Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan comprises rural and urban areas having their own peculiar socio-economic and cultural settings.
English is a compulsory part of coursework at intermediate and undergraduate levels in Punjab. However, a large majority of students finds it difficult to grasp the real substance out of this coursework; hence, the desired outcomes are not achieved. This is partly due to difficulties in learning a second language in classroom setting, along with teaching methodologies and gaps in teacher capacity-building programmes.
In urban areas of Punjab, student body consists of diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. Due to parallel educational systems — public sector schools and private schools (with O and A levels) — in the province, students in the same classroom possess varying levels of learning abilities and skills.
These factors present a real challenge for teachers of English language. Students belonging to lower income class mostly enrol in public sector schools where they do not have adequate exposure to opportunities of learning English. So, imparting them a good knowledge of this language requires a lot more efforts.
Conversely, private school coursework, with due emphasis on language learning, helps students meet the challenges related to language learning more effectively. Since both these groups jointly make the student body at intermediate level, the task of the teachers becomes even more arduous.
Generally, the methodology adopted by teachers at this level is the ‘translation’ method, thereby concentrating more on the nuances of grammatical structures rather than passing on to the students the real spirit and substance of English language as a whole. The coursework at intermediate level is another area of major concern. Devoid of a holistic approach towards language learning, it puts great emphasis on various genres and aspects of literature which is often beyond the learning capacity and skills of the inter-level students. The province of Punjab possesses a unique ethnic diversity with the majority of its population consisting of the speakers of Punjabi, Saraiki, Potohari languages which have a close lingual proximity. Teaching a uniform coursework to such diverse second language learners is a daunting task, especially with the ‘translation’ method in vogue. English is a compulsory part of the curriculum in Punjab so it ought to be taught effectively. However, due to flawed pedagogy techniques, most students remain unable to grasp the real substance out of this coursework. Difficulties in learning a second language in classroom settings can be blamed for this problem, yet the major reason behind this failure is the non-familiarity of teachers with modern aids and tools that may facilitate them in embedding the real spirit of the subject in their students.
As mentioned earlier, the coursework at intermediate creates a division of student body into various categories i.e. pre-medical, pre-engineering, arts and commerce, etc. The students, at this level, are grouped together under the same umbrella of coursework, providing a heterogeneous mix of abilities and backgrounds with a uniformity. And, it raises serious concerns!
While teaching the pupils, a great emphasis is laid on the literature component of coursework instead of communicating the essential structure of the language. Rural areas of the province are at a more disadvantageous position than the urban areas. Lack of facilitation for teachers in terms of learning tools, basic infrastructural facilities, along with a student body that does not realize the significance of English language as a global medium of communication, are the gaps which need serious policy initiatives.
Teacher training, a sine qua non for enhancing professional capacity and skill set of the teachers, is almost nonexistent in Punjab. This makes it virtually impossible for them to embrace the challenges of modern times and display requisite flexibility and initiative to steer their way through these acute challenges. Teaching methodologies are mostly based on textual approach, without due consideration to common everyday examples and instances that would instil the concepts in the students in a more effective way. Undergraduate and graduate students find a huge gap between theory and practice. This is primarily because of paucity of professional expertise and institutional apathy. These challenges, however, can be tackled with an effective, innovative and broad-based policy along with personal initiative on part of the teacher.
Being the most important stakeholder in this onerous undertaking, the public sector must lead the way. Arranging refresher courses for teachers, holding workshops and seminars to enhance capacity building, and equipping teachers with modern media and communication tools, would be a right step in the right direction. This would, undoubtedly require allocation of a huge chunk of budgetary expenditures towards the education sector.
Nation building comes at a cost, and educating young, impressionable minds is building country’s vital untapped resource for future. English language teaching in Punjab is at a crossroads. Effective policymaking, concern for local settings and, last but not least, establishing uniform and standardized protocols is the way forward. Only an effective public-private partnership, with nation building as a prime concern, can steer the tottering ship of education safely to the harbour.
It would be naïve to believe that this could be an easy task. It might take years, if not decades. But a step in the right direction has to be taken now otherwise an already decrepit education sector would crumble under its own weight. The panacea for such problems would be to concentrate on teacher enhancement programmes, creating awareness among teachers and training them in modern educational tools, and ensuring effective implementation of policy initiatives.
Insurmountable obstacles breed tremendous opportunities too. Now is the time to move forward with a firm resolve and treat education as a priority sector, for only then, would it be possible to reverse the decline in standards of language learning in Punjab, especially in public sector institutions. A holistic approach towards policymaking, with public-private synergy will provide necessary funding and expertise, thus initiating reforms that would necessitate more capacity building and skill development, ensuring optimum outcome of proposed objectives.
The path is thorny, but it’s worth treading!