Fair Skin and Fluent English

By Anjum Altaf

Neelam Hanif has mounted a passionate defence of English as the medium of instruction (SNC and the language question, The News, September 12, 2020) but I fear the passion is misspent. Look at the beginning: “English… is part of the colonial baggage we carry. From aspiring to be fair-skinned to being fluent in this historically contentious language is our most coveted wish.” And now consider the end: “This language has been part of our culture and heritage for the past two hundred years. It is time to own it, and use it to our advantage in training our children to face the challenges of our collective global future.” How can the two be reconciled?

Just these two sentences let loose a flood of questions both cynical and serious. If English is a “colonial baggage” why is it time to “own it”? Isn’t baggage something one wants to shed? Climate change is the biggest challenge of the global future; are people who don’t know English unable to face it? Being fair-skinned is as valuable in the marital market as English is in the job market. Why don’t we own that part of the colonial baggage as well and use it to the advantage of our children?

But let me move beyond cynical and serious to the really profound question. Neelam Hanif wants an early start in English because “Implementing Urdu or regional languages in the early grades is also not a solution as that will further impede children from learning English and competing with children from elite schools.” Does one really believe that knowing English would enable poor children to compete with children from elite schools? Could we please look at the USA where everyone learns English from day one. Does that enable the poor to compete with the rich?

Why don’t we look at the evidence? Two-thirds of the students at Ivy League universities come from the top fifth of the income scale. The relationship between social class and admission test scores has been known for decades.  Social mobility in the USA is stalled — the poor remain poor whether they know English or not. In the USA it is particularly easy to see because it is in black and white. There is no confounding problem of Urdu or regional languages there. So how can one make a chimerical claim of this sort and base an entire policy on it?

Does teaching regional languages in early grades really impede children from learning English? How did millions of non-English speakers from Europe learn English when they needed it? Did Nabokov or Conrad or Brodsky, all of whom wrote in English at the highest level, grow up speaking the language? Why is native-English fluency our aim anyway when all we are concerned with is white-collar jobs?

Neelam Hanif is chasing a Quixotic dream and ends up unsurprisingly tilting at windmills. She is so convinced that English will help the poor compete with the rich that she is prepared to turn the entire society upside down to achieve it. “This government needs to provide equal opportunities to the children of public schools and madressahs to acquire the English language. This would require a team of teachers to be trained in theory and practices of English Language Teaching and to have intensive language programs initiated in these institutions. This would also mean developing materials for these schools and equipping them with libraries and computer labs. The government needs to provide underprivileged children with the environment conducive to acquiring the language that will bring them at par with the children from the elite schools.”

Where does one begin? Governments that have been unable to provide a one-room building for 20 million out-of-school-children and toilets for millions of in-school children are going to do all this especially if that would enable the poor to compete with the rich? And given that fluency in English can propel people to the highest echelons of society, all the highly trained teachers would remain teaching in public schools instead of migrating to Dubai?

I am entirely with Neelam Hanif in wishing for a level playing field but one can get there much more easily than the convoluted way that has been proposed. If one really wants to fight for a level linguistic playing field, one should fight to have all entrance examinations in local languages. It would be much easier for a privileged minority to learn local languages than for an impoverished majority to be fluent in English. They would do it the same way they acquired the “colonial baggage” even though they were not born carrying it.

Unfortunately for Neelam Hanif, a level linguistic playing field will do little to alter class differences. We have to be cognisant of the system in which we exist — economic inequality has increased in parallel with greater access to education even in the USA. Those who believe structural inequality can be addressed by learning a language need to reflect deeply and provide some evidence of where that has happened before. In the absence of such evidence, they need to rethink their recommendations.

I can assure Neelam Hanif that children fluent in local languages and taught to think in them would be able to face the challenges of our collective global future. They might even be able to learn English on their own if they felt the need for it.

This opinion appeared in The News on September 19, 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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