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September 23, 2019

Educating guinea pigs


September 23, 2019

Poor children make perfect guinea pigs, suitable for all kinds of experiments. In Punjab, another big experiment has flopped and government schools will soon officially revert to Urdu as the medium of instruction. Unofficially, the change has already happened and government schools have stopped using English to teach all subjects.

Shahbaz Sharif, in his revolutionary fervour, had made a well meaning but ill-advised decision. The English medium is cruel because it is meant to create a class that is one notch above the Urdu medium- a class that can claim best economic and employment opportunities in the country. Perhaps, the altruistic aim was to bring Punjab's government schools at par with the private English medium schools.

The private schools have an advantage not only because they use English, but also because the children at these schools belong to a different social class and they often teach a far superior curricula. The children attending English medium private schools are exposed to English in their homes and consume western cultural products. They are also encouraged to speak English at home, just the way their parents had once switched from their mother tongues to Urdu. This complex social process cannot be replicated only through forcing teachers to teach all subjects in English.

There is another larger disaster in our education system, related to the medium of instruction and teaching of languages that shows no signs of abating. We fail to realize that in the Pakistani context Urdu works a little as English and what is stated about English can be easily repeated, to some extent at least, in the case of Urdu as well. If English puts the rich and the upper middle class above everyone else, Urdu demarcates the boundary between the white collar lower middle class and the blue collar working class. Just as it happens in the case of English, Urdu is used to perpetuate and promote this division. Both divisions are rooted in language policies adopted by the state and the ways languages are taught in a society where everyone speaks more than one language.

Urdu has become so important in the valley of the Indus that even Baloch insurgents use Urdu to communicate among themselves. Balochi and Brahavi, two languages of the Baloch, belong to two very different families of language and are mutually incomprehensible. Similarly, people in the small valley of Hunza use Urdu to communicate among themselves because they speak three very different mother tongues. Urdu has become a part of Pakistan's fabric. It is the true lingua franca that everyone needs in the country.

While people see no conflict between other national languages and Urdu, our policymakers have always feared Pakistan's linguistic diversity. Something has gone horribly wrong in their minds and in the minds of the people whose job it is to educate our children. Their reluctance to ground policies and education systems on sociological facts and linguistics has resulted in a huge education disaster.

Our policymakers appear to have an illogical suspicion of mother tongues or national languages. Neglect of national languages has resulted in the loss of cultural resources and heritage and has created an inferiority complex. It has also given rise to a backlash from many ethnic groups. Sindhis in their fervour swung to the other extreme and created another education disaster, which is the mirror image of the original sin.

This attitude has resulted in what I consider the central blunder in our education system. Our education system teaches Urdu as the first language. It is supposed, quite wrongly, that all children can speak Urdu when they join a school and all you have to do is to make them literate.

We know that a mother tongue and a second language are both taught in very different ways. In the case of the mother tongue, the goal is to make a child learn how to read and write. It is a very easy goal that does not require much expertise on the part of the teacher and the chance of failure is very small.

When Urdu is taught with this assumption, it results in marginalizing poor children who speak only their mother tongues at a young age. They fail to grasp any subject taught in Urdu and get kicked out of school without even becoming literate. The solution: teach Urdu as a second language in all schools, except where all children are either middle class or have Urdu as their mother tongue.

As if that was not enough, preparing of Urdu curricula and teaching of Urdu has been handed to those who hold degrees in Urdu literature and are high on Meer and Ghalib. You can't be more misguided than this when teaching a second language.

The masters of Urdu-e-Mualla, the high Urdu, have warped ideas of how languages work. They believe that languages are frozen in time, and have a firm conviction that Urdu must keep living in its golden era of the nineteenth century.

There is supposed to be a real pronunciation that existed in 19th century Farhang-e-Asafia and that only Aftab Iqbal can teach to his group of comedians and the rest of the nation. Unfortunately, language evolves and changes all the time and a language can have various geographical variants.

The nineteenth-century or twentieth-century pronunciation was correct for its time. It is wrong now. The real pronunciation is the pronunciation of language as it is spoken now. We have evolved our own Pakistani variant of Urdu. This travesty of linguistics must stop. Urdu must be seen a living language that is dynamic and that has incorporated a huge vocabulary of our national languages.

We should not use Ghalib and Iqbal to kick children out of the school system. Nostalgia of professors of Urdu literature should have no place in our primary schools. There is no point in forcing students to cram the proverbs and idioms that even Aftab Iqbal does not use in his speech. Urdu literature should be taught as a separate subject in secondary classes.

This ludicrous situation has tragic consequences for poor children and our national educational attainment. In our fervour to arm children with the best, we are failing to provide them the least.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected] com

Twitter: @zaighamkhan