Dear Sir, assalamu alay’kum
It has been a while since I wanted to engage with you regarding an extremely important issue of both immediate as well as long-term importance. In fact, I carried fragments of this concern since I admitted my eldest children in your school a little more than eight years ago; however, I somehow kept procrastinating to indulge with you formally. This reasonably long period and my continuing diverse academic indulgences in philosophy, literature, social sciences and engineering gave me enough time to reflect incessantly and frame this problem in a somewhat befitting manner.
The issue at hand is complete disregard of pedagogical significance of Urdu language by your esteemed institution, and how it not only reduces functional capacity of a child’s imagination but also endangers its creative capacity to model complex spatio-temporal problems related to science and engineering, as well as humanities.
Guided by my experiences as an academician and a social critic of sorts, I have reasons to believe that in all good faith, you tend to fall prey to various post-colonial pedagogical sensibilities where not realizing the subtle distinctions between “learning a language” and “learning in a language” have already reduced the whole industry of education to a grim duality, that is, English medium vs Urdu medium. I do not wish to digress towards the adverse social effects of ascribing to such dualities in this space, however, you would perhaps agree that by promoting (read ‘enforcing’) English in school premises in such a manner that children and teachers are administratively discouraged to communicate in vernacular, negatively transforms young psychologies to consciously or subconsciously reduce Urdu to a so-called subaltern language in an otherwise supposedly anglicized atmosphere. However, this largely artificial Anglicization in a school which imparts education to predominantly middle-class strata of society cannot promise much except a generation feigning false elitist appearances with stilted pronunciations.
But I apologize for digressing into some unwarranted social criticism—since I understand the competitive marketing concerns for the contemporary private-sector education market which promises a constant supply of the so-called quality human resource to the modern world—in order to supply additional grounds for a point I am about to make. My primary concern is with the pedagogical and didactic compromises which need to be made in order to achieve objectives which are rooted in above mentioned sensibilities.
That language is the key in elementary school class room scene is a fact far better known to you than me, since I am faced with a comparatively less difficult pedagogical challenge of teaching graduate and post-graduate students. Language, being the only mental tool to shape pointers for conceptualizing both abstract and concrete aspects of reality, is always firmly rooted in a complex and intricately rich milieu, the so-called Weltanschauung. It is certainly possible (and desirable) to acquire a foreign language, rather as many languages for utilitarian as well as aesthetical concerns, but it is impossible to train a mind to transform its mental habits according to a totally different milieu; and younger the mind, greater the degree of this impossibility. In fact, there is a plethora of research supporting this claim, but since I do not intend to present my views as a technical paper, only drawing your attention to one of the recommendations (quoted here) of a British Council study titled, ‘Language in Education in Pakistan: Recommendations for Policy and Practice’ coauthored Hywel Coleman and Tony Capstick in 2010 should suffice:
“Early years’ education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels … poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long-term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalization leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities.’’
Since my submittal may be construed as drawing you needlessly to a broad-spectrum ongoing debate in Pakistan in the wake of recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Urdu, I would like to clarify that I have no such intention to make a case for a sweeping shift to Urdu since it is your institutional prerogative as a private entity and I respect your right and judgment. Moreover, I fully understand that not all children in your school are native Urdu speakers belonging to various regional communities; in any case, it is not unreasonable to assume that a native young speaker of Pushto or Punjabi is still far more mentally accustomed to Urdu as compared to English.
This private engagement, therefore, is not from the perspective of an Urdu promoter or a literary enthusiast, but simply as a concerned parent and an academician. Take for instance, an extremely simple example from a 6th grade Mathematics textbook (Oxford D-1), I was just discussing the other evening with my son.
David was trying to sleep one night but there was too much noise around him. His clock ticked every 5 seconds; a tap was dripping every 7 seconds and his pet dog snored every 12 seconds. He noticed on his clock that all three things happened together on the stroke of midnight.
After how many seconds would all three things happen together again?
How many times would all three things happen together again between midnight and one o’clock?
I want to put a disclaimer that this problem is deliberately picked as the one with least degree of linguistic complexity in the problem narrative. The aim is to show how an ostensibly simplest narrative like this one carries various challenges for the student as well as teacher in the class room environment which is not conducive for a bilingual (or trilingual) interaction, rather forced against the native vernacular of speakers. I assume that the point being consistently ignored here while informing your decisions of enforcing English as instructional language is the whole image-creating nature of language in the mind of the young student who is trying to map an abstract concept—Least Common Multiple in this case—to a concrete problem situated in real world. A simple and direct utterance by a teacher in class room that,
ایک رات ڈیوڈ سو نے کی کوشش کر رہا تھا لیکن اس کے آس پاس بہت شور تھا۔ اس کی گھڑی ہر پانچ سیکنڈ بعد ٹک ٹک کرتی تھی، پانی کا نلکا سات سیکنڈ بعد ٹپ ٹپ کرتا تھا اوراس کا کتا بارہ سیکنڈ بعد خراٹے لیتا تھا۔ اس نے اپنی گھڑی پر دیکھا کہ رات کے ٹھیک بارہ بجے شور کی یہ تینوں آوازیں اکٹھی آئیں۔ اب دوبارہ یہ تینوں آوازیں کب ایک ساتھ آئیں گی؟ اور بارہ سے ایک کے درمیان یعنی اگلے ایک گھنٹے میں ایسا کتنی بار اکٹھے ہو گا؟
considerably reduces the burden of mind’s effort to make a mental picture corresponding to the problem at hand. Regardless of the question whether all the children in classroom are perfectly at ease with pictures of a ‘dripping tap’, ‘snoring dog’ and ‘ticking clock’, the real challenge faced by the teacher is linking the problem statement to the particular mathematical concept. Here the teacher is faced with the challenge of pushing students to discover that using the concept of Least Common Multiple solves an otherwise laborious real problem. As I see it, restricting the class room interaction to English language hampers the whole instructive process in two ways: one, it adds a completely needless extra layer in creating an adequate mental picture of the problem and two, it forces teacher to somehow resort to instructive approach—as far as imparting knowledge of a particular mathematical concept is concerned—rather than working with the young minds to discover the concepts themselves. The latter impediment to learning is simply introduced by unavoidably linking phrases such as ‘together again’ to the concept of Least Common Multiple. We must understand that making these linkages are indeed widely accepted as an admissible pedagogical tool, but one that works differently for native speakers of a language than those who are already studying a text book in a foreign language that is English in this case. Even in case of native speakers these verbal-conceptual linkages work in collaboration with experimental or pictorial approaches, and employed diversely by teachers who are far well trained in advanced countries as compared to developing third world.
Concluding this missive, I would just reiterate that mandating the use of English as instructive and interactive language in class room for scientific subjects such as Mathematics or Physics is obviously at the cost of one additional layer of translation. Moreover a decision like this, motivated from some unfathomable slanted considerations, completely disregards the nature of language as a tool for learning, thereby rendering the whole instructive activity counter-productive. Lastly it adds complex, unpredictable and unique distortions in the whole instructive process since neither all the teachers, nor all the students share the same cognitive models when it comes to medium of class room communication. One can easily imagine the difficulty by reconstructing the famous TV show “Mind Your Language” in a class room for elementary mathematics, as a theoretical experiment.
I wish and pray that you take this criticism in positive spirit and can only hope that you end up agreeing with me after due reflection. I assure you that it would immensely improve the standard of comprehension as far as scientific subjects involving abstract thinking is concerned. By leaving the instructive atmosphere of the class room to the ease of students as well as teachers by not mandating the use of English language, you would not only help shedding the needlessly accrued mental burden but also gain benefits of a rich bilingual atmosphere, where both languages would augment the limitations of each other.
Aasem D. Bakhshi