Learning in Afghanistan

January 19, 2020

The complexity of teaching and learning English in the country and recommendations for the future.

So little is known about the state of English in Afghanistan that I was genuinely surprised when I received information that a report on this subject had been published. How could anyone write on Afghanistan which does get headlines in the press but generally for bomb blasts, violation of the rights of women and fighting? Then I saw the name of the researcher—Hywel Coleman—and felt confident that if anyone could undertake to do research in Afghanistan, then it would be Dr Coleman. After all his work on language: The English Language in Development (2010) and Language in Education in Pakistan (2012), not to mention his numerous other publications, are necessary knowledge for anyone who deals with the role of English in the developing world. But, given that Afghanistan is almost inaccessible for foreigners, how did he do it? The answer to this question is given in Chapter 2, helpfully titled ‘How the research was carried out’ (pp. 29-48).

Coleman selected a team of 24 Afghan specialists in English language and teacher education who carried out the process of data gathering. Afghanistan was passing through a crisis in April 2019 when the work was going on. Indeed, so precarious were the conditions that the director of education for the province of Kandahar received a death threat asking him ‘where do you prefer to be killed? At home? In a school? With a bomb under your chair?’ (p. 30). Despite this level of threat this man and indeed the whole team, which had women in it too, kept bravely working. They chose only 15 out of 34 provinces of the country since it was practically impossible to work in all the provinces. In these provinces, they used five principal research instruments and procedures as well as classroom observation, a test of competence in English and interviews. The students who participated in these tests and observations were from schools, universities, religious seminaries (madrassas), teacher training colleges and those who had studied privately (private course). Most of the students, as expected, were from schools (61 per cent) and the lowest number was from the seminaries (5 per cent). The questionnaire was filled out by 4, 553 students and the English language competency test was taken by 4,445. In addition, 600 teachers and lecturers in 15 provinces took the English test and 550 responded to the questionnaire. In short, this was a major survey project by any standard notwithstanding the impediments which were of an unusual nature.

The third chapter is on the education system of Afghanistan and the fourth is on its languages. The average rate of literacy for both men and women is 32 percent. Considering that the Taliban regime (1996-2001) closed down girls’ schools, even this rate of literacy is pleasantly surprising. Schools use the two major official languages of the country, Dari (variety of Persian) and Pashto, as a medium of instruction. However, there are 34 other languages in the country. Dari is spoken by most Afghans (7, 600, 000) while only 50 of them speak Ormuri which is also spoken in the village of Kuniguram (North Waziristan) in Pakistan. Pashto, also spoken in Pakistan, has 6 million speakers and, being the language patronized by the Taliban, it has a strong presence.

The constitution of Afghanistan (2003-4) encourages the use of languages other than Dari and Pashto if they are spoken by the majority of the people in a given area. In that case that language has the status of the ‘third official language’ (p. 62). However, the teaching of this third language has several problems so it is generally not taught.

Arabic, not native to the country, is nevertheless taught as it is the language of the foundational texts of Islam and religious seminaries focus on it. English, which is not specifically mentioned in the constitution, is, however, taught because of its pragmatic value. Schools generally begin teaching English from Class 4 and continue to do so till Class 12. It is also necessary for admission in some university faculties such as that of medicine, agriculture and engineering. Students also value English as a passport to the outside world, for joining world media, finding jobs as translators and for travelling.

The multilingualism of Afghanistan is manifest in several ways as Chapter 5 illustrates. For this chapter, Coleman and his team have wisely provided coloured photographs of boards with signs in different languages. These provide insights not only into the languages in use (mostly Dari and Pashto) but also the world view of a developing society (such as the advertisement of a man who claims he catches genies and provides cures for spells). The importance of English in official and commercial domains is clearly indicated by the fact that some of the boards have writing in English also. For instance, the board telling drivers to slow down is in three languages, Pashto, Dari and English. Similarly, the Nooristan Mines Department advertises itself in Pashto, Dari and English as do colleges and universities.

This report is of tremendous value in understanding attitudes towards English and the role of the language in an area of the world about which so little is known.

For government departments, including ministries, to advertise themselves in English is intriguing since, officially at least, the state does not operate in that language, unlike Pakistan and India where it does. The other languages which appear on signboards are Arabic and sometimes languages like Uzbek. The Roman script is also used in social media even for writing messages in one of the languages of the country as is common in Pakistan. Obviously, Afghans are multilingual and, because many of them were exposed to Urdu and other non-Afghan languages when they had to migrate to other countries during the war, they also know Hindi, Turkish, and German (Chapter 6).

Chapters 7, 8 and 9 are devoted to English only: what happens in classrooms; the competence of students in it; and that of teachers. The gist of the matter is that in 171 classes which were observed the time taken to teach the language, the availability of resources and the actual use of English varied from place to place, However, on the whole, it was not very satisfactory. The competence of students (4, 400 of them), was ‘extremely low’. However, what is pleasantly surprising is that ‘there is no difference between the English language ability of male and female students’ (p. 152). As for the teachers, the competence of 600, which was evaluated, was better than the students. However, 39 per cent of them scored at the A2 elementary level while 55 per cent came to the A1 (beginners) level.

In the section on ‘Policy: the Roles of English’, the author tells us that English is expected to be a neutral language for peace-building, a window to the outside world and a possession of all. This last expectation, however, is problematic as English will be more easily acquired by the urban middle classes. In this case, it might well end up being a class marker and, hence, as divisive as it is in Pakistan. Keeping these possibilities in mind Coleman suggests in his last chapter on ‘Recommendations’ that the government should develop all the languages of the country. English should, however, be taught more competently and there should be ‘average levels of competence to be achieved by learners of English’ (p. 184). However, there is also a recommendation that the government should resist the pressure to use English as the medium of instruction in educational institutions (p. 189). This measure is meant to prevent Afghanistan from going the way of South Asia but it is not clear how the private sector will not cash in on the inevitable middle-class demand for English to escape from the country if the conditions are ripe for it.

This report is a remarkable document in many ways. First, the very fact that it could be written at all is highly commendable. Secondly, considering that access to institutions, students and teachers were so difficult, the author and his team should be congratulated for having provided so much data even at the risk of their lives. And, thirdly, the use of coloured photographs showing signs in the different languages of Afghanistan enhance our understanding of the linguistic landscape like nothing else could have done. This report is of tremendous value in understanding attitudes towards English and the role of the language in an area of the world about which so little is known. I recommend the report to all those who study education, the language in education and especially English in the developing world.

The Condition of English in Multilingual Afghanistan

Author: Hywel Coleman

Publisher: The British Council, 2019

Pages: 214

The writer is a linguistic historian

English language in Afghanistan: The work of researcher Hywel Coleman