Pakistan: learning the wrong language lesson

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Dec 16 16:30:18 UTC 2006

COMMENT: Learning the wrong language lesson Abbas Rashid

 The question is, how will children at the primary level, most of whom are
taught English as a subject poorly and with dismal results, suddenly
switch gears upon reaching grade V1 and start studying and comprehending
various subjects in this medium? The change in the language policy at the
school level announced by the federal government could do some good if it
helps generate much-needed debate on this critical issue. In a recent
piece in this paper (Another educational disaster, December 13, 2006) Dr
Manzur Ejaz has weighed in on this issue with some valuable insights.

It is certainly worthwhile to reaffirm the point he makes about the
language policy adopted by East Asian countries such as China and Japan,
whose different models of economic development have been spectacularly
successful. It is true that for some years now they have been second to
none in their embrace of the English language, but the point to stress is
that, in building the strong foundations of their human and social
capital, they did not rely on English.

English has been taught as a subject in government schools for many years
now. How well it is taught and to what extent learned is another matter
altogether. The recent change in policy has had the effect not of making
English compulsory in government schools, which it already is, but of
rendering it virtually into a medium of instruction at the middle and
secondary school levels. According to the new Scheme of Studies, from
Class V1 onwards Science, Maths and Computer Education will be taught in
English. This would be a good time for the government to consider the
implications of its announced policy in tandem with the fact that even
those trained to teach English as a subject are in fairly short supply.

There is no particularly good reason to debate the usefulness of learning
English. Clearly, it opens doors within the country and, in the system we
have managed to create, it figures as an almost essential pre-requisite
for social advancement. It is the global lingua franca, the language of
choice on the Internet, the repository of advanced knowledge in many
fields, and so on. The question is, how will children at the primary
level, most of whom are taught English as a subject poorly and with dismal
results, suddenly switch gears upon reaching grade V1 and start studying
and comprehending various subjects in this medium?

And the issue at the primary level has to do with the place accorded to
the primary language of the child. It is not the best of ideas to begin by
teaching the child any language, be it Urdu or English, at the expense of
his or her primary language, without which no child could comprehend
reality and grasp concepts. For years now, research has shown that
building on the primary language enables a child not only to learn other
subjects better but also to develop a facility for quicker learning of
other languagesincluding English!

So, what we are positing here is not a choice between English and other
languages. The discussion has to be about the place of a given language,
the methodology used to teach it and the stage at which it needs to be
taught. In an earlier piece, I had referred to a study by the
anthropologist Lois Taniuchi who studied the method of learning and
teaching the violin popularised by Suzuki. The latter argues that if
children could become fluent speakers in their native language by the age
of five, then the `pedagogy of language learning might be applied to other
skills. This certainly seems to be the case when it comes to learning
other subjects including a second or third language.

The work by J. Ramirez et al, Longitudinal study of structured English
immersion strategy, early exit and late-exit bilingual education programs
for language-minority children, compares the performance of a number of
`language-minority students in the US whose first language was Spanish.
There was only one major difference among their programs: the amount of
instruction conducted in the students first language. In her review
article V P Collier gives Ramirezs conclusion in the authors own words:
....Over and over again those students who began their schooling with
substantial amounts of instruction in their primary language and were
exposed to the gradual introduction of English for instruction realised
the greatest growth in skills.

In Pakistan, then, the debate on language in the context of education has
another dimension. It is not just a question of determining the
appropriate stage and mode for the introduction of English. There is also
the complex relationship between Urdu and the respective mother tongue for
children of different provinces and language groups. There are no easy
solutions here but the problem surely exists. The Campaign for Quality
Education (CQE) has been working over the past year on case studies of
public and private sector schools across Pakistan to identify the factors
that contribute to school success. Over the course of the fieldwork it was
seen that in most schools, especially in the rural areas, teachers were
resorting to the students primary language to explain even relatively
simple concepts. Yet, in Punjab, for instance, the students primary
language is not formally taught even as a subject in the critical initial
years of schooling.

It is time to carefully examine the nexus between language, literacy and
education in Pakistan and to devise a policy that does justice to the
complexity of the issue.

Abbas Rashid is a freelance journalist and political analyst whose career
has included editorial positions in various Pakistani newspapers


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list