COMMENT: Language and learning in difficult times

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Feb 25 14:26:22 UTC 2006

>>From Daily Times (Pakistan) February 25, 2006

COMMENT: Language and learning in difficult times  Abbas Rashid

 Cognitive abilities developed through early schooling in the mother
tongue could go a long way in enabling the child to subsequently pick up
other languages, even other subjects, with greater facility... Who knows
what kind of costs we are incurring as a society by persisting with a
language policy that undermines the potential of so many of our children?

A conference on the issue of quality and leadership in education helps
focus our attention on what is conspicuous largely through its absence in
Pakistan. Earlier this week, the Aga Khan University-Institute of
Educational Development (AKU-IED) hosted some very interesting symposia
and discussions on these and related issues with a wide range of
participants from different parts of the world. As a number of researchers
presented their findings, a variety of issues came up over three days of
concurrent sessions. One that evoked considerable interest and emotion was
that of language. All three of the keynote speakers touched on the issue,
underlining its significance in the context of education. For us its
relevance lies also in the fact that while the mother tongue has been
largely banished from schooling, official policy as well as broad societal
aspiration has sought to promote the learning of English by children from
the earliest stages. The motivation is simple and unexceptionable: the
skill opens many doors in this country and is a minimum condition for the
many seeking a better future abroad.

Presumably, things are much the same in Bangladesh. But, according to
Manzoor Ahmed, Director BRAC University-IED, in Bangladesh they are
advocating for leaving English out of the curriculum for at least the
first two years of the primary schooling. Because, he says it is a waste
of scarce resources. There are very few teachers qualified to teach
English so the children are not learning the language in any case and
meanwhile teachers are taking time away from what they can teach and what
the children could usefully learn at that stage. It is a sham grounded on
the premise that children are learning English simply because the subject
is introduced at an earlier stage with virtually none of the enabling
factors in place.

A lot of this, of course, has a resonance in the context of Pakistans
educational system. But the problem is further confounded when, as in the
case of Punjab, the formal medium of instruction from the earliest stage
of the primary cycle is a language other than the mother tongue. The
latter, in fact, is not even taught as a subject underlining the cultural
and cognitive dissonance between the home and the school. In most cases
this means handicapping the child in terms of his or her cognitive
development so that articulating in any language becomes problematic. The
process has implications that go beyond language to other fields of
learning. Conversely, cognitive abilities developed through early
schooling in the mother tongue could go a long way in enabling the child
to subsequently pick up other languages or even other subjects with
greater facility.

Consider, for instance the interesting study by anthropologist L Taniuchi
cited by another keynote speaker, Prof Angela W Little. While the study
focuses on the phenomenon of modification of pedagogy in the process of
crossing cultural frontiers, in this case a movement from Japan to the
United States, it also highlights the significance of using the mother
tongue in the early stages as a measure enabling the child to become a
better learner. And, not just in the context of language. Taniuchi has
studied the method of learning and teaching the violin popularised by
Suzuki, a Japanese musician who trained in Germany and then introduced the
method in Japan from where it travelled to the US. Suzuki has argued that
if children could become fluent speakers in their native language by the
age of five years then the pedagogy of language learning might be applied
to other skills. In other words, once that comfort level is achieved in
using the mother tongue, much more becomes possible as a result of
improved cognitive ability. So, those who favour the idea of dispensing
with the mother tongue on the grounds that it is more useful to learn Urdu
and English given the national and the global context, respectively, are
positing one or both as a choice.

Unfortunately, that is also how it has come to be seen by parents who
often feel that any exposure to the mother tongue in school is an
unnecessary drag on their childrens potential to get ahead. But the point
is not to see the process as an either-or proposition. An initial
grounding in the mother tongue would, in fact, better prepare the child to
learn Urdu or English or any other language, later. An earlier generation
amongst us did very well with their English despite being exposed to the
language in school often as late as middle school or Class Vl. In any
case, even today the reality in the majority of our schools, particularly
in the rural areas, is that even though the materials may be in English or
Urdu, the explanation is in the vernacular clearly indicating the comfort
zone of the students as well as the teachers.

The discussion on language in schooling also gets tied up with the elite
vs the rest syndrome. But, possibly, the fact that the children of the
elite are better at English has more to do with being able to afford
competent teachers and exposure to the language at home and the immediate
social circle rather than an early introduction to English at school. All
of which is not to say that the issue is easily resolved given our
multi-cultural and multi-ethnic context.

And there may well be additional costs involved. But, that cannot be a
good enough reason to brush it under the carpet. After all who knows what
kind of costs we are incurring as a society by persisting with a language
policy that undermines the potential of so many of our children?
Hopefully, the Pakistan Educational Research Association (PERA) launched
by the IED at the conclusion of the conference can take a closer look at
the issue across the country and provide evidence for a more informed
debate on an important aspect of the quest for quality in education in

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

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