non-fiction: The language disconnect

Reviewed by Murtaza Razvi
Source: InpaperMagzine, Dawn

The timing of this book is very appropriate given the parliament’s passage last year of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which gives the provinces more say in their own affairs. Zubeida Mustafa forcefully argues for the adoption of a language policy that acknowledges the many languages, seven major ones, that are spoken in Pakistan and have their majority speakers concentrated in respective geographical locations.

So far only Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has taken the initiative to implement mother-tongue teaching in schools as the first and compulsory language. Being a multi-lingual province, not very unlike the other provinces, the proposal is to teach Pushto, Hindko, Seraiki, Khwar and Kohistani in respective districts where speakers of these languages form a majority. The initiative is so equitable and democratic that it would please everyone concerned and needs to be emulated by the other provinces.

The book relies heavily on research to arrive at the conclusion drawn by experts, universally, that small children are best taught in their mother tongue. There are various recommendations coming from many experts in the field, including Pakistani and international scholars and concerned institutions, to back up the argument that runs through the book.

Naturally all vary as to at what point should a second or a third language be introduced; however, experts agree that at the nursery and kindergarten level children should only be exposed to their mother tongue, or the predominant language in the child’s environment, as the medium of instruction.

Detailed recommendations of a British Council report for school teaching in Pakistan prepared by Hywel Coleman and those by Dr Tariq Rahman are included in the book. These are then augmented by the author’s own recommendations as a third option. In Pakistan the anomalies in the education system are many but policy makers have done little to address them. The writer points out, in conjunction with experts on the subject, that apathy on the part of policy makers is due to the fact that they belong to a social class whose children will never go through the public school system but most likely attend elite English medium schools.

Herein also lies much controversy, as the writer points out the very anomaly of running two parallel education systems where English medium schools remain the choice of the elite and Urdu and Sindhi medium schools the only options available to the rest of Pakistanis. Those attending the elite schools may be well versed in global knowledge and have better English-language skills but they remain generally alienated from their own mother tongue (and even Urdu) as well as their country and culture in many cases.

As for the vast majority that goes through the public school system, the quality of the syllabi taught there hardly prepares them for practical life. Their less than good proficiency in English, which remains the criterion for securing gainful employment, handicaps them. Zubeida Mustafa and Zakia Sarwar, the latter a prominent teacher specialising in teaching English language, are of the opinion that teaching English at the primary level does not show desirable results because in public schools “poor teachers will teach poor English.”

The book is academically well researched, and a solid attempt at kindling the much needed debate on the use of native languages as the medium of instruction, starting at the primary level. As pointed out by the author, acknowledgement of ethnic and religious pluralism that exists in Pakistani society will only strengthen the state and its institutions. Imposition of tyrannical measures laced with a heavy dose of ideology in the name of national unity denies the diversity that exists in
the citizens’ identities, and which they guard jealously.

Tyranny of Language in Education:
The Problem and its Solution
By Zubeida Mustafa
Ushba Publishing, Karachi
ISBN 978-969-9154-22-5
234pp. Rs200