The Importance of Being Articulate

by: Ali Nabi Nur

December 20, 2012

Language has always been a hot topic in any dialogue on education in Pakistan. With six major spoken languages and over three hundred dialects, Pakistan plays host to a plethora of diverse tongues and this has posed many challenges to policy makers. To complicate matters further, one has to deal with the political underpinnings behind the use of language, especially in regards to the perceived tension between one’s provincial and National identity.

Calls to standardise the education system across the country have also been heard from many quarters including high ranking politicians and educationists. At the Political Party Consultations held by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi in various provinces this July, it was clear that the need for standardization of the national curriculum was a major part of most parties’ manifestos and political agendas.

One glaring factor that needs to be addressed here is the language of instruction. If we are to have one syllabus, most would say that we should also teach in a common language.

Or should we? There is a subtle difference between “equality” and “equity”. Whilst the former implies employing the same resources, language of instruction and syllabus across the board, the latter refers to equality of opportunity. Surely our primary goal is to give children an education which would provide them with essential life skills and analytical capability for higher order thinking and functioning. Bearing this in mind, is having a common language of instruction giving “equity” i.e. equal opportunity to all children to fulfil this goal?

A study on multilingual education by Cummins (1979) shows that language proficiency not only has a positive relationship with a child’s cognitive capacity but also helps in the better learning of a second language. His “Threshold Theory” posits that, for multilingual children, high proficiency in both languages gives them an edge over monolingual students however if they have low proficiency in both languages then they will experience learning problems later on.

One can clearly see the glaring implications that these findings uncover regarding our education system in Pakistan. The majority of the population speaks regional languages and dialects at home, yet they have to learn in Urdu and/or English. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) conducted in 2011 has shown that over 50% of children who have completed primary school cannot read grade 2 competency English and even Urdu. Given that the other subjects are taught (in the majority of Pakistan) in Urdu or English, it is not at all surprising that average learning levels are so low. Even in the case of some areas where the provincial language isthe medium of instruction, the textbooks are still in Urdu/English or have not been properly translated.

The studies done on multilingualism in children further show that a child learns the language spoken at home in a much shorter span of time than the ones taught at school. The Developmental Interdependence Hypothesis states that a child’s second language competence is partly dependent on the competence of his or her first language.

Therefore, what can we conclude from these findings? Firstly, that intelligence is not contingent upon one’s learning any particular language. It is tragic to think about all the wasted potential of our children who could have achieved high levels of learning were they only allowed and encouraged to express themselves in the best way that they possibly can. The ability to grasp a concept is contingent on a child’s capacity to put the idea into words and then relate it to his or her worldview. A concept learned in an alien language becomes alien itself.

In order to improve the learning levels of our children, the language of instruction should match that of the language spoken at home. With the new devolution of power to the provinces, as per the 18th amendment, the respective provincial policy makers for education are in a position to revamp the system in their respective jurisdictions to incorporate local language instruction in their schools. This, in conjunction with amendments to the curriculum to make it more learning oriented, would ensure a sharp increase in retention and cognitive capacity of the children.

Does this mean we give up on English and Urdu? The answer is a definite no as studies have shown that high proficiency in a child’s local language would better facilitate the learning of a new language. Taking the example of Indonesia we can see a system such as the one proposed above in practice. Indonesia is made up of over a thousand islands each with its own cultures and language. To unify the country, a language was devised called “Bahasa Indonesia” which was announced as the official national language. Similar to the case of Urdu in Pakistan, the majority of the population did not speak the national language Bahasa Indonesia however the way they dealt with this scenario is commendable. A bilingual education system is in place in which the language of instruction is the local language and the National language is a compulsory subject for all students. Support for the local language is then garnered and reinforced from the home and the national language through the media (newspapers etc.). Being a developing nation similar to Pakistan, Indonesia is not without its hurdles in education however their literacy rate supersedes ours as well as their economic development.

This scenario can only be applied to Pakistan under certain conditions. There are many issues that could hinder the establishment of an equitable bilingual education system across the country. Deciding what regional language to use in areas with more than one dialect could be problematic. Furthermore, the current feeling of insecurity regarding the cohesion of the provinces may also keep those in power focused on promoting Urdu and English as “neutral” languages.

More commitment will have to be shown by the government to firstly amend the curriculum, which is not conducive to learning and is exam focused. A learning centred approach is the key to improving education in Pakistan. Secondly, the curriculum must be adequately “translated” into the various regional languages of instruction. This must be done with extreme care to ensure the standard of quality is maintained between schools across the board. Government support in the form of higher spending will also be needed to incorporate these drastic changes and this can only come from pressure from CSOs and the public in general. These steps are ambitious on the surface however with diligence and determination from those in policy making positions they can, with time, be implemented. Children have the right to learn in the language of their choice and, given equitable opportunity, can surpass all expectations.