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Lure of the global language

President Hamid Karzai has suggested two key faculties, medicine and engineering, switch tuition to English to improve students’ international prospects. But educators say rural students with little fluency in the…
22.08.2012  |  Kabul
If approved by legislators, the language switch in faculties will be tested first at Kabul University. (Photo: Rouyee) Main story photo: Students sitting exams at Ghazni University. (Rahmat Alizada)
If approved by legislators, the language switch in faculties will be tested first at Kabul University. (Photo: Rouyee) Main story photo: Students sitting exams at Ghazni University. (Rahmat Alizada)

If President Karzai is right, economic development may only be a language-switch away. Speaking at a recent seminar titled “The nation-wide call for Educational and Employment Systems reform,” Karzai recommended that courses at engineering and medicine faculties at Afghan universities should henceforth be taught in English, “to facilitate economic development”. 

The president cited neighbours India, Iran and Pakistan as examples of countries that have made huge advances in medicine and other “important fields” through such an international focus on learning. Recalling a female Iranian doctor he met while at a summit in Germany, Karzai said he had been struck by this central quality of the successful graduate’s education: she had been trained in English.

The idea is to standardize the training of Afghan engineers and doctors with the education of their international counterparts across the world, streamlining teaching methods and resources in the process, while making Afghan graduates more competitive on the world stage.

A world away from English classes

But while the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) hopes it can implement the switch to English in the two faculties for the start of the March 2013 semester, observers already see the pitfalls. Higher Education Minister Obaidullah Obaid says the transition should be smooth as most Afghan high school students who pass the Konkord, the Afghan SAT or baccalaureate equivalent, are “the best in the country” and thus proficient in English.

Yet Professor Abdul Hameed Layaan, dean of the Kabul Faculty of Engineering, points out that many students arrive at university with very basic English proficiency. “The main problem in implementing this plan is students coming from rural areas,” Layaan told Afghanistan Today. “Unfortunately they often don’t have good English teachers and some high schools don’t even have English language teachers in rural areas,” he added.

“Most standard medicine and engineering terms and phrases are in English and Latin.” Hashmatullah, Kabul engineering student.

Moreover, Amanullah Iman, spokesman for the Ministry of Education (MoE), said it currently has no specific budget or plan to broaden English language teaching in high schools. The language switch proposal will only be voted on in parliament in six months, he noted.

“If the motion is passed, the ministry will provide extra-curricular courses at schools to help improve English language,” said Iman.

But details are still vague. In theory, English is currently taught from Grade 4 across the country, but as a previous AT report brought to light, not all teachers are even present in the schools they are assigned to. (see 'Paid to fill teacher's shoes')

Campus views are split

Students at the concerned faculties gave mixed reactions to Karzai’s proposal.

Haroon Yaqoobi, a second-year medicine student from Ghazni studying in the capital Kabul, understands the benefits of learning in English, but is wary of the idea. He like many is dependent on Dari-language teaching materials.

“For students with little or no familiarity with English like me, this will be extremely difficult,” said Yaqoobi, one of 1,430 medical undergraduates at Kabul University’s Faculty of Medicine. “The majority of the students coming from the provinces don’t have the opportunity to learn English during high school,” he said.  

The proposed change will favour those from an urban background, while rural students lose out, say critics. Others say Afghanistan must move with the times. (Photo: Samira Sadat)

Hashmatullah, one of 680 students enrolled at the Faculty of Engineering, welcomes the move. “Most of the standard terms and phrases of medicine and engineering are in English and Latin,” he said. “Teaching in English helps us improve our knowledge and understanding of the language, and gives us access to the world's latest and most reputable learning resources."

Most courses at Afghan universities are currently taught in Dari, with books translated from English. “We have a contract with Kansas University in the United States and all the books we have received are in English,” said Dean Layaan.

But the dean believes his faculty will have to provide winter pre-engineering access courses for future students to standardize the level of language proficiency if courses switched to English.

Bari Siddiqi, the student affairs deputy at the MoHE, says teachers will also struggle: "There could be difficulties in implementing such a plan,” acknowledged Seddiqi, adding that his is now devising means to boost staff proficiency in English.  

More scholarships to India and Turkey

Meanwhile, improving ties abroad increase the need for better English across the board. MoHE publications director, Hasina Anwari, says the government has made some scholarships available to Afghan graduates. Most students go to Iran, India or Turkey for further training in medicine and engineering, with a handful opting to study in Pakistan. All will further their education in English. Next year the Literature Faculty at Kabul University will welcome 20 students from Turkey under a pilot exchange programme to deepen cooperation with overseas higher education centres.

Kabul University's Dean Layaan sees the disadvantages of the plan for some students, but measures to ease a possible switch for both students and teachers are being developed. (Photo: Rouyee)

Anwari said the current plan is to only switch from Dari to English at the medicine and engineering faculties in Kabul, a move that will affect some 2,000 students.

A recent government report says there are 77,654 students in government universities in 2012, and it remains unclear if other fields like law, business management and advanced sciences will also opt to switch to English. The Konkord exams will continue to be sat in national languages, said the official.

Kabul medical student Farid Omarkhel thinks the move is long overdue. “Today, all credible learning resources are compiled in English,” said Farid, who also went to high school in the capital. “Anybody who wants to use these resources should learn English."

But for tens of thousands of aspiring engineers and doctors, not to mention dentists, lawyers, physicists, chemists or architects who live in the provinces, this is a sure case of easier said than done.