OPINION: Language myths

KARACHI, Pakistan (Dawn/ANN) - Experts support the use of several languages in a multilingual society.

A major debate on education has been sparked by an announcement from Islamabad that a uniform curriculum for the country — from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Karachi — will be introduced. Given our national obsession with conformity and aversion to diversity, such a move should not surprise us. But that does not detract from its unconstitutionality as former chairman of the Senate Raza Rabbani has correctly pointed out. Under the 18th Amendment, curriculum-making was devolved to the provinces.

There are others, particularly academics, who also oppose uniformity. They are spot on when they argue that the quality of education is not determined by uniformity or diversity in curricula. Other factors have a deep impact on the standards.

There is yet another dimension of the issue of uniformity vs diversity that is hardly ever discussed in narratives on education — language. My argument is in favour of linguistic diversity. Linguists by and large support the use of several languages in a multilingual society. They stand for education in the mother tongue in the early years. It is time the education authorities in Pakistan consulted the experts and worked out a feasible language scheme.

Experts support the use of several languages in a multilingual society.

Dr Tariq Rahman, an internationally renowned linguist who has written several books and analysed the language situation, has reached a similar conclusion. Foreign experts also agree. Hywel Coleman, who is acknowledged worldwide for his study of the use of language in education, made similar recommendations for Pakistan in a report he prepared for the British Council several years ago. Needless to say, no one heeded him. The government and other vested interests in the educational bureaucracy just ignored his views.

As such, the language conundrum continues to plague Pakistan. Since Coleman’s suggestion of using advocacy to inform public opinion was never given serious thought, teachers and parents of school-going children remain as confused as ever. Hence Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) has not been given a chance. It is known to be the most effective approach to education in Third World countries with linguistic dilemmas — a leftover of the colonial age. And if children have to start learning in their mother tongue when they go to school, there can be no uniformity in the language of education in a country where scores of languages are spoken.

One has to be pragmatic about the issue. English has been glorified to such an extent that it is actually equated with quality education. My own experience of teaching in low-income areas shows the opposite. Children taught initially in a language they understand — generally their mother tongue — definitely do better than others forced to memorise texts in English without really understanding them and being incapable of articulating their answers.

It is a myth, but one believed by the anglicised classes and wannabes, that a child taught in English from an early age learns the language quickly and does well academically. The fact is that a child’s education begins much before they enter school, around five years of age. They have been learning and even thinking (according to scientists) since the day they were born, if not earlier, when they were in their mother’s womb. The language they are most familiar with is the language of their home and environment. Hence, that is the language they think in. Does it not make sense that this language should be continued when the ‘young scholars’ go to school? If you start off with a language foreign to them, such as English, you actually stunt their cognitive development by years.

This applies to Urdu as well, if it is not the mother tongue of the child, which is the case with 93 per cent of children in Pakistan. Being the national language and the wider language of communication, Urdu has importance and needs to be taught — just as some competency in English is also needed in the globalised world. Hence, at a later stage, both these languages — in that order — should also be introduced. Urdu should pose no difficulty since it shares a common syntax, script and a great volume of vocabulary with other languages of Pakistan and is also the language of the environment in many places. It is, however, important to adopt the correct teaching methods.

English is a harder nut to crack. It is a foreign language for most people here and calls for special teaching methods as a second language. In the absence of teachers who know English, the question to ask is: who will teach English?

For this reason, if no other, English should be taught as a subject and not be used as the medium of instruction, at least not at the primary level.

The writer is the author of The Tyranny of Language in Education.www.zubeidamustafa.com

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