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Language and thinking

March 13, 2013

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.