The correct way of teaching English

Published: November 10, 2013

My last column on the subject of the medium of instruction in the government schools of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) admitted defeat and despair in the face of the fact that the powerful English-using elite of Pakistan will not let the mother tongue be used for basic education nor Urdu for school certification. This was taken as endorsement for the policy of the Punjab and the K-P governments, which have made English the medium of instruction in all schools.

Let me make it clear that I do not endorse a policy which goes against all available research, i.e.,: mother tongue for basic schooling, Urdu for middle and high school and English for the university. Although I began my column with this research, I was taken as endorsing the government policy which goes against it. That is why I felt it necessary to write on this subject again. Meanwhile, another report entitled “Policy & Practice: Teaching and Learning in English in Punjab Schools” (Lahore: SAHE, 2013), was launched. The indefatigable Abbas Rashid, executive director of the Society for the Advancement of Education (SAHE), spoke at length about the way SAHE tested the assumptions on which the Punjab government based its policy. My acquiescence — not endorsement— of the Punjab government’s scheme was based on one crucial fact, i.e., that teachers do not actually use English in their classrooms. Remember, the PEELI report had claimed that ‘even in English lessons’ less than 12 per cent teachers use English all the time. Now the SAHE report claims that English is used in 36 per cent of the same classrooms; Urdu in 23 per cent and mixed in 41 per cent. But even more crucially, the PEELI report reports such abysmally low figures for the teachers’ knowledge of English that it seems probable that even those who think they are using English are only using some cliches or short commands and formulaic utterances. This made me feel that the claim that English is the medium of instruction is merely for parental consumption but in reality, nothing has changed. Urdu and the mother tongue remain the medium of instruction and things are as they were before. I reluctantly agreed with the policy in the vain hope that the books, which will be in English, will make the students familiar with some passive vocabulary of English which might facilitate higher education. However, a schoolteacher pointed out at the launch of the SAHE Report that the examinations will be in English at some level in school. If so, this will be a disaster.

Consider that these children will be educated — if that is what you describe what happens in schools — in Urdu or the local languages but they will have to sit staring at a white sheet of paper thinking of words in English to express what they have understood in their languages. You will counter this by saying that this is what will happen to them when they come to the university which, I insist, should use English as the medium of instruction since we simply cannot translate everything in Urdu. But at the university level, they are grown-ups and, if we teach English competently, they will find the transition much easier than it is for schoolchildren.

You will now say that it is unfair that the children of the rich get educated in English while those of the poor get ghettoised in Urdu or the indigenous mother tongues. Well, I began writing with this injustice in mind and I advocated, and still do, a uniform language in education policy for all. But mine was always a cry in the wilderness; a kind of Don Quixote type of fighting with the windmills; a romantic dream of egalitarianism and justice. It was not even considered for implementation; it was just quietly laughed out of court. But it did have an effect. Some politicians got the idea that all schools could become English-medium, bringing about equality of opportunity for all. This was untrue but it was lapped up by the parents who could not see that English for all is an illusion. English is learned from one’s peers, parents, siblings and relatives and entertainment at home. It cannot be taught by teachers who do not know it nor can it function as a medium of instruction for small children who are actually taught in Urdu while taking examinations in English.

So, is anything possible to help the poor? Yes, there are possibilities. First, let us go to the previous policy of having Urdu or some other language as the medium of instruction. Along with it, let us take the British Council’s help in making English compulsory from Class-1. Even for this, we would need massive incentives to get good teachers of English and then to train them constantly. They can be made to use music, song, Sesame Street type of theatre, drama, stories, movies and games to make English a living subject, not some dull translation and grammar exercise in a classroom with a teacher who is more fit to be a butcher. Every school can even have a mock TV station to relay live shows in English from students. This should make English familiar to the students who may then be introduced to English as a library subject. This means that they will have additional material in English apart from their textbooks in Urdu. They will read this material but will not be examined in English. The idea is that the students become familiar with the vocabulary of English in which they will operate at the university level. Teaching English competently is possible and is the usual practice in many European countries, including Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where English is not the medium of instruction in schools but it is taught so well that students can write research papers and read scholarly work in it in the university. That is what we need for government schools though, I insist, I would ideally like the same policy for elite schools too. You see, I may be down but I am not out! Not yet!

Published in The Express Tribune, November 11th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Nov 11, 2013 - 12:09AM

    Great idea. There is no escape from English, so why not learn it the right way. Thanks


  • MSS
    Nov 11, 2013 - 1:09AM

    Western European countries do really well in the teaching of English. Most people can have a decent conversation in English. However, English or should I say British schools do not teach many foreign languages properly. The standard attained in schools are not very high and the teaching of MFL at age 15 is not compulsory. Consequently, Brits are at a loss when they travel to non-English speaking countries. More over, ‘queen’s English’ is gradually disappearing from the society and colloquialism is having its say.
    English is best taught at a younger age, may be from 9 years but should be made compulsory for all along with Urdu and a regional language. All science subjects and computing at least must be taught in English to enable students to meet the challenges of higher education where more (and latest research work is available mostly in English). Young pupils can handle more than one language quite easily.


  • Khan
    Nov 11, 2013 - 2:51AM

    Superb and based on true research. KP Government and Punjab Government should take Tariq Rehman like linguists on board while designing their curriculum policies. Imran Khan should take help of genuine researchers in the curriculum design of elementary and secondary education in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.


  • zaman ali
    Nov 11, 2013 - 3:41AM

    mr rahman sahib thanks for another fine article. it’s true most europeans can speak decent english, it helps that english has same roots as dutch, danish and german they all have same germanic roots so it is easier for northern europeans to master english. my experience of holland is that the local dutch language is losing ground to english because some dutch are speaking to themselves in english, what i find amazing is that some germans speak better english than brits.


  • ali taanoli
    Nov 11, 2013 - 6:12AM

    only 100 years changed us so much wht a irony


  • Shah
    Nov 11, 2013 - 12:58PM

    This is a brilliant article. Making English as medium of instruction will not bridge the gap between rich and poor students. If the Scandinavian and European model of teaching English is backed by a body of empirical research why not go for it.


  • Shakir Lakhani
    Nov 11, 2013 - 1:53PM

    English is one of the easiest languages to learn. I have been talking to my grandchildren in English since they started to talk, and they can now speak it fluently. They are in school now and do well in all subjects because they are able to read and speak English. They do better than their fellow students and stand first in their classes. I suggest that English teaching should start in Class I in all schools.


  • Akhatr
    Nov 11, 2013 - 2:01PM

    ironically, teachers do not know english at in schools, their behavir to teach kids isso sda, some time visit village schools in pakistan


  • Azhar Latif
    Nov 11, 2013 - 2:15PM

    Mr Rehman’s proposals are sound echoing Japanese approach to learning English. Pakistan’s cultural make up makes it possible import,export English as recreational tool ,such as learning via TV, language Labs, comics, English Language corner in Libraries for all ages and abilities. Curriculum be designed to make it examinable subject till 10th grade. This would equip learner aspiring for Higher Education.

    Same approach could also be adopted to learn ,French, German, Russian….. serving reservoir to knowledge based activities in Science and Technology.IT could makes is it cost effective, accessible to all.


  • Expat
    Nov 11, 2013 - 4:45PM

    In contrast to what some people think, learning English very early on is not at the expense of the mother language. Research has shown that four and five years olds are pretty capable of learning English at that age. The pupils achieve a higher level of English, while the vocabulary of their native language stays intact.
    Dr Tarig Rehman is correct. Key to success is dependant on two factors. The amount of time you are willing to invest AND, in my opinion even more important, the level and quality of the teachers.Recommend

  • nrmr44
    Nov 11, 2013 - 6:13PM

    Stop imposing policies on teaching centers (institutionalized or informal), and things will sort themselves out naturally. How is proficiency in English going to help a child with a bent for music, painting, dancing, sports, etc.? It will, in fact be a distraction.
    Children (or, rather, their parents) interested in subjects such as science, engineering, medicine, etc will automatically opt for English-medium learning. Market demand will, in a most natural manner, determine the relative numbers of English-medium to non-English-medium teaching centers.
    In short, the optimum medium for instruction emerges from a nation’s development trajectory. Not the other way around. Development has never been held back by the medium of instruction. Ask the French. And the Russians, Germans, Japanese, Swedes, Danes, …..
    In India, from where this bit of wisdom is being offered to you, the Govt (and assorted dogmatists) gave up 30 years ago and, since then, English has been spreading silently like a slow, huge flood – but always as a second language. And that is the natural equilibrium: mother-tongue as first language, and English as the language of your profession/occupation/livelihood.
    The lesson: concentrate on development and leave the economy to sort out the language issue. People decide very well for themselves when their own welfare is involved.


  • x
    Nov 12, 2013 - 3:23AM

    Agree with last para.
    As for the rest, teaching subjects in urdu will only make these students weak in acquiring technical fluency and understanding of English. In this regard, even if all, elite, poor, etc, follow policy of urdu as a medium of instruction and english as a through subject, the elite will surge ahead as their families/social circle will ensure they are fluent in english and have a command over those whose educational background (as in those of their families and social circle) is not strong.
    English should be a medium of instruction but yes, tachers need to be vetted. A teacher with poor language skills in any subject, be it science or math or geograohy, does more harm than good. Increasing salaries to attract better teachers and not letting those who are not good at anything else become teachers needs to be abolished.


  • x
    Nov 12, 2013 - 3:25AM

    In addition, making it compulsory for elite university students to do some teaching at public schools as a part of their ‘internship’ course reqirements would help as these young, fluent in english, innovative students would ensure better teaching in public schools.


  • Abid Riaz
    Nov 13, 2013 - 9:27AM

    There are three children in my household. Our language is Pashto but most of the kids’ school subjects are in Urdu and English. At home I am trying to make them aware of our heritage too but then sometimes I am worried they could be receiving a linguistic overload. If Tariq Rahman sahib could give practical ideas about how to help children learn three languages simultaneously and efficiently. If I speak English with the kids, it will help them out. They are going to pick up Urdu from the media mainly but if I don’t act personally, they might never learn to read and write in formal Pashto since Pakistani Pashto media is extremely weak and schools don’t really teach it. I am sure many families are in the same dilemma since state policy does not support wholesome linguistic education. So to repeat my question, how can we ourselves contribute here? Practical tips please, respected Tariq Rahman.


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