Education Policy Debate| Teaching Children In Their First Language Is The Best Option

Education Policy Debate| Teaching Children In Their First Language Is The Best Option
In an otherwise balanced critique of the Single National Curriculum (Single National Curriculum is a diversion. Quality and access to education is what matters) published on this website, Mr. Amjad Nazeer makes some claims about the medium of instruction that warrant a debate. 

The issue becomes clouded by the way he sets up the problematic: “Urdu is proposed by the champions of supra-nationalism, English by the wealthy elite and mother languages by the ethno-nationalist stalwarts and dissenters.” This is tantamount to asserting that the advocacy of a medium of instruction is based on nothing more than the maximization of parochial and selfish group interests?

But is this correct? If so, Mr. Nazeer would be unjustly accused of being a partisan himself for advocating English. It would mean that the years of research on the efficacy of the first language as the medium of instruction for early childhood education, especially in the multilingual European Union, is the work of “ethno-nationalist stalwarts and dissenters.” But if that is true, one could ask why the Mother-Tongue-plus-Two [languages] formula has been adopted by the EU.

The sensible and unbiased approach to this issue is to set aside all the partisan interests and to rely solely on the evidence that has accumulated on the role of language in early childhood education. That should be the overriding determinant: What does the evidence say?

Mr. Nazeer does not provide evidence for his claims. He says, for example, that “It is quite clear that learning exclusively in Urdu or mother languages leaves students behind economically” without elucidating how that is clear. The causality might well run the other way -- only the economically well-off might be able to attain the fluency in English required for success. He also says that “At the same time, English language emancipates from class oppression and tribalism too” without offering proof in support of such a major claim. A striking counterexample is the persistence of racism in the USA despite universal access to English. Generalizations without credible validation cannot be employed to decide something as crucial as the medium of instruction that impacts the cognitive development of millions of children and thereby the future of the country.

Mr. Nazeer’s recommendation (“Numeracy and scientific concepts should be imparted in English right from Grade I”) is another personal opinion without supporting evidence. He justifies it with a statement of fact that “English today is the source of knowledge, skills and technology.” That is true, but how does it yield the inference that numeracy and scientific concepts should be imparted in English right from Grade I? 

Mr. Nazeer is ahead of many other advocates of English in at least recognizing that the Chinese and the Japanese have become global leaders in science and technology without using English as the medium of instruction for early childhood education. But that overwhelming evidence does not alter his recommendation of English for Pakistan. He dismisses the alternative by asserting that the Chinese and Japanese path would require “spending enormous amount of resources” because all modern and classical knowledge would “need to be translated into Urdu and mother languages (as is the case with countries like China and Japan) which this state is not willing to do.”

Leaving aside the fact the local languages are only being considered for teaching in the early grades, Mr. Nazeer is being unduly accepting of the state. Instead of citing the advantages of early childhood education as demonstrated in China and Japan (and not just these countries) and advising the state to pay heed, he is reconciled to a terrible second-best solution. This is like saying that since the state is unable to provide clean water to poor people, we should teach the latter how to boil water instead. Such a stance is hard to justify when the future of children is at stake.

Even without perusing the evidence, it can be argued that the solution proposed by Mr. Nazeer is impractical. Having himself cited the terrible quality of teachers in the country’s public schools, he believes that children taught in English by such teachers would be able to compete with the children of the elite simply on the basis of their knowledge of the language. This is hard to accept. One could hope that the quality of teachers would be improved, but on what basis? Will the same state that is not willing to translate knowledge into Urdu upgrade the skills of the teachers, something it has not done for seventy years? What will happen to the politics of patronage?  Experience negates such an expectation.

It should be recognized that with the state’s abdication of responsibility for the welfare of citizens, the onus for a redressal of the blight of inequality is on civil society. It is virtually impossible to get the state to allocate adequate resources for the betterment of citizens whether it is education or health or public transport. But with enough public pressure, it could be forced to yield progressively to leveling the competitive playing field. One should accept the reality that in the existing circumstances it is not possible to raise competence in English of the majority to that of the elite. It might be less impossible to make the elite compete on the wicket of the majority by mandating all competitive examinations in local languages as well as in English. Successful candidates can then improve their English, if needed, as they do in China,  Japan and many other countries.

The medium of instruction matters because it is claimed that it affects a child’s ability to learn. In this context it is important to recognize that the first language is ‘acquired’ naturally by exposure to the social environment and not ‘learnt’ in a classroom. It is argued that children think most easily in their first language and use it to negotiate their world with confidence and assurance. This natural ability is then leveraged to learn other things, including new languages, in a structured format. Starting in a language other than the first language(s) (they can be more than one) can shatter a child’s confidence and cripple his or her ability to learn. But a confident and cognitively enabled child would have no difficulty learning new languages if he/she needs to at a later age just as young inductees into the Foreign Service learn new languages in their twenties. Note that the aim of the advocates of teaching English in Pakistan is utilitarian and not the acquisition of near-native fluency needed to produce high literature. For a concrete illustration of the process described above, imagine the impact of starting the education of a child from Naran in Chinese which is arguably the language of the future. Why is that any less absurd than starting it in English?

So, the question should boil down to this: What is the most effective language to promote the cognitive ability to learn in early childhood? All policy must be based on the answer to this question. And this question has been answered repeatedly by educationists based on meticulous research: It is the first language. 

This evidence dates as far back as 1953 when UNESCO declared that “every effort should be made to provide education in the mother tongue.” In 2016, as part of its Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO repeated the message: “To be taught in a language other than one’s own has a negative effect on learning.”

Empirical studies started appearing in the 1970’s. A pioneering study in Nigeria in 1970 demonstrated unequivocal results: “children taught in their mother tongue simply did better than those who were taught in English.” Since then, such studies have been replicated many times with similar results.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, it is not acceptable to keep repeating the assertion that we would be left behind without beginning to teach in English from Grade I. In fact it is quite possible that we are being left behind precisely because we insist on starting teaching in English in Grade I. A former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training in India has pointed out “a bit wearily” just how “water-tight” the academic consensus is on the matter. “This is a heavily researched area for decades now,” he said. “It’s so obvious a point that it really can’t be debated. Mother tongue is the best place to start a child’s education.” All this evidence cannot be plausibly attributed to ethno-nationalists and dissenters.

Many partisans turn this policy debate into a false confrontation between English and local languages. This just diverts attention from the real issue. There is no binary choice involved. Early education in the first language is good for the cognitive development of the child which should be all that matters. Once the ability to learn is acquired, the child can learn other languages as needed as is done in China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and countries of the EU. As mentioned before, there is conclusive research that children educated in their own language learn English better than those who were made to start with English in Grade I.

We owe it to the children to argue this policy on the basis of the best available evidence without questioning the motivations of those engaged in the debate. 

For more details on the evidence cited, see the following:
Why is India obsessed with English-medium education – when it goes against scientific consensus?” Shoaib Daniyal,, August 6, 2020. 

On English-medium education, India is having the same debates it did 200 years ago.” Shivakumar Jolad,, August 22, 2020.

What is the best age to learn a language?” Sophie Hradach, BBC, October 26, 2018.

The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.