[lg policy] Pakistan ruined by language myth

Abdul Manan . rm_manan at YAHOO.COM
Tue Sep 10 01:26:54 UTC 2013

Pakistan ruined by language myth
Effective teaching of English is the preserve of an elite, leaving the rest of 
the country to linguistic confusion and educational failure 

Zubeida Mustafa

theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 January 2012 14.00 GMT 

Step in the wrong direction ... home languages have low status in Pakistan’s classrooms. Photograph: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

Last year I wrote a book highlighting the crisis in Pakistan's education system caused by the way languages are used and taught. Its 
publication prompted one critic to remark that I was trying to 
"backwardise" the children of Pakistan. Another said that language was 
not the problem; it was what we taught that needed to be addressed.

These were typical responses from highly educated, fluent English speakers. 
They have glorified the English language in Pakistan to the extent that 
all logic has been put aside. But they wield great influence over public opinion and have even persuaded policymakers that the country's 
education system can be fixed by hiring teachers competent in English. 
Such teachers are hired by exclusive private schools, which are beyond 
the reach of the majority. So proficiency in English automatically 
becomes the preserve of the affluent.

Since I have been more 
concerned about the majority's problems, I have pleaded the case of the 
underprivileged by stating that children must initially begin their 
schooling in their own tongue, with which they are familiar. This will 
help their cognitive development and inculcate critical thinking. It 
will also enable them to be articulate participants in the construction 
of knowledge in the classroom and discourage the culture of rote 
learning. English should be introduced at a later stage and taught as a 
second language.

With the exception of a small minority of 
children who are bilingual even before they begin school, teaching 
children in a language other than their mother tongue in the early years does them harm, no matter how good their teachers may be. This approach robs the child of the natural advantage she has in her home language.

A child begins "acquiring" language from her environment soon after she 
is born. Children have already gained three or four years of language 
experience in their mother tongue when they start school. If English is 
to be the school language, these children lose this advantage. The 
benefit goes to a small minority that is bilingual from the start by 
virtue of their parents being the products of exclusive English-medium 

Such is the power of myths about language in Pakistan 
that a public demand has been created for English. People believe that 
English is the magic wand that can open the door to prosperity. 
Policymakers, the wielders of economic power and the social elites have 
also perpetuated this myth to their own advantage. The door of 
prosperity has been opened but only for a small elite.

In a 
multilingual country such as Pakistan where at least eight major 
languages compete for supremacy, English occupies a special position by 
virtue of its "neutrality". But the status of English as the language of international communication exerts additional pressure. This importance is reinforced by Pakistan's employment market, which discriminates in 
favour of the fluent English speaker even though not every job requires 
an English language expert.
This language paradox has undermined 
our education standards. With no well-defined language as a medium of 
instruction policy, we have a fractured system that divides society.

There is an excellent English-based system in the private sector that is 
expensive and caters for a small wealthy elite. Children from the middle and lower-middle classes go to second-tier private schools charging 
relatively modest fees. They adopt a strange mix of languages while 
pretending to be English-medium. Why else would you see schools in the 
shantytowns of Karachi announce their Anglicised names and the fact that they are "English-medium" in Urdu script? The teachers explain in their mother tongue while teaching from English language textbooks from which the students plagiarise and memorise passages.

It is left to 
public-sector schools, patronised by the children of the poor, to adopt 
indigenous languages as the medium of instruction – rather 
apologetically. With the government rapidly disengaging itself from the 
education sector, these institutions perform dismally.

As a 
result, the country is in a state of linguistic confusion. On the one 
hand people are desperate to be seen as being proficient in English when they are actually not. At the same time they are ashamed of their own 
language though that is the only language they can communicate in. The 
ambiguity of the language of instruction policy allows schools to make 
their own choices, which has contributed to the present crisis in 
education in Pakistan. The demand for English – a trend set by the 
privileged elite – has put schools under pressure. Not many teachers who can teach English or teach in English are available.
That is why 
it would be feasible to get all schools to teach initially in the 
child's mother tongue while concentrating on improving standards. This 
would require the production of good textbooks and the training of 
teachers. Both of these can be done effectively in our own languages. 
The main challenge would be to decide judiciously which language is to 
be used as the medium in which region and at what stage other languages, including English, should be introduced.

English-as-a-second-language teachers should pose no difficulty. Such 
teachers can impart basic communication skills in English to their 
students who would be learning other subjects in their own language. 
Those going on to higher studies or needing greater competency in 
English could take up language courses that should be made widely 

Zubeida Mustafais an independent journalist based in Karachi. Her book Tyranny of 
Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution is published by Ushba
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