by Shehzad Roy
Feb 17th, 2008
IT seems like a lifetime ago when my family moved abroad for a few years. I was sent to a public school, which was, in every sense of the word, as impressive as any modern, fully-equipped Pakistani school of recent times. Along with the culture shock — that too at a very vulnerable age — there was also the language shock. It added to my communication problem.
The language barrier, created mainly by an accent that was foreign to me, was another constraint. My half-foreigner cousins must have found my lost expression most amusing.
One day while sleeping in the room allotted to me, I was woken up by the ringing of the telephone. Half asleep and not exactly pleased by the unwanted disturbance, I picked up the receiver.
A male voice on the other end said, “Good afternoon”. I responded, “Good afternoon”. Again the voice said, “Good afternoon”.
This exchange of greetings was repeated with the tone on the other end becoming more and more exasperated. Taken aback I asked the caller to hold on as I dashed upstairs taking two steps at a time.
Much to my embarrassment I discovered that the gentleman on the line was, in fact, my cousin who had picked up the phone almost at the same time as I had and was asking me to “Get off the phone”.
Being unfamiliar with the
accent, I thought he was greeting me, saying “good afternoon”.
Unfortunately, I faced the same problem at school. I was too shy to share my thoughts in the classroom because my accent was alien in that part of the world. Now, after all these years and with some knowledge and experience in the field of education, I can analyse with hindsight the link between language and the development of the human thought process.
My inability to understand the accent emerged as a barrier to my participation in class activities that I otherwise would have been very good at. In a few weeks, I managed to overcome this problem and completely adjusted to the new environment which was pleasantly welcoming.
Coming to the state of our government schools, I can understand why our children perform so poorly. Their language proficiency is not developed and so their thought process is also stunted.
The bulk of them are without good command over any language — be it English or Urdu. Their creativity and innovative skills literally come to a halt. What is worse, they get into colleges and universities that are equally substandard.
To a layman, a school involves a building, books, teachers and students. Actually, it requires much more. Where does the problem lie? It is in producing school graduates whose thinking process is aligned with the language they speak. The teacher uses books to teach. The books have to have a language.
First of all, the selection of language must be right. No matter how good the books are, if the selection of language is incorrect, the books will not be useful.
For instance, give a good English-language book to students in a primary school where the mother tongue of most children is not English and you will never be able to teach them how to think.
Additionally, the language used by the teacher to teach must also be the mother tongue of the students. Once the issue of the selection of language of instruction is resolved, the focus must turn to the contents of the books used. The text must be thought-provoking.
Here I shall give an example from the Sindh Textbook Board’s Grade 1 textbook. There is a chapter titled ‘Hamara Pyara Ghar’ in which the protagonist says, “This is my house. There are four rooms in it.”
As in most academic books, there is a part at the end of each chapter with test questions. A question from this chapter is “How many rooms are there in this boy’s house?” The students have to memorise the answer for their exams. This hardly encourages students to think.
Ideally, if the exercise asked students to count the rooms in their own house instead, they would be compelled to use their minds and think. This is just a small example from the numerous I can give.
The beauty of language is that once students learn how to think in one language, they find that learning a new language becomes very easy.
I have French and German friends who were not very fluent in English. Surprisingly, this was after they had completed their Master’s degree from their respective countries. And then they went on to study for their PhD in English-speaking countries.
With little effort and within a short time they had gained command over the English language before starting their doctorate. Reason: their ability to think, understand and process information had been sharpened in their mother tongue during their early education.
The term ‘English-medium school’ is deceiving. Such schools produce students who lack good thinking processes though they have learnt how to read, write, memorise and calculate while they have picked up a smattering of general knowledge.
I believe that there is only one difference between developing countries and developed countries. In the former, a majority of citizens have limited thinking and innovative and creative skills.
In the latter, the majority of the people are capable of thinking. Once people know how to learn and think, they can distinguish between good and bad and start working for their own prosperity which eventually results in the prosperity of the nation.
Now the million-dollar question: what do we do? We have very few primary level books in our national and regional languages which are designed to produce thinking individuals. The few that are available are being used in some good private schools.
The need of the hour is for the government to seriously look into the issue and do what is required, that is, change course books with immediate effect.
The writer, a pop singer, is president of Zindagi Trust, an organization working for child welfare and education.