WE do have a language dilemma on hand, whether we admit it or not.
I attend a ceremony at a school of journalism in Buffer Zone in Karachi where 49 girls are awarded a certificate for the three-month course they had completed supported by scholarships from donors. The language of the proceedings is English and it is plain that few in the audience really understand what was being said. A translator comes to their rescue. I decide to speak in Urdu as I want to connect with these young ladies who have aspirations of joining my profession.
A few days later, I go to a conference organised by the Society for Pakistan’s English Language Teachers. I presume the audience at a moot organised by them would expect me to speak in English. But when I begin I am requested to be bilingual. I drop the English bit and stick to Urdu.
Sometimes in between these events, I visit the Ardeshir Cowasjee Writing Centre at the main campus of the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, (established in 2014). I feel I am on firm ground language-wise. Ardeshir who earned fame as Dawn’s columnist with a distinct style of his own wrote only in English. So English would be the language here and I guess correctly.
We are so focused on English that all other languages are sidelined.
But here I am alerted to the pitfalls of teaching in English. Many students are not proficient in English even after obtaining an A-Level from British examination boards. Maria Hussain, assistant professor, who manages the centre, tells me that nearly a third of the IBA entrants need remedial courses to help them improve their English-language writing skills. This is a very high ratio considering that most students have attended so-called elite private schools.
Ingenious as he is, the director of the IBA, Dr Ishrat Husain, has found a solution to the problem in the shape of the writing centre. He got the Cowasjee Foundation to pitch in with a one-time grant. Of course, Ardeshir’s pithy and caustic style and his innovative coining of words (my favourite was ‘selfsenscissorship’) will not win an IBA graduate much success in the business world. But his ability to express himself powerfully and articulate his thoughts coherently should be any businessman’s asset. A speech communication centre focuses on the oral language. These are new experiments in language teaching and it is too early to assess their success.
The IBA is widening its horizons. Eight introductory courses in various social science disciplines are now compulsory for a business administration graduate. This kind of exposure is absolutely essential if businesses are to have a human face and do not become money-minting machines with no compassion for the downtrodden of society.
Aware of the socioeconomic inequities that plague Pakistan, Dr Ishrat Husain deemed it essential to walk the talk about inculcating a sense of social responsibility in institutions. IBA’s Sindh Foundation Programme organises six-month free preparatory courses for students who have been denied the opportunity of a sound schooling and therefore would never stand a chance of clearing the highly competitive entrance test.
These classes help many gain admission, without quality being compromised. Under this programme the students are facilitated by scholarships for the duration of the BBA course.
Another expansion in the academic field is the IBA’s decision to open its doors to students wishing to study the social sciences. Since 2012 courses leading to a BS/MS in history, media sciences, philosophy, economics, sociology, etc are offered and 1,023 full-time students enrolled in these in 2013-14. The shift towards the social sciences is quite pronounced. But IBA still remains a business school with 1,338 full-time BBA and MBA students in 2013-14.
The social sciences are taught in English which one would expect at the higher education level. Mandarin, French and Arabic are also offered as second languages. Dr Framji Minwala, chairperson, social studies, says there have been suggestions to include programmes in Urdu and other regional languages as well but these are still at the exploratory stage. Even if bilingualism is strengthened, as Dr Minwala believes it should be, it would be a great contribution to society and education in Pakistan.
At present such an initiative faces a big challenge. The teachers who sat round the table with me admitted that their students were weak in Urdu. I believe, for a person to learn a foreign language it is essential that he should have a thorough grounding in his mother tongue as that is essential to activate the language mechanism in a young child’s brain.
We are so focused on English socially and economically that all other languages and their speakers are being marginalised. Ironically, proficiency in English is also wanting simply because this language is not our teachers’ forte either.
It is time to go back to the drawing board and devise a mother tongue-based multilingual education programme at the primary level. Our salvation lies in that alone.
The writer is the author of The Tyranny of Language in Education.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2015