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What should be the language of instruction in Pakistan's primary schools?

By Staff Writer

Should Pakistani children attending elementary school learn in only one language or gain mastery over several languages? This dilemma the parents and teachers of these students face is important given the multi-lingual environment of Pakistan, as well as increased globalization, which has heightened the influence of English.

Currently, Pakistan's elementary school classrooms use multi-lingual teaching. Students are taught their provincial language (i.e. Sindhi, Punjabi), the national language (Urdu) and English as an official non-indigenous language. However, many studies reveal that children learn more effectively and time is saved if they are taught only in their first language during the first grades of school.

This is due to the fact that multilingual instruction reduces the amount of time and attention given to teaching a single language. The result is that children in multilingual schools often learn literacy slower than children taught in monolingual classes.

Children from areas with poor minority groups, like the tribal areas of Pakistan, are at a disadvantage when they are taught in a second language not spoken at home. A recent study in neighboring India indicated that only 60 percent of teachers believed that tribal children understood textbooks written in the regional language but not the children's first language.

The success of monolingual schooling during the early years of schooling can be seen in two projects conducted in Guatemala and Nigeria respectively.

In Guatemala, a primary school curriculum with Spanish-language instruction was replaced with one in which students were taught in one of four major Mayan languages for the first three grades of elementary school. After this, the language of instruction was Spanish.

Initially, parents were concerned that their children would be left behind other students who did learn Spanish and that they would receive a lower level of education. However, as the children progressed through the curriculum, parents' fears were allayed once they saw their children improve their mastery of Spanish as well as the indigenous language. The success of this program in Guatemala led to the passage of a national law that now requires bilingual education in all rural communities that speak Mayan languages.

In the Nigeria project, teaching in the native language actually improved learning without hindering elementary school students from picking up the country's national language. By the time they completed elementary school, these children were ahead of their peers who were not part of the project in all subjects, including English.

In Pakistan, like in the case of the Guatemala project, parents often fear their children will not learn the national or official language, which is why they often insist on maintaining a multilingual language of instruction for their children. This is of course understandable, since not knowing the dominant language reduces future educational opportunities, limits the types of jobs available and limits the opportunities for escaping poverty and upward social mobility. For example, not knowing English in Pakistan would limit these above-mentioned opportunities.

In a survey of different linguistic groups in Pakistan, 98 percent of Punjabi-speaking students and 96 percent of Urdu-speaking students considered the study of English essential.

Many teachers in the Aga Khan Foundation's schools in northern Pakistan have reported a high demand from parents for English language instruction in primary schools. This is similar to how parental pressure has led to the introduction of English from grade one onwards in some schools of Pakistan.

What Pakistani parents need to remember though, is that such bilingual teaching programs are not successful because of the poor teaching quality. Many teachers are not fluent in the dominant official language themselves, which means that a large number of children complete elementary school with very low competency levels in the second language.

As the examples from Guatemala and Nigeria indicate, the best strategy for Pakistan to follow is to develop solid skills in the first language only for the first few grades of elementary school. Such a method allows students to thoroughly learn their first language, thus promoting the necessary skills to learn a second language. Once these have been gained, any other language can be easily learned before entry into secondary school and beyond.

Date/Time Last Modified: 6/17/2002 3:44:50 PM

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