There is evidence from education literature that strongly suggests that student learning is better if they are taught, at least in the initial years of education, in their mother tongue. It makes sense. Children are able to pick up concepts much better if they are explained in their mother tongue and they do not have to struggle with language issues, in addition to learning other content.
This “evidence” is not new. In Pakistan, we have had some provinces, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who have had some of their education in local languages but, by and large, we have been focusing on Urdu and/or English as the main medium of instruction.
The 18th Amendment is going to change some of the power relations surrounding this debate. Among other things, the 18th Amendment has also devolved education, as a subject, to the provinces. Now provinces have the legal power to legislate on issues of medium of instruction, which languages will be taught when and for how long, decide the educational curriculum and goals, and so on.
There have been many who have been arguing for devolution of power to the provinces. It was felt that increased autonomy would strengthen the federation. The 18th Amendment has addressed a lot of these concerns.
Within education, supporters of devolution have argued that giving decision making to the provinces will allow them to a) include more local/cultural content in learning, b) allow teaching in local language, and c) allow the province to include local perspectives to various historical and cultural narratives. The evidence regarding ‘better learning in mother tongue’ supports the positions that pro-devolution people take, but the two arguments – for better learning and for possibilities of a richer and more local curriculum – are separate.
It was interesting that at a recent dialogue on education reform in Pakistan, organised by Open Society Foundations (OSF), Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) and South Asia Initiative (SAI) Harvard, where 30-odd academics, politicians, bureaucrats, and representatives from donors were participating, there was agreement that education should not only be about reading, writing and arithmetic skills, but should also look at issues of social cohesion and citizenship. And the importance of language of instruction, in this context, also came up. But there was quite a divide, amongst people even in that small group, as to what education should do to address issues of social cohesion and citizenship and how the local language debate fits into this.
The argument for cultural enrichment, through local language and content, and the argument for better learning were made. But there were people who argued, and quite strongly, that not promoting Urdu, as national language and not giving children a good facility in English, was very problematic as well. Some people saw the role of a national language as important for promoting social cohesion, while facility in Urdu and English was seen as important for functional reasons too: both languages were thought to be important for access to higher education and/or vocational training, jobs and better economic prospects in general as well.
We could have learning in mother tongue in the early years, say up to grade 4-5, while the other languages are taught as subjects and then have a switch in the medium of instruction when children have gone beyond the stage of learning basic skills in language, reading, writing and arithmetic.
The issue is not that of finding compatibility alone but that of developing a deliberate and thoughtful approach to policymaking that is informed by our combined thinking on what we want education to achieve and on what insights, from relevant research, from related areas, are available. Currently, our policymaking is too haphazard and ad hoc and reflects the relative lack of systematic thinking that is needed.
For example, Punjab decided to switch to English as the medium of instruction in all public schools earlier this year. The ground reality is a) we do not have enough teachers who can teach English as a subject, b) we certainly do not have enough teachers who can teach mathematics, science and other subjects in English, c) the current set of teachers has not been trained to make the switch, and d) short trainings are not enough to make such a switch. The result is confusion. There are many teachers who are still teaching in Urdu and/or Punjabi but now force the child to learn things, to reproduce in tests, in English. Teachers who cannot switch to English are feeling insecure. And children are not going to learn English or even the other subjects better this way.
Should Punjab have not had a more thorough discussion on goals of education and policy options open to us before making the switch? Is Punjabi not important? Should children not be exposed to Punjabi and Punjabi culture, language and literature? And should we not have a discussion about the role of each of these languages (local, Urdu, English) before policy options are imposed.
The brief dialogue we had on issues of social cohesion, citizenship, and the role of language showed that there were important national and sub-national goals at stake here. The dialogue also showed that there was no consensus on these issues even in a relatively small group. There is no consensus on these at the larger level as well. But given the importance of the area, and the changes expected when the 18th Amendment and devolution of education is implemented, the dialogue on these education related issues should happen in the public space in Pakistan.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]