Your Child Deserves Better – A Letter to Parents – VI

By Anjum Altaf

Dear Parent,

We are dealing now with what is perhaps the trickiest issue in early childhood education in Pakistan, one which probably has the most impact on what a child learns at school. It is the place of the English language in school education. You need to pay special attention to this because the responsibility for what exists is laid squarely on the shoulders of parents. All questioning is countered with: What can anyone do when this is what parents want? Even those who concede that the way English is being used is not good for learning shrug their shoulders and pass the blame on to parents.

Let us look at this argument in several different ways. First, parents want a lot of things. They want clean water, safe sanitation, less pollution, better public transport, more accessible health care, cheaper and more reliable electricity, reasonably priced sugar, unadulterated food and medicines, less insecurity, etc., etc. None of these are being provided to parents because of their demands. So how come there is such eagerness to give parents what they are said to be asking for in early childhood education? That contradiction itself should be enough to make you think that all might not be what it seems.

Second, let us look more closely at what it is that parents are supposed to want. Let us accept that parents want their children to learn English because in Pakistan, the way the job market is structured, knowing English has become a requirement to qualify for half-decent jobs. [Note that it need not be so and is not in China and many other countries. We will get to this mystery in one of the future letters.] Parents are asking schools to teach English to their children so that when they graduate from high school they are comfortable in the language. But are parents also dictating HOW English is to be taught or WHEN it should be taught? And are parents dictating that every other subject, like arithmetic, should be taught in English from the very beginning because that would somehow result in their child learning English better and faster?

This is not something in which parents are experts. You can consider this statement using the following analogy. Parents could well ask their local government for a new electricity supply to their neighbourhood. But they are not going to specify whether it should run on diesel oil or solar power, whether it should be 220 or 110 volts, whether it ought to run on 60 or 50 cycles per seconds, and whether the grid station should be located in Street X or Y. They would have no basis for making any such suggestion, let alone demand. The design should be the domain of specialists accountable to the public. It goes without saying that the designers should bring back the final design to a public hearing so that the residents participate in the decision-making and are aware of what they are getting and what they might have to pay for it. There could well be some engineers among them or a civic group acting on their behalf that could ask relevant questions so that the residents are not taken for a ride which, unfortunately, is always a possibility in Pakistan. Residents should be entitled to reject the design if it doesn’t meet their needs or is beyond their ability to pay. They should not be given a Rolls-Royce if they want a Volkswagen.

[There is an interesting real-life anecdote that illustrates this gap between what people might want and what they are given. Sunil Khilnani, the reputed author of The Idea of India, has written that the majority of Indians had no clue what kind of system of governance they were being given after the independence of the country — no one bothered to ask them. And during the drafting of the Constitution, one member of the committee noted that “we wanted the veena and the sitar and have been given an English band.” The English haven’t really left us after all.]    

Just as the design of systems for electricity or water supply or road construction are specialized disciplines, so is the design of a system for education. It would be just as silly and disastrous for amateurs, especially amateurs who are also ideologues, to dictate technical specifications for the latter as for the former. This is the reason that there is major area of research and practice called ‘Teaching of English as a Foreign Language’ which studies in a professional manner how best to teach it to those who do not start life speaking it at home. There are people who have spent a lot of time figuring out the best way of how and when to teach English to those with different native languages. I doubt any parent would claim that they know more than these professional educators.

Professional educators, after decades of research and practical experience, have come up with a design called ‘Mother Tongue Based Multi Lingual Education’ (MTB-MLE). [Access the TCS report mentioned in earlier letters. It is available on the Internet.] In brief, MTB-MLE recommends that early childhood education should begin in the language in which the child is most comfortable and already understands a lot of things. Only when the child, building on this existing ability to understand, has become a good, secure, and confident learner, should the learning of a foreign language be introduced. The timing of this introduction can vary in practice. In some places, where there is prior exposure to English, it can be as early as Grade 3; in others it can be in Grade 5.

Professional educators guarantee, based on experience, that whether the starting point is Grade 3 or 5, if the foreign language is taught correctly, students would be comfortable in it by the end of high school. But they distinctly warn against introducing a foreign language in Grade 1 and have shown by conducting field studies that children who are made to start learning a foreign language in Grade 1 actually do not learn it as well as those who follow the MTB-MLE design and start learning it later.

The professionals warn even more categorically against using a foreign language like English to teach other subjects like arithmetic from Grade 1 to non-native speakers. This practice, they insist is very, very harmful to the development of a child and can inflict long-lasting damage that can last well beyond school by forcing the habit of memorizing without understanding and of doing so only to pass examinations without learning. It can destroy the confidence of a child and reduce his or her enthusiasm for learning. [I recommend you watch this two-minute video to convince yourself — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdEYI617uOY.] It is a major reason in Pakistan for the high dropout rate from school. One can find many bright individuals doing tasks well below their levels of intelligence and competence simply because they stumbled over English somewhere along the line in school and gave up in frustration or were kicked out as failures. Unfortunately, parents only see what is in front of their eyes and accept it as inevitable — they are unable to see what their child might have been capable of if he or she had been taught right.

Earlier, I had mentioned the claim of professional educators that whatever the starting point, if a foreign language is taught correctly, students would be comfortable in it by the end of high school. In my next letter I will focus on this issue of whether English is being taught correctly in Pakistan. I will leave you with one thought to reflect on: Can English really be taught well by those who are not comfortable in it themselves? And this will open up a whole new line of argument.

Sincerely,

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

This letter appeared in Sindh Courier on May 13, 2021 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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