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When will we learn?

July 10, 2017


THE other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating to language and learning. The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorised as ‘other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity.

So far, so good, as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But one paragraph needs to be quoted in full: “There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one has to choose from an early age which language one’s children should excel in — in a local language which does not have any worth in the job market or the one that can serve as a vehicle for the development of their careers.”

This belief effectively represents Pakistan’s language policy and the understanding of parents making it necessary to show why it is misleading. A minor problem is that it undermines the author’s objective. Only living languages are sustained — attempts to preserve languages as museum pieces inevitably fail. Languages shunned as worthless for employment are doomed to slow death.

Dr Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education, nor did they start it in English.

The major problem is that the argument negates evidence on linguistics and learning. First, the critical early-age decision is not choosing the language a child should excel in with a career in mind. It is choosing the language of instruction that maximises the child’s ability to learn effectively. There is ample evidence to suggest that children learn best in their first language — they pick up subjects like arithmetic better if taught in a familiar language.

Second, it is incorrect that children can only learn one language well because it becomes harder to learn a language with age. In fact, evidence suggests that children who begin learning in a familiar language are better at acquiring a second unfamiliar language later compared to those who start directly with the unfamiliar language. After much research the EU has adopted the ‘mother-tongue plus two’ formula whereby children begin school in their mother-tongue and acquire two more languages before completing high school.

Third, the belief that excelling in a language requires learning it from day one is incorrect and results from misunderstanding the learning process. Children acquire their first language effortlessly because they are immersed in it and have to survive by communicating their needs in it. This need-driven acquisition is not transferrable to alien languages. For example, in a Seraiki neighbourhood if Chinese is made the medium of instruction children will not acquire it as fluently as Seraiki. Rather, they will retard their cognitive abilities struggling with an unfamiliar learning vehicle.

Fourth, adults learn foreign languages quite easily. They may lack the accents of native speakers but can be highly proficient otherwise. Observe the number of non-native scholars of Urdu in Western universities doing world-class work — Annemarie Schimmel did not learn four oriental languages as a child. Adult Pakistani students in France and Germany do so likewise.

Fifth, career decisions are not made in kindergarten. They are based on aptitude which matures later and is itself an outcome of a good education. Dr Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education, nor did they start it in English. Had they done so they might have ended as babus in a British office.

The importance of language in early education has long been recognised. Macaulay introduced English as the medium of instruction for the Indian elite in 1835, triggering a wider demand because of its association with employment. However, a review of the policy in 1904 by the British themselves came to the following conclusion: “It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction… This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule, a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.”

Over 100 years later, a British Council study in Pakistan noted “various adverse outcomes arising from negative attitudes towards indigenous languages and for using Urdu and English as languages of instruction. These included high dropout rates, poor educational achievements, ethnic marginalisation and, longer term, a risk of language death”. The study concluded that “there was an urgent need for awareness-raising about the importance of the mother tongue in the early years of education”.

Parents most in need of this message, with children short-changed by early education in poor English, do not read such studies. It is for educationists to both raise awareness and convince the authorities to res­pect available evidence. Note that the Chinese have made remarkable progress without using English as the medium for early education while we who have done so are left far behind. All Chinese who need to learn English to advance their careers manage to do so.

The simple message to convey is that to acquire English it is not necessary to have it as the language of instruction in early education and doing so is bad for learning. It is understandable if parents confuse the issue; for decision-makers to do so just proves that knowing English does not necessarily correlate with intelligence.

The writer was Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lums.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2017