Medium of Instruction: Common Sense

By Anjum Altaf

I sent my last column (Thought experiment, Dawn, November 15, 2020) to Professor Noam Chomsky. Just as Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I had cited in that column, was the leading philosopher of language of the first half of the 20th century, Chomsky is the leading theorist of language acquisition and cognitive development of its second half. I solicited his opinion as a linguist on the choice of language for early childhood education.

Here is the relevant part of Professor Chomsky’s reply: “There’s no doubt that instruction is more successful in the native language, and there are obviously also important reasons to gain fluency in an international language. Should be possible to balance these needs. Linguistics doesn’t tell us much beyond what common sense provides.” 

The important message in this response is that there is really no need for any sophisticated theories to address this issue. All it needs is the application of common sense.

So, what should common sense tell us? First, that instruction is more successful in the native language. Ideas are central to learning and they need words to grasp, connect and express. A child begins life with a set of words acquired unconsciously and effortlessly to interact with the world. They minimize the fear of making mistakes and encourage active participation in the learning process through understanding what is being discussed and asked.

Can we expect a child to do better with an unfamiliar set of words? Wouldn’t his/her attention be dissipated in anxiously figuring out their meanings and associations rather than absorbing new ideas and expressing them with ease, confidence and joy? Consider this analogy: You buy a computer that comes with the latest operating system from Microsoft. Would you run it with one from Apple and expect it to perform just as well? Does a child deserve less consideration than a machine?

What else does common sense tell us? That there are also important reasons to gain fluency in an international language. Who can doubt that in Pakistan where English is the passport for a decent job.

But common sense also tells us that the one need not be at the expense of the other and it should be possible to balance the two objectives. Since early childhood instruction is more successful in the native language, that should be the choice for that purpose. And since fluency in an international language is decidedly beneficial, it should be learnt at a time when that can be done most effectively.

It really boils down to the application of common sense to the sequence in which languages are introduced and taught in school, the appropriate mediums of instruction during the sequence, and the mechanics of the transitions that provide the bridges between languages. This should be the central question that occupies us. The scientific consensus at this time is that a period of five years is needed for a child to become sufficiently adept with a language to be able to use it effectively for learning. After five years of absorbing a new language it can be used as a medium of instruction if needed. 

Common sense should also make us realize that, unlike many countries, Pakistan is a multilingual society and, more often than not, children are familiar with more than one local language from their early years. Note, however, that for the majority of children English is not one of these languages.

The common sense recommended by Professor Chomsky should lead us to evaluate a pedagogical sequence along the following lines: Begin with the native language as the medium of instruction; add, as subjects, a second local language during the elementary years and a foreign language in secondary school. The second local language could serve as the medium of instruction for upper secondary school while the foreign language could be the medium in college. There should be colleges offering different languages as mediums of instruction to respond to informed demand. Very importantly, failing a particular language in school should not rule out a college education. 

The European Union has adopted this common sense ‘Mother Tongue plus Two’ formula, a variant of ‘Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual-Education.’ The second language is most often a regional/national language while the third is a foreign language left to the student’s choice. The complexity is lessened in non-colonized countries where national languages suffice as mediums of instruction for higher education.

In Pakistan, there is need to simultaneously invest in regional languages as robust mediums of instruction leaving English as a language of choice for those who want it for personal reasons. This is a successful formula in Iran. The Nizam of Hyderabad achieved it at Osmania University in the 1920’s. This vision needs recognition that it makes sense for the majority and calls for investment in intensive programmes of translation and production of teaching materials. It’s time to plant knowledge trees.

This opinion was published in Dawn on November 29, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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