Language: levelling the learning field

Pakistan is a multilingual country. This reality is not entirely acknowledged in its education policies

Language: levelling the learning field


he language used for education is a complex issue with educational, psychological, cultural, political and economic consequences. This is primarily because the ruling elite has to satisfy several interest groups — the rulers, the salariat, the hangers-on of both, the challengers of the ruling elite etc. Moreover, the policy has to cater for economic and technological development, the elite’s desire to retain domestic power and international recognition and, on top of all these things, also be cost-effective. It appears to be easier to do all this in monolingual countries. Though, in reality, even Japan is not monolingual. Moreover, as Basil Bernstein (1924-2000), an educational linguist at London University, famously suggested, in so-called monolingual countries like England, the working classes use what is called a restricted code (informal sounds, body language, clipped utterances, swear words) as well as their local dialect. The educated middle-class uses the elaborated code (full sentences, less non-verbal cues, verbal explanation) and standard English which puts the working-class children at a disadvantage. In Arabic-speaking countries, a child learns demotic Arabic at home and uses it informally throughout life. But at school, children are taught modern standard Arabic (al-lughat ul Arabiyya al-fusah al-’asr). However, since all children have to do the same, there is at least some uniformity. In Pakistan, however, there is none.

First, Pakistan is a multilingual country which is not fully acknowledged in our education policies though lip service has been paid to it. We have, according to various reports, between 69 and 73 languages. I will not give my own estimate since I have long stopped doing research on such issues; so, I do not know. What are called small languages – Balti, Burushaski, Kalami, Khowar, Gujrati, Hazargi, Dhatki etc – are not really so small since about 4 percent of people speak them and that comes up to a large number of people. Then there are languages which everyone has heard of: Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Brahwi, Seraiki and Hindko. Except for Sindhi, none is used extensively, at least not as a medium of instruction in our educational system. Pashto is, used up to Class 5 in some areas. The other languages are optional subjects in schools, colleges and universities, and students treat them as easy options in order to score high marks with little effort or get sinecures to teach them at some level.

Now this is ironical because researchers on education, cognitive development of children, creating self-respect for their communities and their cultural identity have emphasised that basic education (the first three years, at least) should be in the mother-tongue. The UNESCO has been emphasising the importance of teaching children in their mother-tongues since 1953. The UNESCO position paper, Education in a Multilingual World (2003), states this clearly. Indeed, I have attended several conferences in Bangkok where research on communities using their mother-tongues was presented. For instance, we were told that in Papua New Guinea, with over 840 languages and only 5 million people, educational material was published in hundreds of languages. Children were taught in more than 220 of them. The literacy rate was up to 81 percent for males and 63 percent for females. The latest effort in this direction was at the Salzburg Global Seminar (2017) on this subject, where I was present. This paper calling for education in the first language for all children was presented world-wide on February 21, 2018.

This kind of research was actively presented in seminars on education and language for the last thirty years or so in Pakistan also. The idea of reducing the disadvantage of children from poor, minority or marginalised communities dominated this kind of thinking, and I remember writing and speaking on the need for some justice, some equity, some fair deal for our children by reducing the domination of English as an elite class-marker. This somehow led to the idea that madrassahs must be subjected to a single curriculum whereas I, at least, had never advocated that the madrassahs should be forced into this kind of schooling. Populists took up this idea to create the Single National Curriculum in 2021 which, unfortunately, merely increased Islamisation in all curricula creating the potential danger of radical teachers preaching sectarian bias, anti-minorities prejudice and the possibility of militant radicalisation among children. Class privilege, since it is based on higher resources, English as a medium of instruction and foreign certification (O and A level certificates) remained exactly the same as before. So, while rejecting the SNC, I suggest the following.

Basic education, at least up to Class 3, should be in the first language (mother-tongue) of children in all schools. After this, children should be taught in the language of wider communication (LWC) of their province. In rural Sindh, it is Sindhi but elsewhere it is Urdu. All children should be examined by Pakistani boards of education but the standard should be that of the present-day Cambridge- and London-based boards of school education. University education, which means bachelors onwards, should be in English, which is an international language. English should be taught to all children as a special subject with emphasis on not only books but also songs, drama, role playing, cinema and conversational skills.

One major aim of education should be to produce liberal-humanist, progressive, tolerant and sensitive citizens who care for respect for diversity, women’s rights, rights of minorities and peace. This cannot happen until the present text books are replaced with progressive ones. There are better textbooks than our schools teach at the moment. For instance, instead of putting in Islamic studies in our Urdu textbooks which cause much distress to Christian, Hindu and Sikh children, we can teach Islamic studies in Islamic studies textbooks for Muslim children only. Also, there are a number of progressive writers of Urdu whose writings can be used instead of the ones we use, which are full of nationalism and jingoism. We also have interesting history books written by, among others, Dr Mubarak Ali, which can be taught to children. In fact, we can teach world history, human rights, environment, mental and physical health care and how to respect diversity in schools instead of our narrow focus on propagandist Pakistan studies.

Will this level the playing field for all children? Sadly, no. For that the state needs to spend more money (not the promised 4 percent of the GDP but 6 percent according to some estimates). And even then, rural areas will still get the worst treatment and the least competent teachers and, therefore, private schools catering to the elite, even though teaching in Urdu, will still do better than others. This is something which can change but slowly if the governments are wise enough. It will be foolish to nationalise private schools since such policies have proved disastrous in the past. While not eliminating inequality of educational opportunities, the changes I have suggested have the potential to reduce inequality and injustice. That is the most one can hope for.

The author is an   occasional contributor

Language: levelling the learning field