By Anjum Altaf
Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high social cost.
I thought of this once again on coming across a news item that the Punjab Government School Education Department had converted thousands of its schools into English medium all over the province from April 2010. The motivation for the move is stated to be “a bid to bring the quality of education in government-run schools on a par with private English medium schools.”
The issue of the language of instruction, like many other issues in Pakistan, has been hanging fire since the creation of the country, switching back and forth at the whim of individuals seemingly without recourse to any scientific evidence or critical thinking. No one has computed the costs imposed on society by the absence of a coherent policy over the course of half a century.
Not that this is a new topic. Much evidence is available from our own experience if one wishes to look for it. It was in 1835 that Lord Macaulay mandated the adoption of English as the medium of instruction in British India from the sixth standard onwards. Even at the time this ruling was questioned on theoretical grounds by Prinsep, a fellow member of the Supreme Council of India, who asked how the English would have fared if they had been educated in Arabic rather than in Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe.
Prinsep was over-ruled but, to their credit, the British themselves picked up the downside of the policy in their review of its implementation. The 1904 resolution on education policy was quite explicit in its 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 century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan reaffirms the conclusion and offers this major recommendation: “Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.”
We can indulge in our favorite pastime of looking for conspiracies. When the English told us in 1835 to learn in English, it was conspiracy to cripple our intellects and when the English tell us in 2010 not to learn in English, it is, of course, a conspiracy to cripple our intellects. This is a reflection of nothing more than our actually crippled intellects and our inability to consider any proposition on its theoretical merits or to be able to assess it against empirical evidence.
Take first the theoretical arguments. The primary objective in the early years is learning how to think and grasp abstract concepts. At that stage even addition and multiplication are abstract concepts and 7 minus 10 is an exceedingly abstract one. At this point, the most significant function of language is as a tool to facilitate learning. It stands to reason that the most effective tool would be the one with which the learner is most comfortable and in which he or she thinks about everything else in his or her world including discussing lessons with peers and parents.
Mandating the use of an unfamiliar tool is counterproductive because it unnecessarily adds an intervening layer of translation in the learning process. An assignment to subtract 7 marbles from 10 marbles requires both a translation of the commodity marble as well as an explanation of the term subtract or minus. Neither would need to be explained if the assignment were in the mother-tongue. (I am reminded of the equally ridiculous Pakistani college statistics texts that base their teaching on examples from baseball and poker.)
Even this very simple example illustrates the extra burden that can be imposed on a learner. Add to this the fact that the majority of the teachers teaching in English are scarcely more comfortable with the language than the students being taught and one can imagine the distortions that would be occurring in the learning process at the Government Boys English Medium Primary School, Jadeed No 1 Thatti Gharbi, Chiniot, which, according the news item mentioned earlier, the Punjab government has switched to teaching in English. The parents who are taking pride in sending their children to an English-medium school are in fact inflicting immense damage on their learning ability – they are making them stupid in English.
This is not to argue against the acquisition of a foreign language but to reiterate the point made at the very beginning of this article: Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high cost.
For those who are not at ease with cognitive theory, there is a lot of empirical evidence to consider. Look at the countries that have shown the most remarkable progress since the Second World War. Take Japan, South Korea, and now China as examples. None of them used English as the medium of instruction at the primary level; all of them used their native languages instead. This puts paid to the mindless argument that the learning in English is absolutely necessary to progress in the present times. If that had indeed been the case, South Asians would have been way ahead of East Asians because of their much greater fluency in the English language.
The reality is not only that South Asians are way behind in general development, they are much less innovative in science and technology than East Asians using any relevant indicator like the number of patents filed per capita. And this is because South Asians have lost creativity by learning in English, turning, by and large, into babus spouting Shakespeare rather than into innovative and critical thinkers.
The point is that while learning English is indeed important in our times, learning in English is not the way to go about acquiring the skill. Almost all the leading scientists from East Asian countries have learnt as much English as they need at a much later stage in life. And this reiterates the general point that a tool is most useful when it is acquired at the appropriate time. Giving a loaded gun to a child is not likely to yield a great shot.
Yet another way to look at this issue is to think of individuals we consider exceptional in recent South Asian history, say, Tagore, Iqbal, Gandhi, Faiz, Salam, Patras Bokhari, Nazrul Islam. We think highly of them because of their intellectual brilliance and their conceptual clarity. Yet, how many of them started their education in English-medium schools? All of them probably learnt English later in their lives which should provide comfort that such late acquisition is not a barrier to success. On the contrary, it is quite possible that had they started in English-medium schools they would have ended up amongst the hundreds of pompous District Commissioners that no one recalls any more.
The issue of the primary language of instruction is not one that should be treated with the casualness that has been demonstrated thus far. There is a very high cost to society in the general loss of creativity and clear thinking and through the creation of an artificial barrier to entry for many creative individuals not superficially fluent in English. Very soon this decision might not be left to the muddle-headed few who have risen to the top only by virtue of having been to English-medium schools and who have subsequently grossly mismanaged the country.
A shorter version of this post appeared as an op-ed in Dawn, Karachi, on December 3, 2010. For more on the implications of Lord Macaulay’s 1835 decision see the author’s article, Macaulay’s Stepchildren, in the January 2010 issue of Himal Southasian magazine.