[lg policy] (no subject)

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Jan 1 11:15:29 EST 2019

*When language divides us*

When language divides us

One of the most serious challenges faced by the education system in
Pakistan is the education apartheid. Language plays a major role in the
divide that exists within and among schools.

The spirit of the neo-liberal model has seeped into our education system
over the last three decades and now there are clear faultlines between
schools for the elite and the non-elite. It is ironic that education, which
is considered to be a liberating force, has further widened the gulf
between the rich and the poor.

The rapid decline of public-sector educational institutions, which the
state can be held responsible for, is the worst thing that has happened
over the last three decades. As a result, parents with sufficient resources
prefer to send their children to private English-medium schools rather than
public-sector schools. Apart from other reasons, it is the ‘Englishness’ of
these schools that attracts most parents.

Why is ‘Englishness’ perceived as an important factor by parents? Why are
Urdu-medium public schools not viewed as quality schools? It isn’t
difficult to answer these questions. For that, we need to realise that no
language is essentially inferior or superior. It is the social status of
the speakers of a particular language that determines the status of the
language they speak. Owing to its pragmatic value, English has emerged in
recent times as a powerful language that is required for good jobs and
higher education. It is interesting to note that employers in Pakistan
mention two main requirements in advertisements for jobs at multinational
companies: communication skills and interpersonal skills. Competence in
English language, coupled with the right accent, becomes a key factor that
enables candidates to perform well in job interviews.

Therefore, language is not just a simple tool of communication. It is a
highly political phenomenon that is linked with power. Pierre Bourdieu, a
French sociologist, defines power in terms of different forms of capital:
economic capital, social capital and cultural capital. Linguistic capital
is part of cultural capital. These capitals, according to Bourdieu,
contribute to the construction of power.

Bourdieu not only considers language to be a tool of communication or
knowledge but also views it as an instrument of power. According to the
French sociologist, a person doesn’t just speak to be understood but also
to be “believed, obeyed, respected, and distinguished”. This status of
language is legitimised by schools as they are instruments of reproduction
in a society. Basil Bernstein, a British expert on the sociology of
education, refers to the unequal distribution of linguistic capital. In his
seminal paper titled ‘Elaborated and restricted codes’, he observes how
working-class children are disadvantaged as their language is deficient in
relation to the academic tasks and assignments expected of them at schools.
Private English-medium schools attract parents as they claim to prepare
students in an environment where greater emphasis is laid on developing
English-speaking skills.

Linguistic capital acquired by children at home plays a vital role in their
academic performance in school. Children from higher socioeconomic
backgrounds are more likely to be exposed to the English language through
newspapers, books, movies, the home environment and their social circle.
Meanwhile, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have fewer chances
to access such facilities and social networks.

This linguistic exposure becomes all the more important when these children
go to school. Children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, with
sufficient economic resources, end up in expensive private English-medium
schools where the curriculum, textbooks, quality of teachers, teaching
methodology, and examination system further enrich their English language
skills. However, children from comparatively lower socioeconomic
backgrounds, with insufficient economic resources, are destined to attend
public-sector schools.

A majority of the teachers in these schools aren’t comfortable with the
English language, especially in terms of their English-speaking skills.
More often than not, children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who
already have considerable exposure to English obtain a richer linguistic
input at school while children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds get
lower-quality linguistic input. As a consequence, the divide between the
rich and the poor is further deepened. The differentials in the amount of
linguistic capital play a crucial role when these students go to the job
market. Students with better linguistic capital are more likely to get
lucrative jobs in a market where better communication skills in English are
bound to improve their prospects.

Inequality in the education system are perpetuated through the social
institution of schools and language remains an important factor in this
process. If we look at the history of educational policies in Pakistan, we
don’t find a comprehensive language policy. If we are serious about
tackling the problem of inequality within the education system in Pakistan,
we must rejuvenate our public-sector schools. Efforts to improve the
education sector won’t bear fruit till we come up with a comprehensive
language policy that specifies a detailed action plan and prioritises clear

The writer is an educationist.

Email: shahidksiddiqui at gmail.com


 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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