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Language of learning

May 29, 2013


THE Children’s Literature Festival is the best thing that could have happened to the children of Pakistan. Six festivals have already been organised since November 2011 — the latest having been held in Islamabad last week.

It was a pleasure to see thousands of children assemble at the Pak-China Friendship Centre in Islamabad surrounded by gaiety, music and storytelling and, above all, books of all genres for young readers. The atmosphere was one of merrymaking. But the underlying mission was a very serious one. The objective of the organisers was captured in the words splashed all over the backdrops in the auditorium and the conference rooms —“Unlocking the power of reading”.

That is what the literary festival has undertaken to accomplish. It is too early to expect a visible change in the reading habits of children. If the tradition continues and the event reaches a large number of people in due course, it is hoped that it will make an impact.

It was Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-i-Taalim-o-Agahi, who is the moving spirit behind it. She teamed up with Ameena Saiyyid of the Oxford University Press and Nargis Sultana of Open Society Foundation to initiate this imaginative project that provides entertainment to the fun-starved children of this country. It is designed to also get them interested in books.

Baela hopes to launch such festivals at different locations all over the country and ultimately get schools to start a literary tradition by organising such events. If the idea were to catch on — especially with the government’s sponsorship — it could transform the book scene in the country. By giving a fillip to reading, writing and publishing this exercise could also kick-start a library movement in Pakistan.

One related issue that caught the imagination of some participants — mainly adults — was the language question. For decades, the publishing industry has focused on English-language publications to achieve quality. The indigenous languages, although they have a bigger readership, have not enjoyed the same privileged treatment. Two sessions on language were held — one being the launch of the Punjabi translation of my book Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution. Another session was on textbooks, and language also figured in the session.

The problem I find in any debate on the language issue is that there is a general lack of understanding of the implications of language for the quality of education imparted in schools and universities. Those who show concern are linguists like Dr Tariq Rahman, a professor at the Quaid-i-Azam University and author of several seminal books on language in Pakistan, and sensitive teachers who are forced to think of the issue when confronted with the appalling academic performance of their students.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University, is generally not worried about the language used as long as the students understand what the teacher says. I would, however, add, that the student must not only comprehend fully what is being said, he should also be fluent enough in the language to be able to articulate his own thoughts and ideas in it.

In this context, the language of education is significant, especially at the primary level when children are introduced to the social sciences such as history, civics and Pakistan Studies while their cognitive power is developing.

For these subjects, the language of instruction is of the essence. Education is also a test of the student’s critical thinking. He should be familiar enough with the language he is studying in to be able to think in it and express his ideas in it. If he cannot do that he will simply memorise what the textbook contains without being able to understand it or ask even one question on the text or analyse what he has read.

Teaching social sciences to a child without encouraging him to think — that is the inevitable result of education in an unfamiliar language — is a sure way of making him a robot who just follows instructions mechanically. It appears that this is what the policymakers desire. Who is comfortable with youth who think and question?

It is also a myth perpetuated for long that the physical sciences, that are described as universal subjects, have no critical need of language. It is widely believed that since physics and chemistry do not require elaborate write-ups and their concepts can be expressed briefly and precisely the student can do it in any language even if he is not fluent in it.

This is not true. Dr Vinod Raina, an Indian science educationist who left a university job to work with children at the grassroots, believes that the child has to interact with his surroundings and people to learn about nature.

Dr Raina notes: “Children’s learning does not take place alone, individually, in the sense of a research scientist, but it goes through the processes of ‘scaffolding’ , which is helped by peer interactions and friendly adults, including the teacher. And language is central to such scaffolding.” In other words, science has to be experienced to be learnt and really understood which is not possible without a language the child knows well.

The Children’s Literary Festival and Baela Jamil have persistently raised the language issue to draw the attention of the authorities to this aspect of education. One can only hope that the new governments that assume office shortly will address the language-in-education question with all the seriousness it deserves.