Teaching in mother tongue

Abbas Zaidi manoo at brunet.bn
Wed Jan 10 07:34:31 UTC 2007

Teaching in mother tongue

By Zubeida Mustafa

NADIA is a bright and intelligent child of eight. Her mother - a housemaid - 
has a dream. She wants to educate her children so that they can lift 
themselves out of the grinding poverty that has been their parents' lot. 
Happily that is what President Pervez Musharraf says he also wants. But 
probably, he does not have a clue as to how to go about it.

Take Nadia's case. She attends a private school (charging a monthly fee of 
Rs300) near her home in a low income locality of Karachi. With her mother's 
help she has learnt to read and write Urdu fluently. I talked to her about 
the moon and the stars and explained the concepts of tens and units - in 
Urdu. She understood what I told her perfectly since this is a language she 
is familiar with. That night she even went out in the courtyard to explore 
the celestial bodies.

Nadia reads her English book fluently, but without understanding a word of 
what she reads. Like all children she has a phenomenal memory. If the 
federal education minister's new language policy is put into effect, Nadia 
will be denied the excitement of discovering the mysteries of the skies for 
she will not understand what she reads or is told by her teacher. 
Mathematics will become a lot of mumbo jumbo for her. But Lt Gen (retired) 
Javed Ashraf Qazi wants children like Nadia to be taught the natural 
sciences and mathematics in English. Since her mother does not know English 
there will be no one to help her tide over the language difficulties as is 
done by the mothers of thousands of children in the elite English medium 

It is shocking that our education planners fail to understand this simple 
piece of logic. They counter the demand for the mother tongue being the 
medium of instruction in the early years of schooling with the argument that 
English is the international language of the day and if we want to progress 
we will have to teach in English. There is no denying the importance of 
English. But why confuse the issue? A child can be taught in the mother 
tongue, especially in the formative period of his life, and he can also be 
taught English as a subject. In fact if this approach is adopted, English 
can also be taught well.

At an age when a child is grappling concurrently with knowledge, 
information, literacy skills and numeracy skills, is it wise to burden him 
with all this in a language he does not even understand? Wouldn't it be 
better to let him acquire knowledge in the language he has been hearing and 
speaking ever since he was born?

Mercifully, there are some who still understand the significance of teaching 
a young child in his mother tongue. A White Paper titled Education in 
Pakistan prepared by a team set up by the federal education ministry under 
Javed Hasan Aly, a retired federal secretary, has many wise suggestions to 
make. It is not an official statement and is designed to debate and finalise 
the national education policy, which the government says is in the making.

It has suggested the establishment of a national language commission to help 
operationalise the policy options and cater to the development of the 
regional languages. It specifically recommends that the medium in the first 
three years of the child's education should be the mother tongue. Where Urdu 
is not the mother tongue it should be taught as a subject from Class I. 
English should be introduced as a subject from Class-III. From Class VI the 
medium of instruction should be Urdu for the social sciences and English for 
the natural sciences and mathematics.

>>From the White Paper it emerges that our education planners need to show 
some clarity of thought. This has been missing on the language question in 
all the education policies formulated so far. What one cannot be sure about 
is whether this confusion is deliberate to evade an issue that has proved to 
be sensitive from day one or whether it is due to a lack of understanding of 
the role of language in human development. Hence many myths are perpetuated 
that need to be exploded.

Myth #1 If English has to be taught it must be the medium of instruction.

It is possible to have a mother tongue as the medium of instruction and 
teach English as a subject. Most countries all over the world do that. In 
this case English is taught as a second language and new techniques 
developed for ELT are applied.

Myth #2 Teaching in English will raise our standard of education.

It will not, because standards depend on other factors such as the quality 
of the teachers, textbooks, curricula and the institutions available. A poor 
knowledge of English will drag down the standards of the teachers and the 
textbooks further.

Myth #3 Proficiency in English can be developed in the students by using 
that language as the medium of instruction.

This is a myth. In our case it has an additional drawback. With not enough 
teachers proficient in English who will teach the children? It is not 
possible to teach thousands of teachers the English language overnight. If 
the policy is to make do with teachers whose knowledge of English is poor, 
it will never succeed in making the students proficient in English.

It seems that such a strategy is aimed at pushing the poor deeper into 
poverty and empowering the privileged few even further. It will ensure that 
the poor do not get to learn good English. In fact they will not get to 
learn anything at all because the essence of good learning can come only in 
a language they speak and understand. The White Paper speaks of an 
apartheid-like system in education where the disadvantaged are kept out of 
jobs and key positions. The introduction of English, as planned by Javed 
Ashraf Qazi, will marginalise them further.

The British who ruled over India understood this when they introduced a new 
educational policy in 1904. The policy categorically declared, "English has 
no place, and should have no place, in the scheme of primary education." It 
further states, "As a general rule, a child should not be allowed to learn 
English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages 
of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother tongue. 
It is equally important that when the teaching of English has begun, it 
should not be prematurely employed as the medium of instruction in other 

Dawn, Pakistan
10 January 2007

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