Language of Instruction: Next Steps

By Anjum Altaf

Policy-making can be based on self-interest, whim, opinion, dogma, or evidence. The choice we exercise says a lot about us.

Take the language of instruction that is in the news once again. There is less self-interest on display here than there is in the case of sugar and sweets and other such things. But we have seem whim at play many times. Among the most egregious was the case mentioned recently by Zubeida Mustafa (Dawn, Which language, September 25, 2020). 

Referring to the 2006 White Paper on Education (2006) as “the only thoroughly deliberated official policy document on education that I have read in Pakistan” she recalled how the education minister at the time (an ex-army general) rejected it because “it recommended the mother tongue to be used as the medium of instruction.” I recall the rationale that was proffered — I was educated in English and I have been so successful. The less said about that the better. 

It is not all that great an improvement to move from whim to opinion no matter how well-intentioned. At the end of September, the Ministry of Education assembled a set of individuals to reach a decision on the language of instruction. The conclusion was that there were too many opinions and a smaller group needed to be formed to resolve the issue. 

All this time, the evidence is so overwhelming that qualified educationists consider the matter settled — children learn best in a language they understand well. This evidence is based both on careful research studies and on real world experience that developing countries employing first languages for education have done very well. The conclusion has been repeatedly endorsed by international organizations like UNESCO, UNICEF and the EU.

If our policymakers are serious they should stop being dogmatic, defer to the evidence, and move on to implementation which, given the muddle spread over 70 years, is not going to be easy.

There are a number of controversies associated with implementing a policy of teaching in the first language that have been used to stall action and perpetuate the status quo.

The first is the dilemma of which language to choose for instruction where students speak a mix of first languages. The solution proposed is to use English because it does not favour any group which morphs into an argument for using English across the board. 

There is no denying such situations exist but the relevant question to ask is what proportion of the total number of students in the country face this dilemma? If the country is 70% rural, then clearly all rural students can be taught in their respective first languages. Even in large cities like Karachi, ethnic conflicts have resulted in residential segregation. So, at the outside 20% of students are in mixed locations. The common-sense solution is to go ahead with the first-best policy for 80% of students while thinking of a compromise for the remaining 20%.

For the remaining 20% the problem is not as insurmountable as it seems if one keeps in mind how languages are acquired in childhood. Children growing up in mixed neighbourhoods pick up all the languages they are exposed to and almost always there is a common language in which they can communicate. From the perspective of cognitive development there is nothing sacrosanct about the first language. The real consideration is that the child be taught in a language he or she understands. Given that consideration, a regional language or Urdu is a much better choice compared to English which is an alien language for everyone. 

The second objection to using local languages for instruction is that texts are not available in them. A little bit of economic sense should make one realize that there will be no supply without a demand and that, in general, supply responds quickly to demand. In any case, it is much worse to have texts in English if the teacher is going to explain them anyway in a local language. As it is, early education should not be text or fact based since, combined with our testing procedures, they encourage rote learning.

The third argument against using local languages in early education is that it would hamper the learning of English which is the language of everything that matters in life. This is a false binary as should be obvious from the experience of many successful countries where children are educated in local languages and learn as much English as they need to when they need to. In fact, there is evidence that children educated in their first language learn English better than those taught in English from the outset.

The fourth argument, that parents overwhelmingly prefer English, is considered to be the clincher in the case against local languages. It is rarely asked why parents express this preference. It is because we have a system in which we have, by choice, made English the passport to success. Instead of questioning the wisdom of the system, we would rather have everyone be educated in English quite oblivious to the price that has to be paid for adopting that route. 

The deep irony is that when everyone is educated in English we will discover that it is no longer a passport to success as it is not in the USA. Meanwhile, immense cognitive damage would continue to be inflicted on millions of children. All we need to do to change the preferences of parents in the interest of their children is to remove English as the passport to success. It is not so in China or Iran or Turkey and it need not be so here.

The primary resource of this country is its children. The major investment of parents is in their children. Let us nurture this resource wisely so it can be confident, creative and productive and contribute to the reinvigoration of society. We need to set aside whims, dogma, and prejudices and go by the evidence of what is best for the child.

This opinion was published in Dawn on October 23, 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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