While there are varied implementation hurdles in trying to make the shift, our education policymakers seem adamant to adopt English as the medium of instruction across government schools in the country. The emphasis on switching to English-medium public education is based on the rationale of creating a uniform education system, which can alleviate the exiting disparities between students educated from private schools that teach in English versus those who remain at a disadvantage due to receiving a public education provided in Urdu. However, there is growing evidence pointing out that adoption of English will not have a favourable effect on improving universal literacy or even the quality of education being provided by government schools.
Pakistan is not the only country struggling with the medium of instruction controversy. Many countries continue teaching their students in former colonial languages, or in a dominant national or international language, which young children do not speak at home. In the case of Pakistan as well, Urdu had been imposed as the preferred language of instruction in government schools around the country, with adhoc use of regional languages, used inconsistently across the four provinces.
The Global Education Campaign has put out a policy brief, “Mother-tongue education: Policy lessons for quality and inclusion”, which estimated that 221 million children across the developing world are enrolled in schools where they are unable to understand the language being used to teach them. An ill-suited language of instruction thus places such children in the undesirable position of struggling to understand the very language being used to educate them about different subjects. Using an inadequate language of instruction discourages many children from enrolling in schools, increases drop-out rates and undermines student learning.
It is not only students who face difficulties when an inappropriate language of instruction is imposed from above. For instance, a 2013 study on teaching and learning in English in Punjab schools undertaken by the Society for the Advancement of Higher Education and the Campaign for Quality Education found that 70 per cent of the teachers had difficulties teaching grade one mathematics and science in English.
Despite increasingly overwhelming evidence of the value and benefits of early education in a mother tongue, few developing countries, including our own, are paying sufficient heed to making required policy adjustments. Encouraging use of local (provincial or regional) languages in education does require additional efforts, such as developing more varied teacher training programmes, teaching materials and examination systems. However, such an investment would prove well worth it, given the resulting savings in the form of reducing school repetition and drop-outs, for example. Investing in increased use of local languages within the education system would also help improve the low quality of education, and help ensure the right to education for all.
There is also convincing evidence around the world that a second language is learned best when a first language has been learned well. Children who receive schooling in their mother tongue in early grades have better learning outcomes and much better literacy levels. Such findings have led educationists to advocate use of children’s mother tongue as the initial key language of instruction, with a second language introduced later in carefully managed stages. Several educationists in our country also agree. While the status of Urdu as the medium of instruction is still contestable, there is increasing recognition of the fact that English should only be taught as a subject, rather than being made the medium of instruction, till grade five at least.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 3rd, 2015.