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Language confusion: Urdu or English?

June 30, 2013

The polity of our national confusion on most issues facing the country stems from the unresolved adoption of a single medium of instruction in schools. Living in a part of Lahore, which is the preserve of the Cantonment Board, this confusion seems even more bewildering and unsettling to one’s psyche.

Recently, the repainting of road signs was undertaken in the Cantonment area but the repainted road signs are now just in English. The names of the roads in Urdu have simply been left out. One can only surmise on what prompted the Cantonment authorities to take this decision of not having road signs in both Urdu and English?

There could be a number of reasons for this choice. Firstly, why bother with Urdu at all — it is presumed that everybody knows English in the country, anyway. Second, it looks more ‘educated’ if the road signs are just in English. Third, one’s amnesia about the common man in Pakistan — why look out for them as most are illiterate or semi-literate and they cannot read road signs in English. Fourth, the officials at the Board are unaware that Urdu is our national language and countries across the world write road signs in their respective national languages. Or, maybe it is a ruse to make all Pakistanis switch over to English entirely and ensure that all its citizens must now use English at all cost?

It seems that there is no conspiracy theory behind this but it is surely an indication of the utter confusion that prevails in our country due to a lack of a solid education that promotes good moral values and principles, analytical thinking and a curiosity of mind that accesses all kinds of knowledge through reading and observation. For the past so many years, the view of education has been to provide textbooks, guarantee that they are learnt by rote, and make sure that examination questions provide a platform for regurgitation of knowledge. The skill to understand and comprehend fully the knowledge being imparted is sacrificed at the altar of firstly, the choice of language to adopt as medium of instruction and then, not laying enough emphasis on learning that language fluently. Today, barely a handful of Pakistani children can claim to be fluent in Urdu or English. In fact it has become “Urdlish”, a mixture of both languages and extremely unnerving to watch and hear when exposed to it on media channels.

Just a couple of days ago, it was reported in the newspaper that Jamaat-i-Islami had criticised the policy of teaching English from class-1 in government schools. The Jamaat-i-Islami felt that this policy will create a further decline in educational standards because English as a medium of instruction will ensure that many will lag behind because of non-fluency in the language. They recommend that English be taught as a subject and not as a medium of instruction. Thus, the debate continues on whether the language of instruction should be Urdu or English and till this issue is sorted out, raising educational standards in the country becomes impossible.

Since 2008, the Punjab Education Assessment System (PEAS) is assessing the standard of government school students in two or three subjects. Their findings reveal that students gain less marks in Urdu language compared to other subjects. English is not one of the subjects chosen by them to test students on, so the standard of English cannot be gauged. However, the quality of the prescribed textbook for class-1 English in government schools leaves much to be desired and is sure to promote rote learning of English. As for the medium of instruction, the Education Department officials are adamant that only Mathematics and Science subjects will be taught in English.

A renowned educationist suggests that those of us who are trained in the western tradition of education are made to think in the “either/or” strain. It is either quality or cost; either service or speed; either academic excellence based on marks and examinations or overall development. However, success comes with thinking with an ‘and’. This means quality at an affordable cost; service fast; academic excellence with overall development as success comes through character building. It is the same with the language issue where an “either/or” thinking has to stop. The Urdu or English debate has to stop and an honest approach should be adopted. Both Urdu and English must get premium time and the best of learning tools to make students fluent in both languages while research clearly enunciates that the use of the mother tongue at the primary level promotes better understanding and literacy. Learning English as a second language is important in a world of increasing globalisation but as a language of communication and not, perhaps, as a medium of instruction.

Linguistic ability is the medium through which knowledge is acquired and if that is not up to par, the purpose of educating an individual is lost and quality suffers. Pakistan’s policy makers have dilly dallied for far too long on giving firm direction to the way languages will be acquired at school level. The English/Urdu medium divide has already created apartheid in society and lowered standards of education in the country. Will policy makers take note and decide whether it will be Urdu and English with regional languages being used at primary level or are we to interminably continue with the Urdu or English divide?

The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore.