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Language myths

Last week Karachi hosted the Teachers’ Literature Festival — an innovative experiment — to introduce an alternative discourse in education. Here a lively session on language in learning was held. That teachers should be interested in this is understandable. The issue impacts their work directly. The fact is that the language used in education determines the learning output of students. Their poor performance in independent assessment tests such as ASER actually reflects on the quality of pedagogy they receive. That in turn is a clear measure of our teachers’ skills and professional standards.

Years of campaigning by activists for a more rational approach to the language in education issue seems to be paying off and people have begun to speak up. A week before the TLF was held Unesco observed the International Mother Tongue Day on Feb 21. The Reform Support Unit of the Sindh Education and Literacy Department joined in by holding a seminar on the subject.

The medium of instruction is a matter of concern. This year Unesco’s focus was on the language of learning and its report was aptly titled “If you don’t understand, how will you learn?” The consensus at the seminar was on using the mother tongue for teaching during the preliminary years of schooling.

On both occasions, it clearly emerged that the language used in education is now of concern to a growing number of people and they have started to articulate their worries. Earlier in February, the Karachi Literature Festival, another cultural and intellectual landmark of the city, also had a session on language in the context of education.

There is now growing awareness that there is something wrong with our approach to the issue of language in education. Most to be faulted is our failure to differentiate between using a language as the medium of instruction and teaching a language as a subject. At the sessions mentioned, many questions were raised regarding the languages to be taught and at which stage in a multilingual society. It was widely acknowledged that basic knowledge of English is indispensable in the modern world.

What was intriguing was a general reluctance to let go of English as the medium of instruction in primary schools. That would explain why English is thrust on little children from underprivileged backgrounds which disadvantages them in many ways. First, English is not the language of the environment. Hence children are not immersed in the language to enable them to learn it naturally. Secondly, a large percentage of students have parents who have had no schooling. They do not get any parental support and guidance in their studies. English makes it harder.

Thirdly, their teachers, handicapped as they are by the language barrier, cannot compensate for the shortcomings on other fronts, which include, apart from the aforementioned factors, the inadequate state of our textbooks.

In such a dire situation what option do children have? They learn through the rote method with minimal understanding of what is taught. Since they are not required to think critically and they do not participate in the education process they can get away with the minimum use of speech and language.

On occasions when they are required to communicate they are dumbed down — or rendered bay zubaan. My experience with children from supposedly English-medium schools teaching in Urdu has been uniformly disappointing. A supplementary question about what the child has told me in English — obviously memorised from her book — has led her to plead that she be allowed to speak in her own language because she has so much more to say. The transformation in the same child shifting to her own language is amazing. It is not just her articulation, but also her confidence that increases.

Then why is there a public demand for English as the medium of instruction? This demand has been artificially created by giving English socio-economic prestige. Educationists have formulated the myth that children learning in English as the medium of instruction do better as they learn the language quicker while acquiring knowledge of various subjects. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is the big lie in education that needs to be demolished.

At the TLF where the new education policy was being debated, a questioner asked whether the policy would apply to private schools as well. That is the real issue. Such policy matters should be universally applied. If private schools were to use a local language as the medium of instruction in the primary section while giving students good grounding in English there is no reason why they cannot become truly bilingual or even trilingual.

The upscale private schools become trendsetters and it is their moral responsibility to become models for others to emulate. It must be remembered that some public figures who have won a lot of admiration have been proficient in a number of languages without renouncing their mother tongue.


Zubeida Mustafa, "Language myths," Dawn. 2016-03-04.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Educational policy , Communication issues , Literature festival , Private schools , Education-Sindh , Language-English , Society-Pakistan , Pakistan , Karachi , Sindh , ASER , UNESCO