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.