LAST week, the Society for the Advancement of Education launched its report on English-language learning in Sindh schools. The ambiguity that marks parents’ and educators’ understanding of the role of language — especially English — in school education was evident on this occasion.
SAHE’s executive director, Abbas Rashid, however, was spot on when he identified his concerns: does the early introduction of English in school help or hinder learning? What happens to the learning of English itself?
A common misconception in Pakistan is that those who speak of teaching children in their mother tongue are opposed to English. That is not true.
In my opinion, children must learn English if their education is to be complete. But I also believe that learning English does not mean that they must be taught all the subjects they are required to study through the medium of English.
Expecting children to start their schooling in English — that too poor English — amounts to insulting their intelligence. The learning process in children begins even before they are enrolled in school. From infancy till the age of two children acquire proficiency in their home language and use it to think and communicate. These little philosophers have a mind of their own albeit the language they use is not English in most cases — not in Pakistan.
A child learns best if she is taught in her mother tongue.
Yet educators are pleading for a switchover to English when schooling begins. In effect, the message conveyed to the child is: ‘Forget what you know to start again — in English. Rote learn if need be.’
As Abbas Rashid pointed out, we have to determine the optimal time to introduce English and other languages after education has begun in the mother tongue. If there are parents who do not understand this basic fact, it means not enough has been done to educate them on the issue. Leaving them in the dark and lowering standards is a grave disservice to them.
It is time our educators educated themselves in the basics of language acquisition. A century ago, Dr Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician, opened a school in a poor Rome neighbourhood. She was assigned the task of teaching ‘backward’ children and keeping them off the streets when their parents were at work. She developed her unique method of educating the young child and her students did better than the ‘normal’ children of the rich.
According to Montessori “children placed in an environment where activities were designed to support their natural development had the power to educate themselves”.
Montessori placed immense emphasis on language that is integrated in the child’s cognitive development and is basic to the communication that takes place among children and between them and adults.
In The Absorbent Mind, she describes what she terms the “language mechanism” comprising nerve centres in the brain. The hearing centre picks up the sound of human speech from the environment to form a stratum of sounds in the subconscious, which feed the centre for speech. That should explain why the language of the environment is so crucial to a child’s mental growth.
Generally this language is the mother tongue as communities tend to cluster together. Montessori terms the child’s acquisition of language as a natural miracle complete by the time she is two years.
If these views were outdated — which is unlikely as human biology has not changed in the history of evolution of the last century — we would not have Prof Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist, reaffirming Montessori’s theory in a video interview posted on the Eqbal Ahmed Centre for Public Education website. Prof Chomsky is emphatic about a child being taught in her own language.
How little we know about the language acquisition process is obvious from our language in education policies. The problem is that ours is not a child-centric society. The focus in education is at the adolescent’s level when children are about to leave school. It is forgotten that what goes into children’s primary school experience determines their learning skills in adulthood.
Yet our educationists insist that English should be the medium of instruction from the start. Punjab tried this experiment in 2013 and had to rescind its decision with the SAHE report confirming its failure. Now KP has plunged into the same foolish experiment. Hopefully SAHE will venture into that province too.
Worse still, the language factor entrenches the class divide which blights our society. As the ‘language of power’ — to use Pakistan’s leading linguist Dr Tariq Rahman’s words — English serves to exclude the underprivileged from the circle of privilege. It determines social attitudes and limits economic opportunities. This phenomenon is replicated at the international level where English is pushed to the detriment of the poor. Prof Chomsky, who champions the case of the underdog, would be able to confirm that.
Published in Dawn, November 19th , 2014