It was a long time ago ... India, which extended from the present Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the west to Assam in the east and the Himalayas on the north to Cape Comorin at the edge of the Indian Ocean in the south, was a British colony. Yet, education, except in a few institutions catering for the rich or run by Roman Catholic missionaries, was imparted through the mother tongue. Montessori and Froebel; O and A Levels were unknown.
Among the first names babies lisped, was “Allah”. As they began to speak, they were taught the kalima. Mothers sang lullabies to put them to sleep. Later lullabies were replaced by stories from the Quran alternating with fairytales.
Muslim children went to the maktab; Hindus to the pathshala. In municipal towns such institutions were run by the municipality; in rural areas by the village punchayat.
Arabic and Urdu were the first alphabets a Muslim child was taught, besides Quran recitation, Urdu reading and elementary arithmetic. At home he learned moral values such as truthfulness, kindness and compassion, giving charity, respecting elders, especially teachers and offering prayers. These lessons, learnt at the proverbial “mother’s knee” laid the foundation of the child’s character and would remain etched in his memory throughout his life.
With the cultural and religious foundations thus firmly laid, the child was sent to school after maktab, where all subjects except English were taught in his mother tongue. Tiny tots did not have to bend under the burden of backpacks. Students carried only the books they needed on a particular day plus a homework copybook and a rough copy for class work.
Discipline was strict both at home and school. Punishments included from caning on the palms of the hand and sometimes on the behind, to the murgha (rooster) posture, where the culprit had to bow, bring his hands from under the legs to catch each earlobe and stay in the back-breaking position for a while.
Skill in spoken English was developed through conversation, debate, prose reading and poetry recitation sessions. Utmost emphasis was given to English grammar and particularly translation. Pupils memorised selected poems and prose passages as an exercise to sharpen the retentive power of the memory. Some of the most famous Indians, including Dr Radhakrishnan, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Allama Iqbal, Maulana Mohammad Ali and even Jinnah and Gandhi received their basic education through the vernacular medium. Yet, they could hold illuminating discourses on any subject in fluent English.
Education in their mother tongue imbued these great men with self-esteem, pride in their faith, culture and tongue which ultimately turned them into ardent champions of independence.
Today, there are no lullabies; no bedside stories. Working mothers, particularly, are hardly in a fit state to do any of these things. Neither do infants have time, after watching cartoons on television and playing games on the computer, to perch at their “mother’s knee” to learn their lessons.
The first alphabet now taught is in English. There are hardly any lessons in basic values. Most of our young generation cannot read the Quran and therefore they cannot offer prayers as well. The emphasis is not only on English speaking but also on the way it is spoken by Americans. Colloquialisms and slang that were taboo in the past are in fashion today.
The culture of English medium from the cradle has cut its subjects adrift from their roots. They are almost aliens in their home while they cannot fully assimilate into the western culture. Worse, the alumni of the English medium of instruction are unwittingly cloned to the western world view which may even conflict with their country’s viewpoint.
The merits of modern education, per se, are beyond question. But the question that requires serious reflection from all concerned is whether the goals sought could not to be achieved without English being taught from the cradle, without undermining our own values and culture and without fluency in spoken English. A study of the comparative gain and loss curve of the two mediums of instructions should offer some highly revealing results.