Bilingualism: access & equity

May 24, 2019

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The writer is former VC of the Lahore College for Women University and is currently professor of English at the Lahore School of Economics.
The writer is former VC of the Lahore College for Women University and is currently professor of English at the Lahore School of Economics.

THE aim of current policy planners to establish a ‘national uniform system’ in education to ensure that all students have access to education and employment is worthy, and requires the attention of academic scholars and researchers. However, this policy raises several questions, a key one being: why should Pakistan adopt a uniform system when it is common knowledge in academia that the education offered in a country such as ours should celebrate diversity and embrace multilingualism?

Pakistan is a multilingual and multicultural state. Urdu, though it is the mother tongue of only a small portion of the population, is the official national language. English, a legacy of British colonisation, remained the second official language until 1973 and continues to enjoy a higher social status than Urdu. Research has shown that English is the language of power; it is used in higher education as a medium of instruction; and is the official language in the upper levels of administration, executive, judiciary and civil services. Meanwhile, our regional languages — mother tongues of a large population of Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, and Balochi speakers — remain ‘minority’ languages; they have a lower status, and play no significant role in education and officialdom.

Recent research reveals that the quality of education in private schools is higher, as students display creative thinking and problem-solving skills at various levels of education, as opposed to public school students who are made dependent on rote learning. Primary schooling should allow the use of students’ mother tongues to enable conceptual understanding and cognitive development. The current mode of instruction in a second or foreign language is not only confusing for children but also gives rise to subtractive bilingualism. The most serious consequence of mass failures in English in board and university examinations is due to students’ lack of written English fluency in higher education.

There are some major language policy failures that are responsible for the fractured system of education. Unfortunately, efforts made by various language commissions have resulted in failure. Other important factors include unstable political governments; resistance of elitist forces to change the status quo so that power is not distributed; as well as pressure groups who thrive on English-language teaching and assessment.

There is a close nexus between language in education and language in employment.

The arguments put forward for the current elitist policy, adopted by Pakistan and many former British colonies where English is a medium of instruction or taught as a compulsory subject, is based on the following assumptions: (i) national development (especially in trade and business) is linked with competency and fluency in English; (ii) positive attitudes towards, and high motivation to study in, English among all stakeholders, from students and teachers to policymakers and administrators; (iii) fluency in English makes it easier for graduates who studied in private, English-medium schools to access white-collar jobs than for those who studied in public, Urdu-medium schools; and (iv) English is considered an asset as a link language for international communication.

Research informs us that these assumptions are highly contestable and do not justify the importance and spread of English. All developed countries take pride in their national language and have high ethnolinguistic vitality. Moreover, if the significant investment that has already been made into English as a mode of instruction has not borne fruit, why should more funds be drained for it?

The display of positive attitudes and high motivation among students to study in English is mainly due to instrumental reasons, such as access to higher education and employment. As for learning English as an international language, it is useful and serves as a link language globally. As a former colony, Pakistan inherited English from its British colonial masters. Keeping in view speedy technological advances and other instrumental reasons, I agree with the argument ‘why throw the baby out with the bath water’.

However, there is no reason to offer it as a medium of education, when competency in English offered as a subject from grade one can achieve this objective provided there are updated programmes and trained bilingual teachers. Research findings also revealed that students and employees had highly positive attitudes towards Urdu. It was rated second after English in terms of language as a medium of instruction, as well as being the working language of their workplace.

Research informs us that there is a close nexus between language in education and language in employment. A critical problem in Pakistan is unemployment among graduates. There is a huge gap between the demand and supply of jobs in the country. The spread of English as an international language led to the belief that the employment sector in particular would require English in formal and informal communication, and is widely considered the lingua franca at the workplace.

In terms of the impact of the spread of English in former British colonies, a nationwide grant-funded research study on language and Pakistan’s employment sector revealed that, in the majority of public- and private-based institutes and organisations, applicants for white-collar jobs are required to be fluent in English for recruitment and upward mobility.

To end this polarisation, I strongly recommend that bilingual education be matched by bilingual employment. Legislation should be passed to make all public-sector employment institutions and organisations bilingual. It would be applicable in all respects. Applicants for all types of jobs at various levels, including senior management, would be provided a choice to take their entrance tests and interviews in either Urdu or English. Both languages should be the official languages of Pakistan, and employers should also be competent in Urdu and English. Lack of fluency in English should not stand in the way of promotions to senior ranks.

The writer is former VC of the Lahore College for Women University and is currently professor of English at the Lahore School of Economics.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2019