[lg policy] Pakistan: Chinese in Sindh schools

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 14 13:37:00 UTC 2011

Chinese in Sindh schools
Zubeida Mustafa
(13 hours ago) Today

STILL mired in its indecisiveness about an effective language in
education policy and its implementation, the Sindh government has
decided to move a step further into the realm of mass confusion on the
education front. It has now announced that children in the province
will have to learn the Chinese language (does it mean Mandarin?) as a
compulsory subject from Class 6 onwards. This policy is to take effect
from 2013.

Why the government is so overly keen about this policy, described by
critics as ‘stupid’, is not known. As an incentive, it has even
promised to offer foreign scholarships to students studying Chinese.
As is our wont, a handful of unqualified policymakers have taken the
hasty decision with no planning having gone into it. We have been
assured that the issue will be taken up on a priority basis. In effect
it means that the curriculum will have to be drawn up, textbooks
printed and teachers trained in the next 18 months.

The motive? Ostensibly to win the goodwill of an “all-weather friend
and neighbour with whom trade relations are growing with every passing
day”. But few are convinced of the need to thrust another foreign
language on children. Expectedly, the decision has caused quite a
ruckus. But unfortunately, the online chatter, bordering on hysteria,
has not taken this as an occasion to demand that the government
revisit its language in education policy that can be described as
equally ‘crazy’ as making Mandarin compulsory. Our present language
policy poses as many challenges as the teaching of Mandarin would.

This is a pity because we have already made quite a mess of education
in the country. Sindh has been the worst off and a recent report on
the knowledge of rural schoolchildren tested nationally in 2008 places
Sindh at the bottom of the heap.

Without going into all the causes of this failure, one can confidently
identify the key ones — the poor quality of teachers who are selected
on grounds of political loyalty and not academic merit. The teachers
lack proficiency in the mother tongue of the child. There is the
misplaced overemphasis on teaching English as the panacea of all ills.
Wouldn’t it make sense if efforts are first directed towards revamping
the school system, focusing on the home language of the child as the
medium of instruction, improving textbooks and using the modern
methodology of language teaching?

If we have to follow the Chinese example, we would gain by studying
China’s education system instead, which is rated quite high
internationally. A big poster that greets incoming passengers at
Pearson International Airport (Toronto) announces: “The number of
Chinese currently learning English is five times the population of the
United Kingdom.”

Teachers who have lived and taught in China confirm that learning
English is a high priority area in many schools in that country. But
before our champions of English jump to the conclusion that I am
advocating a switchover to English in our schools, some more
information about the Chinese education system would be helpful.

True, English teaching is highly coveted in China, but all schools up
to grade 10 are required to teach in their own language.
Sarah Siddiqi who taught science in Souzhou for a year found the level
of knowledge of the schoolchildren in the basic sciences equivalent to
world standards. International assessment tests confirm this.

In its eagerness to compete with the industrialised world, China has
introduced a parallel three-year international curriculum taught at
the high school level in English. But the condition is that the child
must have completed high school in the Chinese system in his own
language. A-level comes another two years later. .

Only a handful of schools offer these international courses, mostly,
Cambridge/International Baccalaureate/American Advance Placement. Thus
Souzhou, a city of six million, has only four schools offering the
international exams for which they hire education agencies mainly from
Britain. Since the Chinese are focused in their planning, they
concentrate on subjects that do not require as much language skills as
the social sciences.

Physics, chemistry, mathematics, accounting business studies are
generally the subjects offered. Of course the students’ proficiency in
English — especially the spoken language — is not at all adequate, but
they rote learn to success. But I feel what must be noted is that they
have already acquired their basic knowledge in various subjects in the
10 years of schooling in Mandarin.

English has been introduced as a subject in many schools in the major
cities of China from the primary level. But Siddiqi did not find the
children very fluent in the language. According to her most children
carry an electronic English-Chinese dictionary with them and refer to
it throughout the lessons. She describes this as being “helpful and
distracting” at the same time.

Foreign teachers in the universities are provided the help of
interpreters in the classroom. Lack of English language skills is
compensated by the amazingly large number of Chinese books translated
from foreign languages that are freely available. This handicap in
English notwithstanding can one say that China is not doing well on
the world stage?

Have the Chinese been consulted about this brainwave of the Sindh
government? Do they think it is feasible? But the Chinese are famous
for maintaining a discreet silence when necessary.

The writer is the author of Tyranny of Language in Education: The
Problem and its Solution.



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