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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Medium of instruction: the non issue

Medium of instruction: the non issue

By Muhammad Ilyas Khan

Recently (October 13, 2010), one read an article, ‘Language in Education’ on the editorial pages of Dawn, an English language Pakistani newspaper, ( available at http://epaper.dawn.com/ArticleText.aspx?article=13_10_2010_007_009 ) by Zubeida Mustafa in which the writer argues against the use of English-as-a-medium of instruction  in our educational institutions and instead emphasizes the use of ‘mother tongue’ for the purpose.  It is difficult to understand the logic of writers who write in English against English. They would argue that their argument is not against teaching English as a language but against its use as a medium of instruction. Unfortunately that is not the case as most often advertently or inadvertently they end up throwing the baby out with the bath water. Anti-everything-Western demagogues then jump on the band wagon, conveniently over-stepping that blurred line between rejecting English-as-a-language-of-instruction and English as a language that needs to be taught and learnt in order for our people to go shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world and turn the 'English writing' (liberal) intellectuals' argument against English-as-a-medium of instruction at whatever-level into an argument for its complete annihilation from our education system.
Associating lack of Pakistani students' conceptual understanding with the use of English as a medium of instruction is a claim without any systematic research. Conceptual understanding or lack of it has much more to do with an entire system of pedagogy, instruction and a whole culture of teaching and learning in our educational institutions rather than just being an outcome of the use of English as a medium of instruction. This is simplistic to connect every dot in our students' lack of conceptual understanding to the single point of the 'unfortunate' use of English as a medium of instruction.
The author brings in the work of Dr Tariq Rahman in defence of her argument for the use of mother tongue as a medium of instruction. One needs to keep in mind that Dr Rahman is more of a linguist/historian rather than an educationist. Much of his work revolves around the threat of extinction that the many regional languages face in Pakistan, keeping in view the dominance of other languages such as Urdu and English. A linguist's primary concern is the understanding and survival of language and not its scientific investigation in terms of its use for educational/pedagogical purposes.
The author seems to suggest that English is used by the power grabbers as a tool of attaining power against those who do not have any access to the language. If that is true, I fail to understand how can that be dealt with by taking English (a language of power) further away from the vast majority of students who go to state run schools? The author associates the acquisition of English by the elite with their grabbing of power and privilege and yet seems to suggest that the vast majority of commoners should further go away from English? Strange logic though. A more logical conclusion would be this: If English is used by the elite to perpetuate their power and privilege due to their proficiency in the language and because of the association of English with the attainment of power and status, the poor should be given an equal chance to learn this 'language of power' instead of making efforts to take this 'language of power' further away from them.
The author seems to suggest that because a majority of teachers don't have the capacity to teach their subjects by using English as a medium of instruction, therefore, it should be shunned as one. Interesting, that very point i.e. the lack of English language proficiency of Pakistani teachers in terms of its use as a medium of instruction turns her argument on its head. Let me explain. These teachers that the author refers to, try their best to teach their subjects in English but when they fail to do so, they actually resort to explaining concepts in either the mother tongue of the students or in Urdu. Thus in reality there is not much use of English-as-a-medium-of-instruction in a majority of state run educational institutions and even the so-called English medium schools save a very few 'elite' exceptions! So what is it that we are arguing against then? The reality is this: it’s not simply the use of one language or another as a medium of instruction that is hampering the conceptual understanding or creativity of students in our 'educational' institutions. The matter is not so simple. It’s a whole culture of ignorance about the very concept of EDUCATION. It’s much more than that. It’s an extremely intricate issue, full of complexities and finer lines.
As far as English is concerned, it is a language of power, 'a language of today and of tomorrow', to quote a former vice chancellor of Peshawar University. This is a reality that we need to accept. It is a misunderstanding that it is only Pakistanis who are striving to excel in this language. It’s the whole world. Thousands of students from China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and numerous middle Eastern countries, in fact students and teachers from every nook and corner of the world, are studying in Western universities and their subject of choice usually at the graduate or postgraduate and doctoral level is English teaching and learning. When the whole world is going in one direction, it doesn't seem very plausible to go in the opposite. It will be like turning the clock back. We have already turned it back in many other spheres of our life and not one for the better it seems.

The writer is a PhD student at the University of Leicester, UK

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