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Language of instruction

June 09, 2012

THERE has been some debate in these pages recently about the ideal language of educational instruction.

One side argues that English is the lingua franca of the world. Never before has a language been as widely used as the common language of business, government and science. Increasingly, it is the language of higher and technical learning.

This alone highlights the necessity of education in English as we strive to compete and stay relevant in a globalised economy.

On the other side, critics weave together anti-colonialism and dissonance between dominant-elite and oppressed-working class narratives into a case against the use of English as the language of instruction.

This side also highlights the pedagogical difficulties of teaching English to children who speak a different language at home.

It may also be mentioned as a point for the ‘against English’ argument that there simply are not enough trained teachers who can provide instruction in English or teach the language itself if we were to switch to instruction only in English.

It is a good thing that this is being debated, notwithstanding the irony of this happening in the language of our supposed colonial overlords. In important ways, it appears to me, both the ‘for English’ and ‘against English’ camps are missing the real issue.

Pakistan is not the only country where people have raged against the use of English at the expense of the native tongue.

Japan, France, China and many others have tried to stem the tide and have failed. Governments in many Asian countries are now funding English-language training and immersion programmes out of fear that their scientists, engineers, doctors and economists might fall behind the rest of the world. In many non-English speaking countries, universities and technical colleges are switching to English as the language of instruction.

Policymakers in a number of low- and middle-income countries have come to the conclusion that fluency in English as a second language is a ticket to technological and economic development for their citizens, individually, and the economy as a whole. This is not some dastardly conspiracy; it is just a fact. As Greek was the language of upward economic and social mobility under the Hellenic empire, Latin in Rome, Arabic under the Caliphates and Persian under the Mughals; so English is the enduring legacy of the British Empire. This may be a colonial leftover, but nobody is forcing it on us.

Perhaps what has been lost in this debate is parental choice, and what forces inform and motivate that choice. Parents make educational choices every year. One of these choices is about the language in which they would like their children educated and this is informed by two broad factors.

First, is an ethno-linguistic; there is a tussle between Urdu and the multiple languages that are spoken in Pakistani households. Many children grow up with a language at home that is neither English, nor Urdu. In such households there are complex identity politics at play. This, of course varies from province to province and ethnicity to ethnicity.

It would be a mistake to enforce in such a context a state-imposed requirement that teaching be in the national language instead of the ‘colonial’ language. The imposition of one language has been tried in the past with unhappy results. The idea that we need to come together and decide one language in which all and sundry ought to be educated has a certain neat appeal to it, but it ignores the ethno-linguistic realities of Pakistan.

Besides, while we debate the matter, it appears that parents and schools have resolved this problem in a mutually agreeable way. In many urban areas public schools often offer parallel classes for students where the medium of instruction is Urdu or the local language.

These schools often operate near low-fee private schools that offer education in English. This neatly sidesteps the problem and allows parents to choose. Whether instruction in one language leads to better educational outcomes than another is an important question and research needs to be conducted in that direction. Even if such research finds in favour of Urdu (or a regional language), it does not follow that and enforced choice on behalf of the parents and their children is possible (legally or ethically).

This brings me to the second and, arguably, more important factor: economics. These choices are informed by their assessment of potential future economic and social prospects for their child. It can be debated whether they have all the information necessary to make the ‘right’ choice, but surely the choice has to be theirs.

Finally, there is the problem of matching the demands of the labour market and what we teach at school. To be sure, education is not only about enhancing employability and earning potential but those are major motivating factors behind enrolment decisions. And the language that ensures greater success in important fields of study and employment is English.

Frankly, as it stands today, Urdu (or regional languages) just does not have the vocabulary or grammar to provide an efficient medium for the imparting of knowledge about physics, medicine, mathematics or computer engineering. This largely applies to the middle and high income households, however, and they are already receiving all their education in English.

When it comes to working-class professions fluency in English is largely immaterial. This one fact ensures class rigidity as poor parents have to weigh limited potential economic opportunities in a non-meritocratic society against the potential extra costs of education in a non-native language. How we resolve that is the real question.

The writer is an Islamabad-based policy analyst.