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Why English again?

Published Mar 03, 2017 01:11am


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SINCE 1999, when Unesco first declared Feb 21 International Mother Language Day, this issue has received much attention throughout the world. In Pakistan, where the language issue has always had a complexity of its own, educators, linguists and activists are now more vocal than ever.

Will the ruckus being created have a real impact on the language situation in various sectors of national life? The courts have given two major language-related verdicts in the past two years. One was the Supreme Court’s directive of 2015 asking the government to use Urdu as the official language of administration. The second is the recent order of the Lahore High Court asking the Federal Public Commission to conduct CSS examinations in Urdu.

There is a logical link between the two. A person who is to conduct the affairs of governance in one language should be fluent enough in it to pass an exam to qualify as an administrator. The conclusion that follows is that the CSS candidates should have studied Urdu in school as well as college to be able to take examinations in that language.

Instead, confusion reigns supreme in the language-in-education policy. While we are still ambiguous about the status of our indigenous languages, policymakers and stakeholders have leapfrogged to English in an effort to make it the medium of instruction. Even the sensible proposal of introducing mother tongue-based multilingualism, which is universally recognised as the most feasible approach, has failed to win supporters.

The debate on language policy continues to defy logic.

One misconception is that English is considered a superior language — that if we wish to keep up with the world, our children must study in English and abandon their own so-called inferior languages. Even the idea of teaching English as a second language subject is rejected out of hand. As a result, we are driving a wedge through our already fragmented society, and this quixotic approach is also destroying our education system.

A legacy of colonial times, English is promoted as the language of the political elite — the “language of power” as Dr Tariq Rahman, our leading linguist, puts it. Being dubbed as inferior, native languages are neglected and their speakers become the underprivileged of society. Given our limited resources, it has not been possible to teach English well to all people, thereby ensuring that the majority remains disadvantaged. A small minority, which has the resources to learn good English from highly qualified teachers, becomes the empowered elite.

One wonders what stops us from thinking rationally about this issue. In 2011, the British Council commissioned a world-renowned linguist, Hywel Coleman, to make suggestions related to this matter. Coleman proposed a three-language policy starting with the mother tongue, followed by Urdu (the language of communication) and finally the global language in vogue, English. This was not reaffirmed in the follow-up report. Instead, Coleman proposed further advocacy on the matter.

Recently, I asked Coleman, “Why advocacy?” He explained that extensive consultations and meetings with provincial ministers of education made him realise that his “original proposal [though ideal for Pakistan] was simplistic and naïve”. So, in the revised proposal, he suggested a lengthy process to raise awareness about the “nature and roles of language in education”.

He emphasises that nobody pressured him to modify his position. He wants advocacy to be directed at parents (so that they appreciate the risks involved in not using the mother tongue in the early years of primary school), education policymakers and planners, politicians, government officials and, above all, the general public so that they see linguistic diversity as a divine blessing.

The tragedy is that language myths persist and are destroying education in Pakistan. There are many reasons for this failure, but the main one is our inability to produce competent and committed teachers. This is not surprising given the fact that the teachers are the products of a system that collapsed several decades ago. An attempt to revitalise teaching will be a major task, but it has to be done. Teachers can be taught pedagogy quite quickly; subject knowledge is a bigger challenge but not impossible to cultivate in short courses spread over several months. But can you teach a language to a teacher in a few weeks and expect her to use it perfectly as the medium of instruction? Yet this is what is attempted from time to time. It would be easier for teachers to learn a subject in the language that they are fluent in, while some teachers with potential could be selected for more long-term training to teach English as a second language.

Why this simple logic eludes us is not clear. But this lack of clarity is making good education the privilege of a few — those enrolled in upscale private schools — while the majority is denied its basic right.

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2017


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (42) Closed

Asif Iqbal Mar 03, 2017 01:43am

Urdu is as foreign to Pakistan as English is. So why not learn the better amongst the two, which is clearly English. Urdu is the mother tounge of only 7 % people mostly Mohajirs who came from India. Pakistan should not dump English else Pakistan will lose whatever small edge it has. It will be a blunder to impose Urdu in CSS exams

acer Mar 03, 2017 01:54am

English is language of CPEC.

Abraham haque Mar 03, 2017 02:53am

A true Pakistani language should be compendium of all local languages including those which are not recognized

jA-australia Mar 03, 2017 03:52am

It is unreasonable to expect students to learn three languages. Yes, many students in Western Europe do so, but let's aim for more modest goals first. The mother tongue can be taught by parents at home. Public schools should teach Urdu and in Urdu. All relevant scientific and other texts should be translated into Urdu so the maximum number of Pakistani students can access them. This will also drag us kicking and screaming to evolve Urdu into a proper 21st century language. English can be taught as an optional language.

As an aside, Finland has the best educated students in the world. It is illegal in Finland to operate a private school and to charge tuition. This forces rich parents and politicians to make sure public schools are up to par, because they HAVE to send their kids to public school.

brr Mar 03, 2017 04:39am

Why take pride in mastering URDU at the cost of regional languages? Why take pride in mastering English when one is ignorant of local languages?

Why should the government discourage people from learning their own mother tongue? Why should education not involve multiple languages, each within its own purview and adding to an individual's capabilities?

Why is common sense language policy so difficult?

Alba Mar 03, 2017 05:35am

In 2017 English is the language of engineering and science. Do with it what you will. It became the lingua Franca of the world today because of World War II, not the British Empire. The Axis Powers were conquered by the English Speaking World. East Asia speaks English because of America's defeat of the Empire of Japan. As a result of World War II East has permanently met West. Put Winston Churchill's - History of the English Speaking Peoples - in six volumes on your bookshelves. It will be worth every rupee you pay for the complete set.

Khalid Irfan Rahman Mar 03, 2017 07:05am

You have hit the nail on the head. We are increasing fragmentation in our society by creating elitism bed on language of education. This has already led to many negative impacts

Shahid Mar 03, 2017 07:25am

The most logical language policy demands that up to about 8th grade, school instruction to students in all subjects should exclusively be in their mother tongue. Thereafter, other languages can and should be introduced including Urdu and English.

As for the problem of curriculum and teachers in regional languages, that is not a major cause for concern. Once the State makes up its mind, financial backing can produce miracles in this regard. First and foremost is the matter of commitment from the powers to be on most logical education policy. There is no room for political correctness and emotionalism in this regard. It is about future educational well being of next generations.

Syed F. Hussaini Mar 03, 2017 08:07am

The CSS exams in Urdu would definitely help those well-connected who can't even pretend to speak English and still want to be bureaucrats.

To make professionals not bureaucrats, the people would keep sending their kids to the English-medium schools totally ignoring the standard-bearers of Urdu and the CSS.

Rehman Mar 03, 2017 08:46am

Many leading countries such Japan, Germany, Korea, China, and Russia solely use their native language in all matters, including advanced scientific research. Despite doing all their work in their native languages, they produce very advanced scientific and technical outcomes. The need to have English to progress is myth that is mostly propagated in the ex-British colonies. Maybe this is because we are still to get over our colonial hangover.

Tanvir Mar 03, 2017 08:58am

Pakistanis should learn both Urdu and English to communicate well with the people of country and the countries of the world. It's sad that some Pakistanis prefer English because of a superiority complex while some Pakistanis are so illiterate that they cannot read and write proper Urdu, forget English. Learning to read and write Urdu must be a must for all Pakistanis because that's what most of them speak in the street, except that 1% dumb elites who consider it a dishonor to speak in Urdu - thus the remain out of touch with the common masses.

Asif A Shah Mar 03, 2017 09:02am

In Pakistan, there is a huge gap between the law and the actual practice. Pakistani constitution states that the legislators should be " Sadiq" and " Ameen". Does Pakistan have those kind of legislators? With due respect, I submit that the decisions of the Court that the language of the court proceedings should be in Urdu and the CSS examination should also be in Urdu also suffer from the same flaw of the stated goals and the actual environment for its practicability. Whether one likes it or not, anybody who ignores the education of English language would do so at his/her own peril.

AYZA Mar 03, 2017 09:13am

With advancements in internet technology, and online language instruction, learning new languages is now affordable and accessible.

Teachers who never had grade school English can now access online language programs and learn at their own pace.

aafiyat Nazar Mar 03, 2017 09:29am

The mother language is indeed a powerful medium. However, we do not have quality learning materials and trained teachers to educate individuals. The of use of mother language will be possible if govt. resolves to give priority to education and engage qualified people in producing quality learning material in the first place. Besides if it takes other measures and resolves to engage qualified people in research and training only then the mantra of mother language will yield a positive result. The importance and relevance of English language will remain unchanged due to the research material and medium of communication across the globe. We need to instill a value of learning local as well as other languages in our generations, as our society is constituted of diverse languages and cultures.

Sharlone Mar 03, 2017 10:43am

We should encourage local languages but since Urdu is not a mother language in any province, we should not underestimate the importance of English language. English has become the world language and knowing well is an asset for Pakisatn. Let me give you an example. European Central Bank is located in Frankfurt Germany and UK is not part of the Euro. But the official language used there is English in a Gerrman speaking country.

Muslim Mar 03, 2017 10:42am

People working abroad are the second biggest source of foreign exchange for Pakistan. And a reality abroad is that whoever is better in English gets an advantage. Turn completely to Urdu and in one generation say goodbye to remittances

Fazal Karim Mar 03, 2017 11:41am

Unfortunately standard of education in Urdu medium schools( mostly government) is poor. They are poor not only in maths, science, history etc also in Urdu language. Government has to raise standard of these schools to get public confidence in switching over to Urdu in general. Government should also have translation department to translate international literature of importance and scientific works on day to day basis as is done in other countries.

Syed Zamir hussain naqvi Mar 03, 2017 11:42am

I appreciate your effort to write on such an important and national issue i.e. English. what is more valuable and point of thinking is to try to learn it in order to conduct the affairs of government as an administrator. if you want to acquire higher post to serve the nation in public administration, then it is very important to have full knowledge and command over it. In fact, besides all discrepancies in our educational system, it is upto the individual to work hard in over coming his deficiency. It is pity shameful for us as a nation that only 2% candidates in CSS Exam could be succeeded. Before appearing in Central Superior Service Exam, we should have prepared ourselves for this exam. This is not a joke, you are going to represent your government to serve the nation.

Mansoor Mar 03, 2017 11:44am

5 education systems and the currency of exchange A and O level and head West, earn dollars, euro and pounds English medium Doctors, engineers and accountants earning Dinar Riyas. Madrassah graduates earning Afghani, riyal and dinars. Urdu medium earning in Rupees. Those who are learning in school of life bonded, barter or threat of empty stomach.

ABDULRAHMAN Mar 03, 2017 11:55am

The reasons are: 1. English is communication (link/bridge) language of the world. 2. Almost all advance educational material is available in English. 3. Learning English takes extra efforts than your mother tongue so it improves your thinking ability. 4. English is used almost in each and every field - TV, Radio, newspaper, offices, companies. 5. Almost all the legal documents are prepared in English. 6. Representing your country at international level - you should know excellent English. 7. English is easier to learn than any other language in the world. 8. Confidence level increases. 9. Becomes eligible to work almost anywhere in the world (provided that you should have required degree or skill). Any other reason required?

Nb Mar 03, 2017 12:37pm

@ABDULRAHMAN In addition, English fonts require minimum number of bits in computers internal memory, as compared with any other language. At Singapore, people speak Chinese or Malaya but English is compulsory in govt and country is economically doing better than others.

Nasir, London Mar 03, 2017 03:40pm

@Rehman: The best example of colonial hangover is 'SIR' . The British are gone but they have left us with 'Brown Sahib' called Sir. Until we get rid of this virus from our vein Urdu will remain second to English sir ! .

rafiq khan Mar 03, 2017 03:49pm

To be impartial Urdu has no potential to replace English because English is the key to every academic pursuit. Even it is the language of entertainment, sports,technology, internet and what not you name it.It is not even feasible because advanced material is in English and we have a wider choice.Such decision will take us centuries back.

N C Mishra Mar 03, 2017 04:33pm

Why bother about what British Council or their so called experts? This problem is true for both India and Pakistan. India has had riots on the issue of giving priority to Hindi. Britishers very successfully planted seed of self doubt in the subcontinent. Selfish politicians have only aggravated the situation.

Beelal Mar 03, 2017 04:32pm

@acer You are a breathing proof of our complex relation with English. Some times its rather better to keep quite, especially when CPEC comes to your mind on every irrelevant topic

skumar Mar 03, 2017 04:37pm

@Rehman -I have to disagree - our japanese trainers translate their japanese material into english for training us . Otherwise they have to learn and translate into 28 local languages which is impossible in internationl business . There are many countries without colonial rule but now use english for all their international business. Most of the one language based countries have already started learning english . when we choose and impose one local language in a multi-lingual country, problem of domination and inequality starts and escalate into major turmoil.

BAXAR Mar 03, 2017 05:14pm

@Fazal Karim "Unfortunately standard of education in Urdu medium schools( mostly government) is poor." These schools are run by those who are educated in English, in the highest private schools. So tell me how English education in expensive schools is better?

BAXAR Mar 03, 2017 05:48pm

@skumar "There are many countries without colonial rule but now use english for all their international business." We are not talking about international business, but about language of education and administration. Please tell the name of a single developed country that provides education in a foreign language.

BAXAR Mar 03, 2017 06:43pm

@Asif Iqbal "Urdu is as foreign to Pakistan as English is." How many songs popular in Pakistan, are written in English? Compare that with those written in Urdu. Then read your comment again. " Urdu is the mother tounge of only 7 % people mostly Mohajirs who came from India" They are not suffering because of English language, they mostly learn it quite easily being in the developed urban centers. Non Urdu speaking rural people suffer the most. "Pakistan should not dump English else Pakistan will lose whatever small edge it has." Please elaborate about that edge that we have compared to Chinese, Japanese, French, Germans, Koreans, Israelis, because of English.

SGH Mar 03, 2017 06:46pm

According to a recent survey of European Union 65% of all school children in the EU are regularly learning three languages: 1. Mother tongue. 2. English as the first foreign language. 3. A European language as the second foreign language. Pakistani children can also learn three languages: mother tongue, Urdu, and English.

zeea Mar 03, 2017 06:55pm

Whatever the writer is said is right to some extend, but can she explain that how we, as css aspirants for instance are going to switch in some months to study all the subjects in Urdu language when we have been given education in English throughout our educational background i.e. 16 years or so.?

SGH Mar 03, 2017 07:10pm

The discussion on languages in Pakistan is increasingly becoming theoretical and academic. The parents in the families, I know (relatives, friends, etc.), have already taken a sane decision for their children. They advise their children to learn three languages: 1. Mother tongue. 2. Urdu, a lingual bond unifying different provinces of Pakistan ( tv channels, newspapers, job mobility within Pakistan). 3. English ( College and University education, Science and Technology, computers and digital communication, international contacts and business).

powayman Mar 03, 2017 07:39pm

Any PhD will tell you that knowledge of English is essential if your trying to get a paper published. LIke it or not English is becoming the second language in most countries - that includes China. Urdu is may have cultural value but it's not going to help anybody get a job or help feed their families.

BAXAR Mar 03, 2017 08:09pm

@SGH "According to a recent survey of European Union 65% of all school children in the EU are regularly learning three languages:" As a subject. The main subjects (Sciences, maths,history, geography etc) are taught in their own language all the way.

BAXAR Mar 03, 2017 08:11pm

@zeea "how we, as css aspirants for instance are going to switch in some months to study all the subjects in Urdu language " You'll find better jobs in any English speaking country with your background. Why you choose to get the best public job of a country, that you didn't even bothered to learn the language? And you want to have preference over those who did.

ijaz a khan Mar 03, 2017 08:33pm

The year was 1957 and I was in an English medium school headed by an Englishman.We were nearing our matriculation exams and it appeared in the newspapers that the government had decided to introduce Urdu as medium of instruction for all examinations up to matriculation in two years time.Students were upset as they would have to learn URDU for all subjects.At the first opportunity gathered around our Principal to convey our apprehensions. He smiled and said rest assured nothing will happen. The boys were not assured and quoted that the news was authentic and thus a cause for worry. The Principal smiled and said that there should no cause for worry. His logic was that the son of the Education Secretary must be in the 9th class in an English medium school and would have passed Matric exams before the deadline for implementation of policy.By that time a new education secretary would be in place with his son in the 9th class and so the policy would never be implemented.This has been the case since. The policy makers just do not want to change the system as they and their children do not want to put in the extra effort to learn another language .As for the Urdu as a foreign language too, the detractors ignore the fact that Urdu is understood throughout Pakistan by all people . Someone just has to push the government functionaries to put in the extra effort needed.

tariq Mar 03, 2017 09:15pm

Fix the text book for science,math. Right now Pakistan does not have the needed text material to change the teaching language. I believe the author knows that well. Emotions wont change the facts!

Reality Mar 03, 2017 09:50pm

@Abraham haque That is URDU.......

skumar Mar 03, 2017 10:27pm

@BAXAR - The example of 'one language one nation' cannot be applied to multilingual countries. Most developed countries were formed only on the basis of one language so there is no controversy on common language. but in multilingual countries formed after the 50s you cannot apply one local language by force bcos this will disadvantage the other language people.This leaves with no option but to have a neutral language which will be equally applied for all. fair enough , That is the reason english come into play .

Syed F. Hussaini Mar 03, 2017 10:30pm

@ijaz a khan

The state functionary wants to keep Urdu for the kids of the poor going to the government school.

English is the doorway to knowledge and empowerment the poor have to be denied to keep them poor.


Muzzamil Mar 03, 2017 10:55pm

Urdu is mother tongue of less than 7% Pakistanis . Why to make it official language? May be after mother tongue teach English directly

Abbas Naeem Mar 05, 2017 03:04pm

It's all about the environment we make around ourselves and our kids. Whatever language we need to adopt must be the "medium" of instructions from the very beginning (play group) . A school-going kid spends almost five and a half hours at school and if he has the chance to have the environment of listening that particular language all these hours at school he will get familiar and naturally adapt himself accordingly. After a year or two he will be speaking in that language fluently. It is only possible when schools appoint teachers, on primary level, who have done their masters in literature of that particular language with best communication skills after being interviewed thoroughly, bearing in mind that they are going to shape the very foundation of a kid's education, and offer them handsome salary packages. These teachers must be told not to talk in any other language when entered into the school.