Your Child Deserves Better – A Letter to Parents – IX

By Anjum Altaf

Dear Parent,

With regard to the teaching and learning of English in Pakistan, I have been making six points:

First, that as long as the present socioeconomic system in Pakistan remains unchanged, the learning of English is a necessity for those who aspire to higher education and certain types of jobs in the public and private sectors. Whether the system needs to change so that brilliant students who are not adept at English are not penalized is a separate question that I will address in a subsequent letter. For the moment, keep in mind that that is also an alternative which exists in countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, and Iran, all of which are more advanced and more prosperous than Pakistan. Don’t be fooled by the argument that we will be left behind if we do not learn English — the truth is that we have already been left far behind despite our devotion to the language. Contrary to all that you have been told, there is no direct relationship between the learning of English and national development. But there is a direct relationship between the teaching of English as practiced in Pakistan today and the development of children. This is something you need to think about both for the well-being of your children and of the country.

Second, that while English, or any other foreign language, can be taught as a subject, it should not be used as the MEDIUM OF INSTRUCTION to teach other subjects in early education. This is a violation of the cardinal insight from decades of research that for children to learn, we must teach them in languages they understand. Learning takes place by building on what a child knows. This does not bar the use of a foreign language as a medium of instruction but ONLY after a child has learnt it sufficiently as a subject to understand what is being communicated in it. Otherwise, the child will be condemned to the survival practice of memorization, a curse that will become a lifelong habit. 

Third, accepting the necessity of learning and teaching English in Pakistan as it is structured today, I have addressed the question of WHEN it should be taught to children.

Fourth, I have raised the issue of HOW English should be taught during early education. I have not addressed this issue yet and will do so beginning with this letter.

Fifth, that the last two aspects, of WHEN and HOW English should be taught are technical issues related to the domains of cognition (how people learn) and pedagogy (how people should be taught) and should be determined on the basis of the best available research and evidence provided by experts in the fields. This is not something of which parents can be the best judges simply because they do not have full information. Neither can it be decided by bureaucrats, prime ministers, or chief justices no matter how well-intentioned they may be unless their decisions are backed by qualified specialists. And further, these specialists should be independent and not hand-picked to rubber-stamp the decisions of those who are in power to impose them.

Sixth, that education should be concerned primarily with the welfare and mental growth of a child. It should not be an instrument for the attainment of any other goal like promoting an ideology or moral piety, no matter how lofty these may be made to sound. Well-educated people will make better choices than those who are indoctrinated and prevented from thinking for themselves. Only weak and authoritarian governments lack trust in their citizens and wish to raise them like goats and sheep. It would be far better for governments to focus on creating jobs than to graduate hundreds of thousands of poorly educated students who lack the mental and technical competence to survive in a shrinking job market.

Now, I will begin discussing the matter of HOW I believe English should be taught during the first years of a child’s education. I hope you will agree that no matter what that alternative method is, and whether you agree with it or not, the reality is that English is NOT being taught well in Pakistan at this time. The proof of this is that even after ten, and at times eighteen, years of learning English the majority of our students, especially from rural areas and secondary cities cannot speak, read, or write it as well as someone who has learnt it for two years in England whether that person was born English or not.

The simplest way to realize that English is being taught wrong in schools is to compare it with the way your child learns his or her home language at an even earlier age and with no formal instruction from trained teachers. A little bit of reflection will make you realize that when a child is born, it can neither speak nor read nor write let alone hold a textbook. All it can do is LISTEN. And that is all it does for almost a year in which its ear becomes sensitized and familiar with the sounds of the language. Do also keep in mind how you talk to a child of this age and the methods you adopt to communicate sounds to him or her.

After almost one year of this exposure to listening, the child begins to imitate and articulate sounds thereby entering the stage of SPEAKING. And after a few years of listening and speaking and wanting to make itself understood regarding what it wants, the child can figure out a lot of distinctions — between past, present and future, between genders, between singular and plural, etc., etc. — and carry on a fluent conversation about what it wants and is not getting. These conversations can be gems of expression including all sorts of elements of lies, truths, cajoling, threats, excuses, and fantasy. 

Once listening and speaking skills are in place, many parents introduce their children to READING by giving them storybooks and showing how each sound can be related to a picture or a shape on a page. Children are amazing at how quickly they recognize letters that are associated with sounds — since there are only thirty-odd letters in the alphabet, this is actually not all that difficult for children who are not preoccupied by all the other useless things that plague adults, like talking politics and buying and selling plots of land.

Finally, comes the phase of WRITING when a child picks up a pencil or a crayon and begins to reproduce the letters that it can recognize, on paper or the wall or father’s favourite book or anyplace its fancy directs it.

Without ever realizing it, you have been a part of this exciting and amazing journey of teaching a language many times — the miracle of its success rests on the exposure of a child to the sequence of LISTENING, SPEAKING, READING, and WRITING — in that order. This is essentially pedagogy, or the science and art of teaching, in a nutshell.

Based on the pedagogical insight provided by this learning sequence, think now about how English is actually taught in primary schools and what may be pedagogically wrong with it. In my next letter, I will spell it out in more detail although most of you would by then be in a position to say that you knew everything already.

Sincerely,

Dr. Anjum Altaf
Former Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Sheikh Tahir, Assistant Professor of English, Government Post Graduate College, Mandi Bahauddin, for a brilliant tutorial on how a foreign language should be taught in primary school.

This letter was published in Sindh Courier on June 3, 2021 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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