Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


English as a barrier

April 19, 2011


AN online video doing the rounds on the Internet is a talk by Patricia Ryan titled ‘Don’t insist on English’. It is one of the TED productions that definitely lives up to its claim of disseminating “ideas worth spreading”.

For those who may not be familiar with TED (the acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design), the Sapling Foundation organises conferences where speakers present original ideas. Their talks are presented on videos that are available online free of charge, and until last year 900 talks were available that had a global viewership of over 290 million.

Ryan is a teacher of English who has worked in the Gulf states for over a decade which has given her a profound understanding of foreign language teaching. The talk is worth listening to, and can easily be located on the Internet.

What clearly emerges from this talk is that languages must be protected from the onslaught of the globalisation of English. Why? Because language is the main carrier of thought and knowledge, and if you do not allow a child to learn and talk in his own language many brilliant ideas he may possess will never reach the world and will die with him.

Ryan warns that our present emphasis on English is obstructing the spread of rich ideas because we tend to equate the knowledge of English with knowledge itself. She even poses the provocative question of what would have happened if Einstein had to appear for TOEFL. In our own context, I think Ryan’s talk explains the misconceptions we have nursed for years and which are unfortunately growing.

Whenever I have visited schools for children who are first-generation school-goers in their family I am struck by the barriers many of them face because of the language factor. Many critics point to the shoddy state of textbooks, the poor pedagogy and the curriculum of hatred that are stunting our children’s intellectual development. But few add to this list our failure to formulate a clear-cut language in education policy. Even if an ambivalent policy is in place it is not implemented in its spirit. As a result, misconstrued social perceptions dominate the approach to education.

For instance, there is a general belief, as Ryan points out, that proficiency in English is equated with having knowledge. Can’t children be taught in their own language to make them educated? Personally, I think they would learn better.

It is also obvious that a teacher who has not had a good education herself and has received no training, stands a better chance of making something out of her own life and the life of her students if she undergoes in-service professional training in the language she is familiar with. We all know that teachers who cannot communicate in their own language — as is the case with most of them — need training. And is it not common sense that they will fare better in their own language?

I realised the significance of language for the child’s learning and training when I attended functions organised by two schools teaching children from low-income localities. One of them conducted most of the proceedings in English. Since this is also the language the students are learning in class they had some understanding of it. I often noticed that there was a buzz in the audience indicating the failure of the speakers to hold the young students’ attention. At the school run by Behbud Association which caters to children of the poor from Shireen Jinnah Colony, a low-income area of Karachi, there was pin-drop silence while speeches were made and skits performed punctuated with applause. It was evident that the children were interested in all that was happening on the stage since it was in a language that they could comprehend fully and relate to.

There were two students who were outstanding. They had been allowed to show their creativity. One was 11-year old Muneeba, who had been in the school for three years. She recited a poem that she had written by parodying another poem she had heard her friend recite. It had a pun on some words which she ingeniously twisted to give them different connotations from stanza to stanza. Obviously, she could do that because the poem was in Urdu, a language she was fluent in.

Similarly, Mohammad Idrees, a student of class nine, had written a poem on the occasion of World TB day based on his knowledge of the disease that he acquired when he participated in the awareness campaign organised by the TB clinic which Behbud runs for indigent patients. Both Muneeba and Idrees are enjoying their studies because they are allowed free expression in the language they are familiar with.Try talking with small children in English. Then switch over to their own language in which they are fluent. You will find them smarter and more confident. They will have more and smarter things to say. And yet, we try and dumb down the child by not allowing him to express himself in the language he began learning when he was an infant.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Patricia Ryan. “I am not against teaching English. I am against using it as a barrier.” I agree and would add that English should not be used as a yardstick either. Some of the most intelligent and really knowledgeable people I have met would fail TOEFL as Einstein would have.

The writer is the author of Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution.