Language, Learning and Logic

By Anjum Altaf

The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning.

The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity.

So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full:

There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one has to choose from an early age which language one’s children should excel in — in a local language which does not have any worth in the job market or the one that can serve as a vehicle for the development of their careers.

This belief does not reflect just the opinion of the author. It effectively represents Pakistan’s language policy and the understanding of parents making it necessary to show why it is misleading. A minor problem is that it undermines the author’s objective. Only living languages are sustained attempts to preserve languages as museum pieces inevitably fail. Languages shunned as worthless for employment are doomed to slow death.

The major problem is the argument’s negation of evidence on linguistics and learning. First, the critical early-age decision is not choosing the language a child should excel in with a career in mind. It is choosing the language of instruction that maximizes the child’s ability to learn effectively. There is ample evidence to suggest that children learn best in their first language they pick up subjects like arithmetic better if taught in a familiar  language.

Second, it is false that children can only learn one language well because it becomes harder to learn a language with age. In fact, evidence suggests that children who begin learning in a familiar language are better at acquiring a second unfamiliar language later compared to those who start directly with the unfamiliar language. After much research the European Union has adopted the ‘mother-tongue plus two’ formula whereby children begin school in their mother-tongue and acquire two more languages before completing high school.  

Third, the belief that excelling in a language requires learning it from day one is incorrect and results from misunderstanding the learning process. Children acquire their first language effortlessly because they are immersed in it and have to survive by communicating their needs in it. This need-driven acquisition is not transferrable to alien languages. For example, in a Seraiki neighborhood if Chinese is made the medium of instruction children will not acquire it as fluently as Seraiki. Rather, they will retard their cognitive abilities struggling with an unfamiliar learning vehicle.

Fourth, adults learn foreign languages quite easily. They may lack the accents of native speakers but can be highly proficient otherwise. Observe the number of non-native scholars of Urdu in Western universities doing world-class work Annemarie Schimmel did not learn four oriental languages as a child. Adult Pakistani students in France and Germany do so likewise.    

Fifth, career decisions are not made in kindergarten. They are based on aptitude which matures later and is itself an outcome of a good education. Dr. Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education nor did they start it in English. Had they done so they might have ended as babus in a British office.

The importance of language in early education has long been recognized. Macaulay introduced English as the medium of instruction for the Indian elite in 1835 triggering a wider demand because of its association with employment. However, a review of the policy in 1904 by the British themselves came to the following conclusion:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction… This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

Over a 100 years later, a British Council study in Pakistan noted “various adverse outcomes arising from negative attitudes towards indigenous languages and for using Urdu and English as languages of instruction. These included high dropout rates, poor educational achievements, ethnic marginalization and, longer term, a risk of language death.” The study concluded that “there was an urgent need for awareness-raising about the importance of the mother tongue in the early years of education.”

Parents most in need of this message, with children shortchanged by early education in poor English, do not read such studies. It is for educationists to both raise awareness and convince the authorities to respect available evidence. Note that the Chinese have made remarkable progress without using English as the medium for early education while we who have done so are left far behind. All Chinese who need to learn English to advance their careers manage to do so.

The simple message to convey is that to acquire English it is not necessary to have it as the language of instruction in early education and doing so is bad for learning. It is understandable if parents confuse the issue; for decision-makers to do so just proves that knowing English does not necessarily correlate with intelligence.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on July 10, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 18:13h, 11 July Reply

    There were quite a few comments on this article on the Dawn website. I am reproducing the ones that disagreed with one or more of the arguments in the article. I am reproducing them here and adding my response in order to advance the discussion.

    Shaukat: “I respectfully disagree. I tried to learn French for my graduate studies in France but was unable to master it and thus had to abondon my studies. Not everyone has the intellectual capacity of Iqbal etc. to learn a new language later in life.”

    Response: That may be true. But if only geniuses could learn languages late in life one would have to ask why thousands of institutions continue to exist to teach languages to adults. Perhaps you are special and should not generalize from your experience.

    Salman Ansari: I disagree with the arguments and logic on the a major issue. Introducing multiple languages at an early age gives the child to learn and use these fluently later in life.

    My son was detected as being hearing impaired – profoundly deaf – (over 30 years ago). I went into great detail as to how the mind evolves in learning speech and languages. Then speaking to neurologists, speech therapists, linguistics, I came to the conclusion that the time to start teaching multiple languages is as early as a few months.

    The synapses linking the neurons handling language are rapidly forming as at this time and the child will learn to speak accent free in multiple languages.

    Not only my son (Mobeen Ansari, is one of Pakistan’s leading photographers) tours the world, speaks in Urdu and English and smattering of languages as he travels. We have results with many parents and children over these years.

    Please do not stop the learning of multiple languages from a very early age!

    Response: The article is not arguing that multiple languages should not be taught an early age. It is raising the question of which language should be used in early education to teach other subjects like arithmetic or geography.

    Shakeel Ahmed: I disagree. A Salam and Iqbal were exceptionally gifted scholars and to expect the rest of us 200 million to be at the same level of grasping other languages easily when needed at later stage of education would be unfair.

    Quoting China not requiring English is far fetched statement. Here is Pakistan, have we published degree level text books in Urdu for engineering, medicine, science courses? Let’s be frank, even at secondary school levels the text contents published locally in Urdu at best is inaccurate.

    Response: The argument is not about higher education. It is about early childhood education for which all mother tongues are adequate. If the secondary school texts are inaccurate, should we not correct them rather than switch to a foreign language that most teachers don’t fully understand?

    Fida: ” Dr Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education, nor did they start it in English ”

    The above statement from the author was true back then; today it is dated. Kids must think of their future careers early on and they must learn English right from the start. Much focus should be on reading and writing English rather than on speaking it. Urdu teaching at HSSC level be replaced with Biology and Math ( both subjects for all students so that there are no pre-engineering and pre-medical cohoorts )

    Response: The argument is not whether children should learn English from the start or not. The argument is which language is best as the medium of instruction in early childhood to teach subjects other than language.

    RAJAB SATHIO: English is considered as a predominated parameter to measure the depth of once knowledge and wisdom, How is it possible once should leave it behind and adopt learning in regional or local language.

    Response: It is certainly possible in China, Korea, Japan, France, Germany, etc. Have they been left behind. The argument is not about abandoning English. It is about the medium of instruction in early childhood education. Learning English and learning other subjects in English are two very different things.

    ajay gupta: the times of iqbal & faiz are no more. Abdus Salam was a genius, for whom language was never going to be a barrier. today the thrust is towards the STEM disciplines, science technology engineering and maths for which english is a must from the lower levels to integrate with the world later on. I dont think any middle class family wants their child to be a poet, they would rather he became a doctor, engineer or MBA.

    Response: Perhaps if Abdus Salam had been taught in English for class one, he would not have turned out to be a genius. Nobody is arguing against STEM and for poetry. The argument is in what language should a child be introduced to science. Have you looked at the scientific evidence?

    JaY: please do remember every one is not Dr Salam and Iqbal, exceptions should not influence your policy

    Response: Agreed. What should influence policy? Should it not be scientific evidence? Have you looked at the scientific evidence? If not, look at the background studies for the EU policy on early childhood education.

    asad: Language is rooted in culture, it is time and society bound. Mechanical learning of the language as an adult in a foreign land is not learning it at all.

    Response: In what way is English rooted in our culture and society?

    Rahul: I tried to learn German for a couple of years as a college student and my best friend learnt Arabic. Neither of us made much progress. Now 30 years later, I live in the United States while he lives in New Zealand. Moral of the story, learn English, you don’t anything else, let the professors worry about the theories, they will change every few years. I also spent 5 years learning Sanskrit, 2 years learning Urdu and 10 learning Hindi. None of these benefited Me. BTW my mother tongue is Punjabi, which nobody taught me and I never learnt.

    Response: The argument is not advocating that English should not be learnt. It is about the language that is best as the medium of instruction n early education. Presumably you still know Punjabi although nobody taught it to you and you never learnt it. That is the power of the mother tongue that can be leveraged in early education.

    Daas: Interesting article but I’m afraid I disagree with the author’s final argument. I’ve been working in academia in the US for a number of years and have come across a number of students from China and Korea who have only recently started learning English. Even after a few years here, however, their command of the language isn’t up to the mark, with the result that they are unable to interact properly. In contrast, Indians and Pakistanis find themselves at a massive advantage by being able to converse easily

    Response: The key test is not whether Indians and Pakistanis speak English more fluently that Chinese and Koreans in the US. The test is whether because of this fluency India and Pakistan are more advanced than China or Korea?

    Hina: An interesting read. It’s a complex situation in Pakistan. Some years ago English researchers contested the hegemony of English as elite language. Recently English researchers are writing for regional languages, and refer to EU or UNICEF, etc. While the ground reality is that people have assimilated English into their everyday lives by borrowing, appropriating and localizing English in both oral and literacy practices. I think that’s what the new national and widely spoken language is.

    Response: That may be true but it does not answer the question of which language is best as the medium of instruction for early childhood education.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 11:58h, 15 July

      Vikram: You are missing the point. The article is not saying that English should not be learnt. It is about what should be the medium of instruction in early childhood education. There is a lot of scientific evidence available on this issue.

      Learning English and learning in English are two very different propositions for those whose home language is not English. Almost all European children learn English but their early education is in their own languages. They are scientifically minded enough to know what they are doing.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 23:03h, 15 July

      SA, the evidence indicates that English fluency boosts wages significantly in India. And specifically English medium education has a significant impact on wages. There is a significant literature on this.

      Again the comparison with Europe doesnt hold water. The language of elites (higher level public officials, heads in corporate offices) in those countries is not English. In India, English the language of national record, and the authoritative text of all laws made, judgements pronounced is English.

      Bangladesh insists on educating its children in Bengali (the elite happily go to private English schools of course) but it not richer than India. Vietnam educates only in Vietnamese but is a little poorer than India.

      I think schools that are formally English medium, but actually teach in a mix of English and mother tongue would work the best.

    • sanpatel90
      Posted at 03:51h, 16 July

      Vikram, here difference is in doing job and creating job. If your population is fluent in English, then you will outsourced job of call-centre, software management etc. While if your population has good abstract thinking, then they can do research and development and create jobs. Here you can think of swiss example which you recently wrote about.

      A population being fluent in English will be able to get few lakhs outsourced jobs but that wont be sufficient for whole population. It is like downward filtration theory. Here abstract thinking of population will make them better citizen. I have seen many kids in Delhi, fluent in English but lacks in knowledge and wisdom.

      Again early education in mother tongue may not always lead up to R&D. This depends on several factors. This depends on knowledge of teachers, motivation factors of students, ecosystem, university access to bright candidates (this depends on kind of test, admission process), scholarships, training etc. etc.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:08h, 17 July

      Vikram: I am surprised that you cannot grasp the argument.

      Nobody is denying that English fluency boosts wages in India. But does that mean that English should be taught from first grade? Is there any evidence that English cannot be learnt unless it is taught from first grade? Or, that children who start learning English in first grade inevitably learn better that those who start learning in third grade? Please look up the scientific evidence on language,learning and early childhood education.

      The fact that the language of national record in India in English is irrelevant to the argument. No one is arguing that English should not be learnt. There is no evidence that the best language for early childhood education is the language of the elites.

      The Bangladesh example makes no sense either. Economic development is the outcome of many factors, not just language. To argue that Bangladesh should be richer than India because it teaches in Bengali is beyond simplistic. One can just as easily point out that many social indicators in Bangladesh are better than in India despite being a poorer country economically. Would one assign the reason just to the language of instruction?

      There is not much need to speculate on this issue. There is a huge amount of evidence available on medium of instruction for early childhood education. If you do not wish to look at it that is your choice.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 13:24h, 17 July

      My argument is not that early education should be in English.

      It is that the motivation for insisting children go to as English as possible schools comes from the obvious correlation between English proficiency, and wealth, status in India.

      Think about it this way, no matter how good an Indian language medium school is available, elite Indians will not send them to that school. This issue is about category, not quality.

      So it is the labels of ‘Hindi/Marathi/Gujarati – medium’ versus English medium that is creating the issue here. To be attractive to parents schools have to be able to promise English proficiency, but they should be able to use native languages to teach simultaneously.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:56h, 22 July

      Vikram: I agree that the situation is the way you describe. But all situations are responsive to policy. If there is a policy that the first three years of education in all schools would be in a local language and English would be taught from grade 4, there would be no choice left.

      This is not unprecedented. After all, reservations were a policy included in the Constitution (and later via the Mandal Commission) to ensure opportunities for those for whom employers would otherwise have no motivation for hiring.

      Motivation by itself cannot be accepted as the sole guide to policy especially if it is based on privilege and incorrect science.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 04:02h, 18 July

      Or let me put it another way, we need a brand/label of school that both elites and masses send their children too.

      Elites sending their kids to English medium schools, while telling the masses that their children are better suited for another type of school will not garner a positive response.

      The issue here is not simply the technical matter of mother vs English education at early age, but of accountability and control. School teachers are amongst the most powerful and unaccountable officials in the Indian system, this is because they are usually state, not local government employees. If anything, the first thing to push for is giving control of hiring/firing school officials to local elected leaders.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:00h, 22 July

      Vikram: I agree school teachers are unaccountable but increasing accountability will not resolve the language issue by itself. A clear policy measure is needed. There is no doubt it will be opposed by the elites but that is the nature of progress in democracy and social justice.

  • Pingback:A World Made of Sentences | From guestwriters
    Posted at 16:48h, 12 July Reply

    […] Language, Learning and Logic […]

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 15:05h, 15 July Reply

    Useful material from an interview with a film director from Bihar to further the discussion:

    Why is it that raunchy and regressive Bhojpuri action musicals get nationwide traction as the major type of cinema produced by Bihar?

    Bhojpuri and Maithili are Bihar’s native languages. During the struggle for independence, a chunk of the elite, as well as the revolutionaries, warmed up to Hindi after Mahatma Gandhi proposed that Hindi should be the national language as a unifying bond for all Indians to fight the British.

    After independence, Hindi got imposed on schools, colleges, and universities all over Bihar and our native languages were pushed to the sidelines. Now, years later, neither can Biharis speak in Hindi properly nor do they have any sense of ownership or sensitivity towards their native languages. As Bhojpuri and Maithili language began to rot so did its literature, and if the language itself is dead, how can its cinema survive?

    Bengali and Marathi cinema, for example, are respected because there is a strong sense of linguistic pride in Bengal and Maharashtra thanks to their literature.

    Today, Lollypop Lagelu has become Bihar’s trademark song. It is a matter of shame for every Bihari. Once, Hindi became mandatory for jobs, why would anyone want to learn Bhojpuri or Maithili? Upper castes and urban Biharis don’t know their mother tongue. In that case, only the underprivileged stick to native languages and thus Bhojpuri cinema caters to them – quick-fix, cheap entertainment.

    And yet, you continue to make films, from Mumbai and that too in Bhojpuri and Maithili. What keeps you going?

    Hindi is neither my mother tongue nor is it our national language. I want to keep making films in Bhojpuri and Maithili because there has to be good cultural work done in Bihar’s indigenous languages for Bihar to progress. These languages have to be made compulsory in schools.

    Cinema can create a good picture of the state, its language, and its people. It is a tool to bring pride. Today, a million Biharis hide their identities. They will say anything about their place of origin but they won’t say “Bihar”. You won’t find Bihari food in restaurants. It’s distressful.

    So, my aim is to facilitate the growth of a strong cultural identity for Bihar which, in turn, can help bring economic growth in Bihar. I make the films I make because 50 years later, a Bihari can look back and say with pride that there were my films alongside Lollypop Lagelu.


    The parallel with films in Pashto can be illuminating.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 04:58h, 17 July Reply

    Another discussion from (rural) India.

    I don’t agree with some of the arguments but it adds to the discussion.

    There is a key research finding that most commentators miss.

    Children who start their early education in their home language learn English better than those who start their early education in English because the former become better learners.

    The important message of this research is that to be effective in English it is not necessary to have English as the medium of instruction in early childhood education. In fact, it is harmful to do so.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 07:09h, 29 July Reply

    “If you map the parts of India where illiteracy is highest, you will find that it matches the parts where the mother tongues of children are different from the official language,” says Ganesh Devy, a linguist and the 2011 Unesco Linguapax laureate. Devy is the founder of the Vadodara-based Bhasha Research and Publication Trust.

    Research cited in article:

  • meethiflyer
    Posted at 18:33h, 03 August Reply

    I totally agree 👍 All language learners should read this! I have recently started teaching my native language.
    𝗖𝗵𝗲𝗰𝗸 𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗺𝘆 𝘃𝗶𝗱𝗲𝗼 𝗼𝗻 𝗟𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗼𝗹𝗲:

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 07:03h, 17 August Reply
  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 05:22h, 27 August Reply

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