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Language and thinking

Published Mar 13, 2013 12:15am


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EDUCATION is a much talked about issue in today’s Pakistan. Unfortunately it provokes little serious thinking and even less action. I keep hoping that this talk will turn into action sooner than later. Until that happens we need to continue talking to keep the matter alive.

At the Karachi Literature Festival recently the session on education which brought a number of top-ranking educationists together was, therefore, a positive move. As could have been expected, the speakers could only touch the tip of the iceberg.

One issue that came up in the course of the discussion that followed was that of critical thinking. Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a very articulate example of a critical thinker, was spot on when he said that no school was teaching its students how to think — be it an elitist expensive institution or a low-fee community school.

One may well ask why. It is because educationists have created a comfort zone for themselves and do not want it to be challenged by “cheeky” students asking uncomfortable questions, which they are bound to do if they are prodded into thinking and analysing issues.

Conformity is highly valued in our society. Since we are still confused about the goals of education in Pakistan — apart from making people good Muslims and employable — the need for instilling critical thinking in our youth is not recognised. Passing examinations by rote learning or resorting to unfair means seems to be the foremost aim of all students. Actually one doesn’t have to teach critical thinking. It is a faculty every child is born with. What we manage to do very effectively is to suppress it. This act of destruction is first carried out by the parents — the mother, if the father does not regard parenting to be his duty — and then the teachers. This feat has been accomplished by the time the child reaches his teens.

The child’s natural curiosity is the first manifestation of his ability to think. When he asks questions — many of them seemingly meaningless — he is trying to reach the depth of whatever is agitating his mind. If this process is interrupted because the adult does not have the time or the patience or the inclination to answer these questions, the message conveyed to the child is a simple one: “shut up”.

The practice of using the television as a babysitter also dumbs the child’s mind. TV images may convey a lot of information to the viewer but they do not make him think. The teacher carries the process further when he suppresses his students’ creativity by discouraging innovation. The highest marks go to the student who reproduces answers faithfully from his textbook.

Even if this approach to critical thinking were to change, no success is possible if the language issue is not addressed concurrently. Many educators concede that it is a well-established fact that children learn best in their mother tongue. Yet the emphasis on English — and even Urdu in communities where this is not the home language — continues unabashedly.

What is most worrying is the failure to use the home language at the elementary and primary level. Education begins from bottom upwards. It is therefore important that more attention is paid to child psychology when a student starts school. The best language strategies at the higher level of education cannot undo the damage that has already been wrought.

Worldwide research has now clearly established that language acquisition is a biological process which has a symbiotic relationship with the development of the brain and cognitive growth. As the child’s language skills grow his capacity to think also increases and this in turn promotes his language. After all, one needs a language to think.

That explains why a child with poor language skills — due to lack of “motherese” and being denied enough human contact — also has weak cognitive skills. While he is still passing through this phase, if an unfamiliar language is forced on him which he doesn’t readily understand and which cuts him off from his home language, his cognitive development is bound to suffer. New research on the human brain which has become possible with the development of technologies such as CT scan and the MRI has resulted in a new wealth of knowledge about the minds of babies. “Babies know and learn more about the world than we ever imagined. They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments,” the book How Babies Think by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl informs us.

What is more fascinating is that science now tells us that the child is born with quite a deal of the neurological structure of its brain in place. But the brain changes in the first few years of life in response to the experiences of the child. The process of the neurons growing connections with one another is deeply influenced by the experiences that the baby draws from its sensory organs. This re-wiring of the brain in turn stimulates cognitive development. This learning of the baby is intrinsically connected with language. So how can anyone say that language is not an issue? In Pakistan where a huge majority of parents are illiterate and even among those who are educated a minuscule minority is fluently bilingual, how can you try teaching a small child in a language that is alien to him?

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


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (19) Closed

umesh bhagwat Mar 13, 2013 06:34am
it has been proved beyond doubt that the mother-tongue is the best medium of instruction for a child!
Shahryar Shirazi Mar 13, 2013 05:51pm
Will you send your kids to a Hindi medium school and then let them compete at the global stage ?
Akhtar Hussain Mar 13, 2013 03:16pm
I think Language would not be an issue if we start English right from the Class one!.. And the main problem are the teachers in primary school that don't have proficiency in English themselves so they don't teach English till Class 5. If we have well educated teachers that could teach children English from Class one the problem can be less disastrous..
Agha Ata (USA) Mar 13, 2013 01:14pm
Very good article. But in this country, parents don't want their children to think; the government doesn't want masses to think either. Mullah keep telling that faithfuls are not supposed to think but to follow rules, because, if they think, that would arrive at erroneous results (that might endanger Mullah's power) So the conclusion is that thinking makes people dangerous for the powerful.
Vijay K Mar 13, 2013 02:03pm
Though it is true that the medium of education remains the native language in the most advanced countries (German, French, Japanese and Chinese), there are exceptions to the above argument. Arab countries remain backward as compared to the West, despite their schooling being in Arabic. Same is true of many African and South American countries who remain backward despite being taught in their native tongues.
LOL Mar 13, 2013 02:34pm
"Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a very articulate example of a critical thinker..." Articulate yes. Critical thinker NO. Someone's mouthpiece more likely.
Samiullah Mar 13, 2013 07:04am
Really shocking...and its reality...."educationists have created a comfort zone for themselves and do not want it to be challenged by
Samiullah Mar 13, 2013 07:15am
How I can publish my article in Dawn... Please give me the details
DharmendraGoel Mar 13, 2013 12:28pm
YesBegum Zubeida Mustafa, you are very incisive relating to the early mental growth of a n infant. We are thrown in an alien world from the cozy comforts of Womb, in a disorderly crowds of Big Buzzing noises and confusions. It is remarkable with almost with neural circuitry and reactions to imports of multiple signals of very various kinds from our different sensory receptors , we develop a system of mapping ,coding and classifying as young Infant in terms o f cues of oral categories and their patterned resemblances. the language one learns with Parents intimacy and siblings organises our ready made charts and categoriesof all the world that confronts us -animals,vegetations friends and material objects. We classify in the fewest categories, such as that shout, walk or fly ,as opposed to the rest that are fixed things in Space , trees , Stars Houses or tools... We have to formulate sufficiently sturdy categories that could provide a working representationsof all that one encounters in one's world or better his world to be. ,So, Dear Begum Zubeida the coordination of things .attributes ,sound and voices is truly a real marvel and not merely cramming certain words by repetitious utterances .As it i s said we learn to procure by three sounds not a foruth Sound ,but A star! D. Goel
Saad (@saad_durrani) Mar 13, 2013 09:24pm
Sir, your argument is slightly flawed. Brazil, a South American country, is growing as fast as India. Chile shows good indicators too. Turkey is another country with favorable indicators. African countries are usually tied inside political turbulence so is most of Middle East.
Sadia Zafar Mar 13, 2013 09:58pm
Spot on Agha, you can not have critical thinking in a country that has blasphemy law!
Sue Sturgess Mar 14, 2013 01:05am
why do you refer to the child only as male?
Devil Mar 14, 2013 05:17am

By writing it !

AnZ Mar 14, 2013 11:53am

I agree with you that we need to bring in critical thinking into our education systems and in that respect many of the developed countries need to improve as well. When you speak about critical thinking usually it is believed that it leads to the abandonment of all previously held beliefs and systems, a part of your write up reinforces that. Rather someone who thinks logically is someone who accepts and rejects ideas at their merit and does not necessarily abandon existing beliefs. he would however replace them if seen to be wrong. Much of the issue of the second Language being enforced goes back to our Cultural beggary and lack of national confidence. It is ironic that the more Quran and Ahadith invite us to think logically and deeply the more some schools of thought promote rigidity and conservatiness in thinking. I do believe that the real spirit of Islam promotes thinking correctly and freedom of thinking but we are usually tempted into generalizing that religion and the religious are hurdle to free thinking.. another fallacy you read about in critical thinking !

Rani Mar 14, 2013 05:14pm
You obviously don't think and are safe...
RSS Mar 14, 2013 05:21pm
Ha, ha, ha. Clearly you have never been published, or published
Ali Mar 14, 2013 06:11pm
And how in the world did you reach that conclusion?
Ali Mar 14, 2013 06:14pm
I think you completely missed the point of the article as well as what Umesh said. The point is to instruct children in their mother tongues as they are relatively, more likely, to learn and develop critical thinking skills. It does not mean that you don't teach these children other languages to be able to compete, communicate and live life as a global citizen.
Agha Ata (USA) Mar 14, 2013 08:06pm