Wednesday March 22, 2023

A question of language

September 24, 2020

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

The recently unveiled Single National Curriculum (SNC), albeit subpar, addresses the question of ‘what’ will be taught in schools. While that public debate is still ongoing, the focus of the debate is now being shifted to an orthogonal dimension, the question of ‘how’ children will be taught – that is: what language of instruction shall be used.

While we are still struggling with Urdu, the language of government offices, courts, the corporate world, and higher education remains English. It is the language of the internet, global commerce and technology, and provides a competitive professional advantage in the global labour market encouraging parents of all socio-economic backgrounds to flock to English medium private schools. Private schools are businesses, and they will adapt to offer the services parents demand, regardless of whether they should or lack the capacity and do so in-name only.

Language challenges are not restricted to the public-school going segment of the population. Upper-middle class families have their own struggles. In an effort to give their children a leg up in life, many Pakistani parents opt to bring up their children with English as their ‘first’ tongue. The result of this can be witnessed in establishments and public places frequented by them. While single word instructions seem perfectly appropriate in Urdu (for example: ‘baitho’, ‘aao’, and ‘khao’), when parents, ill at ease with English, use their literal translations in English (‘sit’, ‘come’, and ‘eat’), they sound like commands given to a trained dog, not like a native English-speaking parent would talk to their child. In this albeit well-intentioned approach to bring up their children as fluent English speakers, much is lost in translation.

Years of evidence from state-of-the-art research has shown that learning happens best in the mother tongue, especially in the early years. Changing the medium of instruction, even when done in later years by a laddered approach, still presents an additional challenge, but at that age learners are better prepared to meet it. However, the success of this approach is still predicated on the availability of teachers with command of the English language and the ability to teach it well.

The government has given little thought to implementation challenges of the language policy, just like little thought was given to practical challenges for the SNC. We do not have enough master trainers (who train trainers, who in turn train teachers) let alone teachers who are competent to impart training to teach in English. Without the allocation of necessary resources, we will not have them in the future either. While the right medium of instruction facilitates learning, it cannot compensate for a bad or absent teacher.

Regardless of what language is declared the official medium of instruction, the fact is that in most schools teaching happens in local languages. Since textbooks are published in the official medium in vogue, the issue is one of misalignment between language in the classroom and language of textbooks and examinations. The solution is not as simple as switching to Urdu. Many teachers and heads of school I have worked with struggle with Urdu, let alone English. In these communities Urdu is as much a foreign language as English.

I recently spoke with a 21-year-old girl on a parent-teacher council in Orakzai who shared her secondary experience: “Many teachers are unable to teach in Urdu. Teachers teach in the local language, but textbooks and exams are in English or Urdu, leaving children unable to study books on their own.” Then she said, “Here, a person’s education is evaluated by their ability to speak in Urdu. Parents judge the learning of their children based on whether they understand Urdu while watching TV or not.”

Language is power and has been used as a means of disenfranchisement and exclusion. A recent paper by Tariq Rehman, talks about how Ranjit Singh did not use Punjabi but Persian as the official language. After independence, Urdu, not Punjabi, was pushed as the official language by majority Punjabi speakers. Over the years, English has taken that place.

Historically, the language of education policies has not been driven by research or data, but by politics. To illustrate, the Zia regime tried to enforce Urdu as the medium of instruction in English-medium schools, but even it had to backtrack under pressure from elites. The ANP introduced five local languages (Pashto, Hindko, Saraiki, Khowar and Kohistani) in both government and private schools. A lot of money spent on developing teaching materials to support the curriculum in these languages went down the drain post-2013 when the PTI government, in an attempt to erase class differences, reversed the ANP’s policy to pursue its English-medium policy. Even then there was compelling evidence of the efficacy of learning in maternal language.

One of the recurrent gaps in education policymaking in Pakistan is that policies are made in echo chambers, critically excluding those with most at stake – parents and students. A recent example is the SNC, developed behind closed doors. Despite criticism of opaqueness levelled at the development process, the government is repeating the same mistake, indicative of the contempt those in power hold towards the people. As long as parents are not represented in some form, it will not matter whether 400 or 4,000 experts are involved.

In the same meeting in Orakzai I referenced above, I met a woman who had never set foot in a school but sends her six-year-old to school because she wants her daughter to have access to opportunities she missed out on. I asked her if she could speak about how she thought schooling could have changed her life. She did not speak Urdu and responded through an interpreter “I would not be sitting like an alien, unable to take part in this conversation on my own.” The never-schooled mother realizes the power language holds and that by not knowing it she is isolated from the mainstream, which she does not wish for her daughter.

Parents know what they want and what is best for their child – listen to them! Can bureaucrats and politicians in faraway Islamabad or provincial capitals make good decisions about the educational needs of children in Orakzai without ever consulting parents? They want what your child and my child have; an opportunity to go places in life, and language is the key to that.

Some parents may understand and accept the argument for the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in school, but others may not be swayed. As a society that claims and aspires to be free, it is essential that those who still wish to school their children in English (either because they are unconvinced by the argument or think they can manage the challenges it brings) not be deprived of that option in the private school sector.

In the meantime, it is incumbent on the state to educate and convince parents to elect to send their children to schools teaching in mother tongues. Let public schools teaching in local / national languages and laddering up to English compete with private schools. Equal opportunity for all does not mean robbing parents in a variety of circumstances of choices they deem right for themselves.

This is our dilemma: Choose English as medium and we will continue to be plagued with the problems we see now. People are more familiar with Urdu in urban areas, but in rural and remote communities it is almost as alien as English. Picking one or two major provincial languages (Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki, Pashto, Balochi) as medium will still exclude children speaking other local languages and will hinder the interprovincial flow of talent.

In light of all these factors, what is needed is flexibility and choice of medium. Our examination boards already manage schools in Urdu and English. It should not be a leap to add another language in different districts if it makes schooling more useful to the majority. At the same time, let us not disband English from schools. Instead, let the private sector continue to cater to that demand.

Ideally, the goal of the education policy should not be picking a winner language, but to develop a consensus on best principles and practices, informed by research, that provinces should follow to identify what language(s) provinces should adopt.