[lg policy] The Need For Bilingual Education In Afghanistan

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Apr 23 11:18:10 EDT 2019

The Need For Bilingual Education In Afghanistan – OpEd
 April 23, 2019
 Abdul Hamid Hatsaandh* <https://www.eurasiareview.com/author/admin/>  0

By Abdul Hamid Hatsaandh* <https://www.eurasiareview.com/author/admin/>

Although Afghanistan a linguistically diverse country, yet only two
languages, Pashto and Dari, are used as mediums of instruction in schools.
Bilingual education is, so far, alien to Afghanistan. This article will
discuss the need for, and challenges of bilingual education in Afghanistan.

Specifically, I will discuss the amazing linguistic diversity in
Afghanistan and then argue that there is a pressing need for experimenting
with bilingual education in the country. By the use of the term experiment,
I recognize that it will be a challenging and probably a significantly
gradual process and that a quick-and-easy-fix is not going to be possible.
Also, I will briefly reflect upon the benefits of bilingual education in
the current literature and outline recommendation to the Afghan Ministry of
Education regarding how to approach the inclusion of minority languages in
Language Diversity in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is home to East Iranian, West Iranian, Indic, Turkic, Mongolic,
and Dravidian languages (Bashir, 2006; Barfield, 2010; Kieffer, 1983). Over
40 languages originated from these branches are spoken in the country
(Lewis, Simons, & Fenning, 2013). Pashto and Dari hold the statutory status
of national languages (Afghanistan Constitution 2004, Article 16) and the
de facto languages of wider communication (Bahry, 2013).

The language ecology of Afghanistan is by far more complex than the one
portrayed in the media (Schiffman, 2011). With Dari and Pashto as the de
facto languages of wider communication, the inclination is that Dari is
spoken when people from these two linguistic backgrounds communicate
between them. Bahry (2013) adds that such an “asymmetrical bilingualism” is
seen not only between Dari and Pashto but between other minority languages

For instance, Brahui language speakers tend to communicate in Balochi
language with Balochs as opposed to communicating in Brahui with them.
Bahry (2013) therefore proposes that it would be more accurate if language
dynamics of Afghanistan are looked at in the frameworks of ecology,
diglossia and bilingualism, and language hierarchy. Another feature of
different linguistic groups in Afghanistan is that they have historically
been lived among their own groups with little cross-group interaction.
Furthermore, different ethnic groups have engaged in civil war that for a
period in 1980s and 1990s was fueled more by ethnic rather than ideological

Another recent urgent issue in Afghanistan is the internal displacements as
people flee conflict from different parts of the country. These people
mainly head towards provincial capitals and Kabul. Some of internally
displaced kids are transferred from schools in their native community to
schools where they have migrated.

The issue, though, is that these kids are especially vulnerable because
they usually come from a comprehensively ethnically monotonous communities
to cities that are diverse but where their mother tongue is often not the
language of instruction. Parents of such kids, often do not want to send
their kids to schools because they feel that children have already gone
through an intensive emotional experience of fleeing a warzone and that
attending schools in a second language would only add to their feeling of
segregation and marginalization.

Despite the diverse, complex, and complicated linguistic context, students
that come from linguistic backgrounds other than Pashto and Dari, have to
go to schools where their mother tongue is not the language of instruction.
Not only has this implications for students’ learning achievements and
psychological wellbeing, but has consequences for social integration and
community involvement in education.
Mother-Tongue Based Education Debate in Afghanistan

Historically, as said earlier, only Pashto and Dari served as mediums of
instructions in schools However, when Hanif Atmar sworn in as the minister
of education in 2006, he promised to provide mother-tongue education in
Afghanistan. The reform could not, however, be considered a mother-tongue
based bilingual education initiative for following reasons.

First, the reform did not include minority languages in a sort of bilingual
education classes in which two languages are to be used in some specific
proportions at the same time. Instead, classes were segregated. For
example, in Kabul, Pashto speaking students were segregated from Dari
speaking students and then, they had to get education in only one language.
This is not, by definition, bilingual education.

It is particularly interesting that people’s reaction to this reform was
rather ambivalent. At the time, I was a student of grade 12 and I remember
teachers, students, and analysts interviewing by radios would exhibit mixed
reactions: some said it was a positive move because it was students’ right
to be educated in their mother tongue while others commented that it would
have negative consequences in relation to ethnic unity and expressed
concerns about the capacity of the MoE in effectively implementing the

It is important to note that this reform cannot be considered bilingual
education because in bilingual education, instead of one language in a
class or instead of having segregated classes for different languages, two
languages are used at the same time in instruction in a class in some
specific proportions. In spite of the reform initiative being not complete
and its ineffective implementation, it nonetheless challenged the status
quo and initiated the mother-tongue based education discourse in
The relevance of Bilingual Education

Considering the sparse distribution of population in Afghanistan and,
except for large cities and provincial capitals, the tendency that people
of individual linguistic backgrounds live together with relatively less
intergroup interaction; it can safely be assumed that at least minority
languages speaking children in early grades struggle with Pashto and Dari.
Therefore, it follows that the MoE should take bilingual education more

Students benefits from bilingual education in two, quantifiable, and
non-quantifiable ways. The quantifiable benefits to students include
increased enrollment, improved attendance, improved retention, higher test
scores, better acquisition of second language while also retaining their
first language (e.g., Kosonen, 2005; Ball, 2010; Cummins, 2000; King &
Mackey, 2007). In general, It is reported that when children are enrolled
in mother-tongue education, they develop certain types of perceptive and
metalinguistic awareness sooner and better than those who are enrolled in
schools where language of instruction is different from their mother tongue
(e.g., Bialystok, 2001;King & Mackey, 2007).

On the other hand, there are non-quantifiable benefits to children. For
instance, bilingual education brings about access to an emotionally
enabling learning environment that fosters psychological and emotional
well-being of students which leads to improved self-esteem and motivation
(Wright & Taylor, 1995; Rubio, 2007). This then results in smooth
transitioning between home and school (Kioko, Mutiga, Muthwii, Schroeder,
Inyega, & Trudell, 2008). When children do not have access to bilingual
education, they feel the discontinuity between home and school culture
which leads to their lower self-esteem and poor motivation leading to
overall poor academic achievements (Baker & Prys Jones, 1998).

Its relevance is even further signified considering the continuous push for
community-driven development (CDD) in Afghanistan. Afghanistan launched the
Citizen’s Charter (CC) National Priority Program recently. CC envisions the
provision of basic services (education, health, infrastructure,
agriculture) to remote communities with the help from and support of local
community councils such as Community Development Councils (CDCs), School
Management Shuras (SMSs) and Education Sub-Committees (ESs).

This is particularly important because against the backdrop of increased
security concerns and entrenched state capacity, the role of local councils
that comprise of local people has increased. The government strives to
enable communities to plan and monitor service provision to the people,
particularly, in remote areas.

Specifically in education, there are two local councils involved: SMS and
ES. SMS is comprised of common villagers, teachers, and students. An SMS
monitors education provision in a school and support school administration
with provision of in-kind contribution and advisory role. ES on the other
hand has the same functions for a community based education class.

MoE has lately placed immense emphasis on the importance of community
participation in education through these councils. In fact, the MoE has
established a district department called the Department of Social
Mobilization and School Shuras (DSMS) to strive to engage communities and
local people in education provision and oversight. The MoE can effectively
engage all communities only when these communities have a sense of
belonging to schools and if their languages are given importance, they
would be more likely to be mobilized.

While it is true that parent may still prefer the learning of Pashto or
Dari over their minority languages, however, considering the fact that
bilingual education does not replace Pashto and Dari with other languages
but, as discussed earlier, will even result in more effective acquisition
of these languages by minority language speaking students. Therefore, once
communities realize that bilingual education is not subtractive but
additive in terms of language acquisition, they will welcome the reform and
will be happy with it because, as I have explored this, parents want their
children to along with learning Pashto and Dari, they need to learn their
first language too.
The Inclusion of Minority Languages in Education – a Proposed Approach

It is critical to understand that inclusion of minority languages in a
bilingual education model in Afghanistan is going to be characterized by
genuine logistical and financial challenges. The challenges MoE faced in
implementing the teaching of languages textbooks for six additional third
official languages is a clear testimony to this as the relatively
easy-to-implement reform of teaching language textbook at schools for those
six languages turned out to be heavily characterized by challenges which
have persisted up to the present day.

Pashai’s grammar, for example, was written for the first time in 2014 as a
doctoral dissertation (Rachel, 2014). Furthermore, there are four varieties
of Pashai, and intriguingly they share only 30% lexical similarity:
north-eastern, northwestern, southeastern and southwestern (Lewis, Simons,
& Fenning, 2013).

Considering all this, it is clear that developing a textbook for Pashai was
not an easy job. When it was printed and distributed to Pashai speaking
areas, it came to light that it was written in Southeaster dialect and so
teachers could not teach it in areas of three other dialects. It was
therefore distributed but recalled back from majority of Pashai speaking
areas. Although the issue with Pashai textbook could be the extreme case of
it, but it is safe to say that the MoE faced similar challenges with other
six third official languages also.

Not only that, having segregated classes for Pashto and Dari in Kabul faced
extreme challenges. I was working with the MoE as Structure Development
Manager in the year 2011 and we had an official tour in Kabul city to
explore what support schools needed. Almost every school that had
established segregated classes to accommodate Pashto education, was
struggling with having qualified teachers who could teach Pashto. Teachers
and parents believed that after almost five years of the reform, teaching
quality in Pashto was still way more inferior compared to teaching in Dari.

Frequently cited reasons for this included, among many more, the limited
number of teachers, inability to hire new teachers who could teach in
Pashto, unavailability of textbooks in Pashto, the capacity of school
administrations to effectively oversee education in Pashto.

I therefore propose a gradual process in which the MoE will take on only
six third official languages in stage one. Stage one shall, in turn, have
different sub stages in the sense that one language shall be included in
bilingual education with Pashto or Dari in only one area. This way, the MoE
will be able to focus on only one additional language in only one area for
at least a couple of years.

For example, the MoE may only start with Uzbeki language which is
considered to be the third largest language after Pashto and Dari. The MoE
may only introduce bilingual education in Jozjan province where Uzbek
ethnic group is form the overwhelming majority of local residents. This
way, the MoE can pull in material resources, time, and expertise to ensure
there is a smooth transition into bilingual education in one language in
one area. MoE can only take on another language once it has ensured there
is flawless bilingual education in Uzbeki.

I propose mother-tongue based bilingual education method in which, for
example, Uzbeki and Dari will be used in some specific proportions. In
grade one, the use of Uzbeki to Dari could be 9 to 1. This shall reverse
with each subsequent grade and by reaching grade five this could become 1
to 9 and ultimately in grade six, students will transition into Dari-only
education. This way, there will be a smooth transitioning from a bilingual
to monolingual education and by grade six, students will have already
learned their mother tongue and will have developed cognitive skills in
their own language.

Additionally, Dari or Pashto speaking students will have also learned
Uzbeki by grade six. This type of bilingual education has been preferred as
it is considered to be the best approach (Collier & Thomas, 2004)

Given that developmental efforts in Afghanistan are still considerably
reliant on international donors, it is therefore critical to initiate the
discourse on the relevance of bilingual education first so that there is a
consensus between the Afghan ministry of education, non-governmental
organization that are active in education service delivery in collaboration
with the ministry, and international donor agencies such as USAID and

It is baffling that UNESCO has been actively advocating for bilingual
education globally but there is still little discourse on the relevance of
bilingual education in Afghanistan in reports by UNESCO and other
international organizations such as the World Bank. I strongly believe that
it’s time to experiment with bilingual education in Afghanistan first by
initiating an honest discourse among the ministry and other partners
followed by gradual albeit committed process of including minority
languages in a form of bilingual education in Afghanistan and I hope that
this article will contribute into initiating such a discourse. When it is
decided to have bilingual education in Afghanistan, it is important for the
ministry of education to initiate a public awareness program so that the
reform is viewed favorably by education service providers as well as
communities and the public at large.

**Abdul Hamid Hatsaandh has a master’s degree in Education Policy candidate
at Harvard University and is  a Fulbright Scholar from Afghanistan.*


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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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