[lg policy] Pakistan: blog on Language Policy
hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 20 15:31:42 UTC 2010
LANGUAGE plays a central role in the process of learning and the
achievement of educational pursuits. Besides being an instrument of
communication and of access to education, language is also the marker
of identity at the personal and societal levels.
This role of language was quite evident during the Pakistan movement
when different languages were used as distinguishing identity markers
for the various populations of united India. Urdu was associated with
Muslims while Hindi and Punjabi were tagged with Hindus and Sikhs
respectively. After partition Pakistan, with its colonial past, had
the choice of either adopting the language of its erstwhile masters;
English, as its state language or the language of the majority,
Bangla. The choice made, however, was Urdu because of an emotional
association with it as well as for other reasons.
This declaration of Urdu as the state language disappointed the
majority of the population, the citizens of East Pakistan whose mother
tongue was Bangla. They overwhelmingly demanded that Bangla be
declared the state language in addition to Urdu. The Bengali language
movement was accompanied by violent protests resulting in Bangla being
finally declared the second language of the state. The movement
underlines the significance of language as a symbol of identity.
The other local languages spoken in the provinces, including Punjabi,
Sindhi, Pushto and Balochi, were unfortunately either ignored or
relegated to an inferior status. This attitude was manifested in the
lack of institutional support offered to these languages. A case in
point is Punjabi: it is the mother tongue of about 50 per cent of the
citizens of Pakistan but is not taught as a subject at school level.
Thus the children of Punjabi families cannot read or write in their
mother tongue and are literally cut off from the rich literary
heritage of their language. To a lesser extent this is true of other
Pakistani languages as well.
Interestingly, the declaration of Urdu as the state language had no
adverse impact on the English language, which continued to be the most
powerful language in offices, courts and the corridors of power,
including the bureaucracy, army and the judiciary. The major role
played by English as the language of power had multiple effects on
Pakistan’s educational domain. A number of the country’s leaders —
Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ziaul Haq — issued political statements in
favour of Urdu but did not take the concrete step of introducing it
within the domains of power.
With this meaningless lip service to Urdu, we saw the emergence of
some scholars who vehemently opposed the English language and
English-medium schools in Pakistan. Although this opposition could be
based on good intentions, it ignored the global role played by English
in terms of jobs, higher studies, trade, etc. Since 1947, we have
witnessed tension between adherence to the national linguistic
heritage and a compelling desire to reach out.
The two competing schools of thought tend to totally reject the other
in Pakistan. The school of thought that is in favour of Urdu or the
local languages does not see any role for English. The other school of
thought, which favours English, considers native languages
insignificant. Since the latter is in power, local languages are
either ignored or their potential underestimated. No institutional
support is provided to them and they are being subjected to a slow
death. The painful fact is that many students who are being educated
in English-medium schools find it difficult to read a book written in
their mother tongue. Many do not know how to count in Urdu or in their
mother tongue. The reason is obvious: they are exposed to English
primers before any other reading material. They start learning the
English alphabet before any other.
As stated before, English is an important contemporary language and to
oppose it would amount to depriving the people of a passport to
enhanced opportunities for success in life. Pakistanis must learn
English but not at the cost of rejecting local languages. In fact, we
should be striving for a balance between English and the local
languages. Such a balance can only be achieved if our local languages
are given respect and validation through institutional support. This
would mean introducing them in primary classes as a subject.
The significance of exposing students to their native languages lies
not just in providing them with additional linguistic tools for
communication but also in helping them associate with their cultural
roots, of which language is an important manifestation.
We have seen a number of educational policies instituted by different
governments but never has there been a comprehensive document on
language policy. Excerpts from different documents refer to certain
claimed objectives but they were not bolstered by institutional
support. There is a serious need to carve out a policy that is
realistic in nature and that makes the attempt to preserve local
languages and cultures.
The writer is a professor & director of the Centre for Humanities and
Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of
Rethinking Education in Pakistan.
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