Language mess

Published January 22, 2021
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

SOME provinces use the provincial/regional language as the medium of instruction in the early years. Others use Urdu or English, or a mix of both. Urdu and English are also taught as languages. Both are considered important. The only debate about them pertains to whether English should be introduced in the curriculum, if it is not the medium of instruction. Some argue English should come in from the start like Urdu, others that English should be introduced in Class 6, after a child has developed competence in her mother tongue and Urdu.

So, our language policy is a mess. We have not worked out a plan for what languages we want to teach our children, what languages we want to teach them in and when and how we want to teach these languages. Our policy confuses the medium-of-instruction debate with the language-acquisition debate. Making the medium of instruction Urdu or English does not mean the student will, while learning other subjects, learn the language that is being used. The child will probably not learn the language nor understand the subject being taught in that language. If we want to teach science in English, the child has to know English before she can learn science in that language. To expect the child to learn the language while studying science in English is to put her and her teachers on the path of difficulty and failure.

There are some things that are quite clear from research literature on education. Children learn best if they are taught in the language they understand. It is obvious but needs to be emphasised. For the early years, this might be the language children use at home. In Pakistan, this usually means the regional or local language or dialect. Children can pick up and learn a number of languages. If we want children to learn Urdu and English, there is no harm in teaching these as subjects. But the medium of instruction in the early years and till children are comfortable in other languages has to be their mother tongue.

It is also clear, from empirical literature on parental preferences in Pakistan, that most parents, not surprisingly, want their children to be comfortable in both Urdu and English. Both are seen as languages for social and economic mobility. English, especially, is considered very important for economic and social advancement. Empirical literature on mobility does bear out that parental perceptions about the importance of languages, and English in particular, are not misplaced.

Why have the provinces not come up with a coherent language policy in education?

We need to use regional/ local languages in the early years to facilitate better learning (even of other languages), have Urdu and English taught as subjects and then, if we so desire, have the medium of instruction changed to another language at a point where children are more or less comfortable with it. This seems simple enough. Yet, we have always messed up the language policy. We still have provinces who do not give any weight to local languages in the early years and use Urdu or English as the medium of instruction. We do not have clarity on when English would be introduced as a subject (some want it introduced in Class 6), and we are still unclear on when the medium of instruction shift (from the local language or Urdu to English) should happen, if at all.

One factor that complicates things radically is the issue of quality of education. Irrespective of the language of instruction, we teach most of our students poorly. The language skills of our students at the end of 10 years of education are generally very poor. Most people complain that even after matriculation, children cannot write in English. But this is almost as true of Urdu and other languages. We just do not teach well. This complicates things because historically we have kept shifting between languages used as the medium of instruction on the basis that students find Urdu or English too hard. But if we teach a language poorly, clearly, it will be hard to use that language as the medium of instruction later on. This might not be just a reflection on what is better as the medium of instruction; issues related to the quality of instruction must also be considered.

Given our current state, a better way for us is to rely on more solid research: instruction in the home language in the early years, introduction of other languages as languages and then a shift to other mediums of instruction, as needed, when children feel comfortable with the change. But, and this cannot be emphasised enough, we have to improve the quality of teaching of all languages.

Why have the provinces (and post-18th Amendment, education, including language policy, is a provincial subject) found it so hard to come up with a coherent and consistent language policy on education? This is a difficult question to answer. But part of the explanation comes from the political economy of language issues. Parents want children to be comfortable in English and Urdu, most of the public sector and low-fee private-sector schools cannot ensure that due to issues with the quality of teaching. When there is talk of using the local language in the early years, parents see this as a repudiation of the promise to deliver on teaching Urdu and English and the state is left with trying to move between Urdu and English as mediums of instruction to appease parental demand. It ends up failing due to teaching issues.

We need more resolute action on language policy in education. The policy imperatives are clear: local language medium in the early years, teaching of multiple languages as languages alongside, and then, if needed, switching to these languages as the medium in later years. But, the political economy in the area, especially due to the poor quality of instruction, is complicated and has made these moves difficult. Will our children continue to suffer because of our incompetence?

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2021

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