Chasing English

BR Research August 19, 2019

Next to 5 million children out of primary school in Pakistan— a number large enough itself to sound off some alarming bells— there are 17 million kids that are going to school and not learning. Not only is access to education a major problem, the larger problem is that of quality and whether enrolling children into schools is actually creating educated youth. It is not (read: “Education: Two truths and a lie”, July 29, 2019), and among major culprits is the medium of instruction. Literature suggests language is one of the major factors that determine a student’s academic success.

Mistakenly believing that teaching English would automatically lead to that, in 2010, the Punjab Government decided to make all public schools English-Medium. A major reason was also to bring public school going children at par with private school children and reduce the inherent inequality that existed between the two. The plan obviously backfired. Last month, Punjab government announced that it would change the medium of instruction once again— this time from English to Urdu. Chief Minister Buzdar cited a survey conducted by the Department of School Education in Punjab across 22 districts which found that 85 percent respondents favoured Urdu over English as a medium of instruction.

The problem was, while medium of instruction was changed to English, it only meant that teachers and students who did not understand English were now studying and teaching in English, a language they could not comprehend. In 2013, a few years after Punjab government made schools English-medium, the British Council conducted a survey that found that: a) 62 percent of private school teachers and 56 percent of government school teachers registered scores in the lowest possible band in the Aptis test (The British Council’s own Aptis language testing system).

This meant, they lacked basic knowledge of English, including the ability to understand and use familiar everyday expressions and simple phrases; b) most of the remaining teachers received scores that placed them at beginners’ level in English; c) even in English medium schools, 44 percent of teachers scored in the bottom Aptis band. In all, 94 percent of teachers in English medium schools had pre-intermediate level English or lower. The study argued that Punjab’s teachers were not equipped to deliver the new English medium policy, and in fact, their overall teaching quality had major deficiencies. The English-medium policy was actually impeding learning, instead of aiding it as it inevitably led to rote-learning, rather than building understanding of the textbooks.

What ultimately happens that is, these so-called “English-Medium” children who rote learn their way out of schools are unable to get into higher education which is predominantly instructed in English? As Nadia Naviwala argues in her latest book published by the Wilson Center, English has created an impossible condition for children’s education, social mobility and opportunity where “the onus is on the underprivileged classes to achieve it without ever being taught the language or being exposed to it”.

The problem of language is beyond Urdu and English though as Nadia contends: “…children understand and speak one language, usually their mother tongue like Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Seraiki, or Hindko. That language is spoken in class, but textbooks are in another language, Urdu or English. Children struggle with reading and comprehension in both languages”. Nadia quotes Ishrat Husain where he says that medium of instruction should be the mother tongue during pre and primary school years to help in understanding and comprehensive while English should be taught as a language.

This has been bolstered by other research studies as well. For instance, the Citizens Foundation (TCF) conducted a study that found that it was cognitively best for children to learn in their mother tongue. The research recommended that a foreign language like English can be introduced in the curriculum once literacy is established in the mother tongue while it needs to be taught as a subject for at least five years before it can be used as a medium of instruction.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), less than 2 percent Pakistanis speak Urdu in Balochistan and KP, while this number is 5 percent and 2 percent in Punjab and Sindh respectively. How can the 17 million children going to primary school learn anything when they don’t understand the language they are taught in? In the discourse about education and its quality, the ineffective language policy bears the biggest burden?—and blame.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

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