NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 33

The medium of instruction dilemma

It is an irony that we, as a nation, are still in a state of indecision about what should be the medium of instruction in education in the country, despite the passage of over 77 years of the creation of Pakistan. Successive governments and political parties have experimented with the education system of the country, by introducing various policies from time to time, mostly suited to their political and personal agendas.

In 2010, the government of Pakistan declared that English should be used as the medium of instruction for the teaching of science and mathematics in state-run schools from the primary level. However, the policy proved to be a failure, as the education authorities failed to ensure the availability of multilingual skilled teachers to teach in all public sector schools.

The Urdu language has always been the medium of instruction in public sector schools. Founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, addressing a public meeting at Dhaka, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), on March 21, 1948, had said, “Whether Bengali shall be the official language of this province is a matter for the elected representatives of the people of this province to decide. But let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language.”

Nobody could even think of doubting the sincerity and good intentions of the Father of the Nation in declaring Urdu as the state language, but it is also a reality that Urdu, the official medium of instruction, is the mother tongue to only 7% of the population across the country. The country is linguistically diverse and complex with approximately 60 minor and seven major languages. Therefore, from a social, commercial and national point of view, it was a crucial need of the nation that there should be at least one language through which the people living in different provinces and regions could communicate with each other. That was why the Quaid had declared Urdu as the state language.

However, it is also a reality that imparting education in a language other than the mother tongue is a complex and questionable issue. Experts believe that the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in early childhood classrooms is very effective in improving pupils’ learning abilities. Various research studies have confirmed that there is a direct relationship between the language of instruction, used by the teacher, and pupils’ learning abilities. The effect of the mother tongue on the quality of learning abilities could be attributed to the fact that pupils did not need to do any mental translation of all concepts which are presented in their mother tongue in order to gain the sufficient meaning of the concepts presented.

According to educationists, it is through the mother tongue the cognitive skills flourish in such a manner that the learner is able to critically evaluate, visually imagine and calculate. Likewise, scientific concepts are better built if taught in the mother tongue.

Kiran Shirazi, a researcher and a lecturer at the Government Girls Degree College, Kotri (Sindh), was part of a research study, conducted on the topic. She told Cutting Edge that the major finding of the study was that the students in the experimental group, where the medium of communication and instruction was mostly the mother tongue, performed better than their counterparts, who communicated mostly in English. Citing the findings of the study, she said the use of the mother tongue reinforced pupils’ motivation and made them feel more comfortable and confident.

Another finding of the research was that there was no significant difference in the learning abilities of boys and girls in the experimental group, she said. The analysis of the samples indicated that both male and female participants in the experimental group showed a significant gain in their learning outcomes after being taught in their mother tongue.

Uzma Shah, the second participant in the study and a lecturer at the Institute of English Language and Literature, University of Sindh, Jamshoro, finds it ironic to teach the mother tongue only as a subject, while all science subjects are taught in Urdu or English.

She says that teaching three languages in public sector schools – Sindhi, Urdu and English – have created confusion in education in the Sindh province. She stresses that it’s important to differentiate between the medium of instruction and teaching any language as a subject. Any language in education is of prime importance, if education is imparted in a foreign language, or in a majority case, a language that is alien to the students, as the purpose of the teaching-learning process remains unaccomplished. She says that unfortunately, it has become an unquestionable trend that state school children are taught in the national language, which is not the mother tongue of the majority. In this situation, it becomes alarming to impart education to students. The students fail to understand the concepts and contents of the lessons. In these conditions, students suffer to the extent that they often drop out from the institutes or resort to malpractices, like cheating in exams. If education is imparted in a language, which is neither spoken at home nor in the surroundings, it causes difficulties in learning and understanding: most of the times students either fail or drop out from schools, adds the researcher.

As the language has the potential to boost cognitive faculties of the learner, therefore, it is in the wider interest of both learning and understanding that the medium of instruction in formal learning should be the mother tongue. In case the education is imparted in the language not spoken at home, it not only harms the learning process, but also adds to the ratio of the dropouts. Therefore, effective teaching should be in a language, which is their first language, i.e. the language that is spoken at home, stresses Uzma Shah.

She says that organisations, like UNESCO, World Bank, Education for All (EFA) and UN General Assembly conventions, have been vocal in propounding education in the mother tongue for better learning at least at the primary level. UNESCO recommends the use of vernacular languages in education on the grounds that for a child’s socialisation and cognitive development, they need their mother tongue, Ms. Shah says.

Muhammad Abbas, a 6th grader at a government school, shared his learning issues with Cutting Edge. “It is very strange that I speak one language at home and study in another, when I study in my mother tongue, I am intelligent, when I study science subjects in English, I become a dull student. When I am distracted from the subject, I don’t care what the teacher is trying to say, because I don’t understand the typical scientific vocabulary. If they accept our exam scripts in their mother tongue, I will get good grades; if they take it in English, I will not get good grades,” he believes.

Both researchers did not deny the importance of English in the current times, yet suggest the mother tongue to be the medium of instruction up to at least the middle standard level. They also point out the dearth of books and scant teaching training in the local language. Students’ grades are always affected by the issue of the medium of instruction. Sometimes, they are unable to understand the lecture in English, some other times they are unable to express it appropriately. Thus, it results in bad marks, which affects their future academic progress, the researchers say.

If the policymakers plan a long-term educational policy, ensuring the mother tongue to be the medium of instruction to help save the future of students, it would be a great step in the right direction.