial baggage we carry. From aspiring to be fair-skinned to being fluent in this historically contentious language is our most coveted wish. Pass through the heart of any small town in the country, and you will find adverts for ‘English medium’ schools. Without fluency in oral and written communication in this language, one cannot hope to succeed in any professional sphere. The government’s federal competitive examinations, the judgments in courts of law and the interviews in the armed forces, all are conducted in English.

The use of the English language is the single most important marker of a person’s social status in this country; the perception is that anyone who can speak English is educated. However, our relationship with this language is strange; we do not want to own it as ours, yet continue to make it the center of our education system.

The SNC is no different from its predecessors in the employment of English as the eventual mode of instruction. One official government document on medium of instruction claims very casually that regional languages and mother tongues can be used at early stages but have to be upgraded to English in higher grades. The ‘how’ of the process is not explained. An example of the ill-thought-out policy is the teaching of social studies in Urdu in grade V whereas switching to English in teaching history and geography in grade VI. How children will be magically prepared in transitioning from one grade to the next to tackle these subjects is not given any weight or thought.

This problem will be mainly faced by the public schools and the madressahs which lack trained teachers and the environment conducive to acquiring English. The elite schools of the country will not be affected by this change as they will not be changing their medium of instruction, which is English. Ignoring the issue of language of instruction will defeat the purpose of this curriculum and further widen the divide between the children of the elite and those in public/ madressah schools.

Language is not learned; it is acquired. Acquisition of a language is a natural process where quality input and exposure for an adequate amount of time will result in gradual output. Considering the Critical Period Hypothesis in language acquisition, which states that languages are best learned before children hit puberty, makes the decision of this government even more stark to have a confused policy regarding the medium of instruction.

Implementing Urdu or regional languages in the early grades is also not a solution as that will further impede children from learning English and competing with children from elite schools. That is not to say that Urdu and regional languages can not be used for instruction. What it means is that, together with the use of these languages, a focused approach to acquisition of English should also be devised. Our hang-up on just having Urdu or English is not supported by research in language acquisition. Prepubescent children could learn multiple languages with native fluency if they are exposed to them. Bilinguals and multilingual children are examples of this phenomenon all over the world.

To truly challenge the classist education system, this government needs to provide equal opportunities to the children of public schools and madressahs to acquire the English language. This would require a team of teachers to be trained in theory and practices of English Language Teaching and to have intensive language programs initiated in these institutions. This would also mean developing materials for these schools and equipping them with libraries and computer labs. The government needs to provide underprivileged children with the environment conducive to acquiring the language that will bring them at par with the children from the elite schools.

It is time to mend our relationship with the English language and get past our complexes and delusions about it. This language has been part of our culture and heritage for the past two hundred years. It is time to own it, and use it to our advantage in training our children to face the challenges of our collective global future.

The writer teaches English Language at New York University, Abu Dhabi.