The Destruction of Nadia’s Dream: The English Language Tyrant in Pakistan’s Education System

By Zubeida Mustafa

Nadia (aged 14) is a typical victim of the tyranny of the English-language Hydra in Pakistan. Coming from an underprivileged socio-economic background, this girl is required to master an alien language if she wants to realise her dreams. Thanks to the easy accessibility of electronic media and a concerted movement for reform by concerned members of civil society, public interest in education has been stirred, and expectations are high. There are millions of teenagers like Nadia who want to acquire a good education to uplift their socio-economic status. But many are headed for disappointment. The facilities needed to educate such large numbers have not been created in Pakistan by the state, notwithstanding the growing demand. Worse still, the curricula and textbooks have not been designed to meet the specific needs of these children. Hence, aspirations and motivation will not prove to be enough to help Nadia and others like her to achieve upward mobility.

Although there are many hurdles in Nadia’s way, language especially English is a major one. Even though the government institutions may not be insisting on English as the language of education, their poor performance disqualifies them as trendsetters. Given the ambiguity in the official education policy, the English-language Hydra has become the driving force. This policy was announced in 2009 by the education ministry in Islamabad, as it was its prerogative to lay down the guidelines for the entire country. The policy defined in detail its vision and strategy, but it was vague about the language to be used as the medium of instruction. It was left to the provinces to decide whether they wanted to use the national or regional language in the public-sector primary schools in their jurisdiction. But it was specified that English would be used to teach science and maths in Years 4 and 5 in these institutions. Private schools were given a free rein. They generally opted for English. In 2010, constitutional amendments devolved powers to the provinces. To the detriment of all, the provincial governments chose to be equally vague and adopted an ad hoc approach to language in education. There has been no clarity in the governments’ policies ever since, on account of the policymakers’ ignorance of education and language-learning matters and their misguided belief that English promotes progress. Their failure to adopt a firm approach on the medium issue has allowed market forces, societal pressures, élite private-school owners (some with political clout) and the leverage of foreign aid givers to gain the upper hand.

The Hurdles

I interviewed Nadia for a video, and this is how the dialogue went:

Q:What is your name?


Q:Do you go to school?


Q:In which grade are you studying?

N:Grade 4.

Q:What do you want to be when you grow up?

N:A doctor.

Q:What is it you like about a doctor that makes you want to be one?

N:(in Urdu) My mother wanted to be a doctor [midwife] but my father did not allow her to be one. Now I want to fulfil her wish.

This is the pattern the conversation followed throughout the interview. Since all my questions were straightforward and in simple English, she understood them perfectly. Any answer that could be managed in a single word or a simple sentence came in English. But anything a bit complex requiring the expression of an abstract idea was beyond Nadia’s ability to answer in English, and she slipped into her own language. If I had not given her a choice on that count, she would have remained silent to be dubbed a slow learner.

This is something to be expected. In a country where the literacy rate is low (60%), according to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2013-14, imparting education to children, a majority of whose parents have never been to school, is in itself a daunting challenge. They receive little educational input from home. The parents have scant knowledge of educational strategies, and they are only keen to see results, which for them mean material success. In the process, their children are robbed of their confidence, and their education and cognitive development suffer, without the parents as much as realising it. Since they see the children of the wealthy speaking English, they believe that their own sons and daughters will also prosper if they are given education in English.

Educationists, the education departments, the lawmakers and others who shape public opinion, such as the media, have all failed to understand the significance of the language-in-education policy for the mental development of a child. They simply cannot differentiate between learning in English and learning English. Many of them simply link the English language with progress and a quality education.

This fallacy in thinking will relegate many Nadias of Pakistan to the ranks of mediocrity because they cannot articulate so well in English. Will she progress much further? It is doubtful whether she will realise the dreams she had when she embarked on her journey in schooling.

The Privileged Class

The destruction of Nadia’s dreams is not the only tragedy that the English language has inflicted on many disadvantaged children. It has also ensured that the class-based society in which she lives will continue to be sustained. The fact of the matter is that there are the privileged ones in Pakistan whose children are bilingual they are actually more fluent in English than in their ‘mother tongue’ and their entire schooling takes place in institutions that are, in common parlance, ‘English-medium’.

It is unwittingly assumed that if these privileged children can cope well with education in English, so can the others. While theoretically speaking this may be a valid assumption, the ground realities are different. Pakistan, like most other decolonised states, has a split society. There is a small élite class, which constitutes the power-wielders; those who can influence policies and social attitudes. This class was created by the British colonisers in India to act as interpreters between the small class of rulers and the huge majority that was ruled. The subservience of the interpreters suited the masters since it gave them space for manipulation.

The bilingual children who learn two languages and learn them well are the privileged of society. They generally come from the affluent class, are well travelled and have highly educated parents fluent in English, and they study in private élite schools that uphold those traditions. They have excellent teachers from the same social background who make them proficient in English. Children like Nadia have none of these advantages. Many of them attend public-sector institutions that are dysfunctional. Others go to low-fee private schools that seek to imitate the language policy of the élite by describing themselves as ‘English-medium’ written in the local script on their signboards. Generally their teachers are the product of the state education system that has been stagnating for decades. They can hardly speak English let alone teach English. They teach in their own language to explain the concepts and then ask the students to copy the answers from the textbooks that are in English. The children may or may not fully understand the meaning of the passagesthat they copy. Hence they memorise the text. Thus, a culture of rote learning is created.

Ill-informed Language Policies and the Hydra

Why has this colonial legacy become so entrenched in the decolonised countries that are now free to walk out of it? The English language has emerged as the proverbial Hydra from which there is no escape. Behind it are political and economic factors, strong social pressures in an iniquitous society, imperceptibly backed by the might of the English-speaking Anglo- American establishments and the international structures they control.

Many linguists in Pakistan have been arguing the case for the use of mother tongues at the primary level. Dr Tariq Rahman, distinguished National Higher Education Commission professor and professor emeritus, is the most widely known, and his works are acknowledged as highly authoritative (e.g. Rahman, 2004). But no impact of these deliberations has been made on either public opinion or the policymakers. The forces pushing for English have proved to be stronger. The biggest defeat for informed academic opinion and a victory for the Hydra came in 2010-12. In this period, the government of Pakistan enlisted the services of Sir Michael Barber, a British educationist, to advise Islamabad on the most effective education policy for a country that was failing to make much headway in educating its children.

Sir Michael was probably intrigued by Pakistan’s failure, and the British Council decided to look into the matter. Hywel Coleman, an internationally recognised language expert from Britain, came onto the scene, and in his report (Coleman, 2010) he very categorically spoke of a ‘dream policy’ that envisaged the home language being used as the medium of instruction in the early years of school, followed by a transition to the national language, plus English being taught as a subject from Grade 6. It was only in Grade 10, which is the last year of a child’s schooling in Pakistan, that English would be introduced as a medium of instruction. This report was circulated in Pakistan’s academic, educational and policymaking circles to elicit feedback. A second round of consultation established without doubt that Coleman’s dream policy had very few takers. Hence he prepared another report, this time in partnership with the British Council’s English- language adviser, Tony Capstick, in which the dream policy was retracted (Coleman & Capstick, 2012). This time the co-authors recommended a campaign of advocacy and further research on the language issue, data mining and research training. Thus the prevailing confusion was papered over and a way sought to prepare the ground for a rational approach.

Meanwhile, the British Council has continued to support English- language teaching in Pakistan in a concerted way. True, a number of foreign missions in the country, namely French, German, Iranian, Italian and so on, promote their own languages as a part of their cultural programmes. But given the controversy surrounding the medium of education issue and the anomalous status of English, the British Council’s role has not been viewed with equanimity in all quarters. I was unable to obtain statistics from the British Council of the burgeoning number of students sitting for A- and O-Level examinations conducted by British examination boards for students in Pakistan. The British Council does not divulge this information, I was told. The school-leaving examinations that are obviously in English have become a big source of revenue for the United Kingdom. At one stage, a programme for improving the English proficiency of teachers was undertaken with the British Council’s cooperation in which trainers were teaching English to teachers in workshops spread over just three weeks!

Sir Michael Barber was once again in the news in Pakistan when the Punjab government commissioned him to prepare a roadmap for education in Punjab for 2011-13. His report, titled Good News from Pakistan and written even before the roadmap period had ended (Barber, 2013), described Punjab’s progress in education as ‘unprecedented’. The roadmap focused on school infrastructure and teachers’ performance in terms of training, methodology and attendance. The learning outcomes of students were not evaluated. As could be expected, there was no mention of the language to be used as the medium.

A calculated failure to tackle the English-language Hydra in education has led to it penetrating all walks of national life, be it industry, trade or the service sectors; English is made out to be indispensable for success. Even those who may never need to use this language in their working lives are assessed, not by their skills or their quality of workmanship but by their proficiency in English. Enjoying, as it does, the privilege of being the most commonly used international language, English is overly emphasised by its protagonists in their economic, commercial, legal and consular interactions in a globalised world. This sentiment filters down from the international to the national sphere.

Let us take the case of a report commissioned by the British Council to assess the benefits of the English language for individuals and societies in five Afro-Asian countries (Euromonitor, 2011). This report found that hiring practices and salary structures in the multinational companies in Pakistan were, to a considerable extent, influenced by the candidates’ knowledge of English. According to its findings, the salary gap between an employee who spoke English and one who could not ranged from 10% to 15%. It also found that 65% of these companies’ salaried employees were English speakers. In a way, this indicates how skewed the employment market is and how English has emerged as a dominant element in the economy of Third World countries much to the disadvantage of the poor.

At times, inaccurate data may be used to promote a point of view. The British Council’s commissioned Euromonitor report (2011: 114) estimatesthat 49% of the total population of Pakistan spoke English to intermediate level in 2009. This would give the impression that English did not create hurdles for most people. But this is so obviously an inaccuracy, as according to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2009-10 (145) only 55% of the population was officially said to be literate at that time, of which only a fraction would have been educated up to the intermediate level to speak a foreign language. Such an approach excludes the majority of the labour force from coveted jobs in multinationals that demand proficiency in English as a precondition for recruitment and justifies this by declaring English to be important for company growth. What we have is, in Euromonitor’s words, ‘a direct correlation between English as a language and economic prosperity’.

The ruling class keeps a firm grip on power by using English as the language of government, the language of the courts and the language of legislation. Thus the non-English speakers are kept out of the charmed circle of the power-wielders. The Hydra selectively gobbles up the chances of the underprivileged, leaving an élite class, in league with their international partners, that is entranced by its magical powers and blithely ignores the Hydra’s iniquitous, socially reprehensible behaviour.

A Losing or a Winning Battle?

Voices have begun to be raised as an awareness of the Hydra has grown. But the battle against the English-language beast is a tough one, and it has only just begun in Pakistan. There are some noteworthy examples that could set a new trend and become leaders in the movement advocating the use of the home language, at least in the early years of a child’s schooling, but it will be a difficult battle.

People have begun to realise that communication can best take place in a language that people understand. Numerous seminars and symposia that are organised to educate public opinion on social issues are now conducted in local languages, and speakers are requested not to use English, as had been the past practice.

Another significant blow to the English-language Hydra came in the aftermath of the decision by the government of Punjab (Pakistan’s largest province) to introduce English as the medium of instruction from August 2013 in public-sector schools. It is not clear whether this was Sir Michael’s brainwave or the idea of the provincial government. Within a few months, the teachers rose in protest, saying they could not teach in a language in which they were not proficient. The language decision had to be rescinded.

These instances give rise to hope. There are some other examples where the English-language Hydra has been an impediment to educational endeavours, and it has been an uphill battle all the way for those attempting to reform the system. The mixed experience of four such institutions is recorded here.

Mazmoon-i-Shauq (Theme of Passion) School, Islamabad

This school was established in 2000 in the federal capital, where there was no dearth of children from élite families. When Yameema Mitha, an educationist by training, could not find a school that she regarded as being ideal for her children, she set up Mazmoon-i-Shauq to promote a holistic philosophy in which language played a key role. It had to be a local language in which resources would be generated. She chose Urdu because it is the national language; it is widely understood and links people of different provinces, even though it is the mother tongue of barely 7% of the population (Y. Mitha, personal communication, 17 July 2014). She found it fascinating to teach all the subjects in Urdu. The children’s expression, understanding and facility in the subjects were unhindered and free. In her words, ‘It was like a blossoming, like pointing out a destination and watching the children run towards it, instead of pointing out a destination and then holding their hand to help them walk every step of the way’ (Y. Mitha, personal communication, 17 July 2014).

While it was functioning under Mitha, the school ran classes from preschool to Grade 5. In the initial year, the medium of instruction was Urdu, with 15% of the teaching time devoted to English. This ratio gradually moved towards a language balance aimed at making the children bilingual. The school’s mission was to build each child’s self-confidence and to reclaim her enthusiasm for learning in a happy environment. It described itself as a ‘movement to reclaim and create our own agenda instead of selling out to alien cultures or being buried under fundamentalist interpretations of our own’ (as stated in the school’s handbook, Mazmoon-i-Shauq, n.d.). While emphasising the importance of English in modern education, the school stated that ‘a sudden introduction to English as THE school language in the Pakistani environment definitely warps a child’s own identity as well as her perception of her environment and the people who occupy it’ (school handbook, Mazmoon-i-Shauq, n.d.).

Sadly, Mitha’s experiment ended in failure. Her goals, direction and strategy were spot on, yet the school had to be closed in the summer of 2014. As Mitha explained to me, ‘We did not earn enough in fees. No one took any profit ever. It was because we did not get enough children because we did not have enough resources to publicise the school and its philosophy, to maintain and improve the school syllabus and curriculum and standard, which has to be done constantly. Low enrolment meant we did not generate enough resources to employ and keep teachers of the calibre required.’ She admitted that ‘Finally the bulk of people did not want what we were offering, a progressive interpretation of our culturein a bilingual environment which emphasised Urdu. Of course there were some parents who shared the philosophy and were supportive and constructively critical.’

She may well have added that the majority wanted their children to be taught in an English-language environment.

Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (Institute for Education and Development), Bahrain, Swat District

The Institute for Education and Development (IBT) is a local civil society organisation founded by Zubair Torwali and his friends, located in a Torwali-speaking region of Swat. Torwali is the language of a small minority. IBT adopted a mother-tongue-based multilingual education programme after this pioneering band of youth had developed a script for their language under expert guidance. The IBT proceeded to set up Mhoon School in 2008, with the idea of demonstrating the capacity of a language, however underdeveloped, to be used as a medium of instruction for its native speakers.

This school has educated 180 students in the last seven years. The IBT website states its basic philosophy is ‘to link the learner’s home culture with that of the school’ (Institute for Education and Development, n.d.). It warns that ignoring the child’s home culture can ‘create hurdles in the cognitive development of the child’. Most importantly, the IBT recognises that the mother tongue of a child can play an effective role in promoting quality education in other languages and subjects. In the first year, Torwali, the mother tongue of the children, is taught exclusively. In the second year the child is bridged to the second language, Urdu, first orally and aurally and then through literacy. Sometimes, towards the close of the second year, a third language (English) is introduced in the same manner as the second language. Under the language progression plan, the second and third languages gradually come to replace the mother tongue by Grade 8.

The founder of the programme, Zubair Torwali, recalled that when the school was launched the public response was enthusiastic, and 60 children were registered for a class of 25. But within three months a high dropout rate caused the class size to shrink to 17. That was mainly because of the parents’ demand for their children to be taught English. They did not appreciate the use of their own mother tongue in school, and they viewed it as a barrier to progress. ‘The traditional schools, especially the so-called English-medium private schools, launched negative propaganda against our programme, saying we were backwardising our children,’ Zubair informed me. That is an argument commonly used by the proponents of the English- language Hydra to scare parents and discredit the teaching of children through their mother tongues.

Zubair feels that he and his colleagues have achieved what they had set out to do namely, to prove that their children could be educated in Torwali. For that, they had to undertake the unique strategy of identity- based community development to strengthen the people’s pride in their culture and language, which they sought to preserve and promote. Advocacy campaigns were launched.

Zubair says, ‘We cannot have any significant change in the “language attitude” of the communities which have a legacy of centuries of marginalisation and demonisation triggered by the various language and education policies of the rulers unless and until we connect the work on language development with an integrated development of the communities. Only through a holistic approach can we achieve our ends of securing mother tongues in education; and revitalising the moribund culture(s)’ (email message to author, 28 July 2014). At the time of writing, Zubair is persisting, and it is his devotion to his community that sustains him.

Montessori Teachers Training Centre, Karachi

Accredited by the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) in Amsterdam, the Montessori Teachers Training Centre (MTTC), according to AMI’s website, is one of its 67 training centres located round the world (Association Montessori Institute, n.d.). The MTTC runs a nine-month, internationally recognised diploma course for training Montessori directresses. Approximately 70 or so students enrol every year for the course, regulated by the head office, which sends a supervisor to oversee the final examinations. The course is the only one of its kind in Pakistan, though unauthorised institutions have mushroomed, holding their own pseudo-versions of Montessori training courses in the country.

The MTTC organises two programmes simultaneously one in English and the other in Urdu. There is a greater demand for the English- medium course, although the performance of the Urdu-medium students is infinitely better, according to the director of the centre. In spite of the low response for the course in Urdu, the MTTC has persevered in organising its dual programmes mainly with support from its headquarters in Amsterdam while giving identical treatment to the courses run in the two languages. The same teachers, who are bilingual, conduct both courses, and the books that are used have been translated into Urdu by an academic.

Adhering faithfully to Dr Maria Montessori’s philosophy, the MTTC holds the belief that a child learns best in her own mother tongue. Since most people in Pakistan have not mastered English, which is not commonly heard in the environment either, education through the English medium offers minimal advantage to the majority, which can benefit more from a local language. Yet again, social and economic pressures preempt the application of this obvious dictum based on common sense.

The English-language Hydra emerges again as a major obstacle to mother- tongue education.

Farida Akbar, who has been the director of the MTTC since 1999 and has 39 years of Montessori training experience behind her, confirms a trend of applicants seeking admission to the English-medium section, even if their proficiency in the language is poor. Some students, who managed to get admission into the English section, switched over to Urdu midyear when so advised. These trainees were found to perform dramatically better in Urdu, but not everyone accepted the transfer advice. Many applicants who were offered admission in Urdu preferred to turn it down altogether, as they insisted on studying only in English, despite having poor knowledge of the language and this adversely affected their performance.

Giving the reason for this misguided choice, Akbar explains, ‘When our graduates from the Urdu section look for a job, they say they do not get one easily as having studied in Urdu becomes a disqualification for them. Even though we do not disclose the language used as a medium on the diploma, the applicants’ speaking skills betray the language in which they have been educated. This is a pity because their English skills do not improve simply by doing the Montessori course in English. Yet the myth persists.’

Akbar suggests to her students that they should study the Montessori course in Urdu first and then follow it up with courses in the English language. ‘No one wants to do that as they are looking for shortcuts,’ she adds. ‘They are afraid of being sidelined’ (from an interview conducted on 31 July 2014).

The Citizens Foundation, Pakistan

A nongovernmental organisation formed in 1995 by a group of businessmen with social vision and professionalism, The Citizens Foundation (TCF) has been setting up purpose-built schools all over the country to provide affordable schooling to underprivileged children (The Citizens Foundation, n.d.). In August 2014, TCF was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for building 1,000 schools in 100 towns, cities and villages in a country with the world’s second highest number of children who are out of school. They were educating some 145,000 children.

TCF’s vision as described on its website is to remove the barriers of class and privilege to turn the citizens of Pakistan into agents of positive change. Its mission is to impart quality education to enable moral, spiritual and intellectual enlightenment to provide opportunities to improve the quality of life of the country’s citizens. The values it emphasises are integrity, ownership and continuous improvement.

TCF has produced some success stories over the years. However, most TCF children who come from low-income families take up low-paid jobs soon after passing their school-leaving examinations without working towards a university degree. Some of their outstanding students, however, have seized the opportunity they were provided by joining prestigious institutions of higher education. TCF has wisely decided not to adopt English as the medium of instruction. English is taught, but as a subject or as a second language. This is generally not advertised. The success of some of its students in gaining admission into the best educational institutions on merit demonstrates convincingly that not studying in an English- medium school has not placed them at any disadvantage. The only problem that has been faced by TCF in terms of the language of education has been vis-à-vis the provincial languages. TCF’s decision to use Urdu as the medium in all its schools across the country, where different indigenous languages are spoken in various provinces, has posed challenges of a different sort. Urdu is not the mother tongue of most people, and not all young children understand it at an early age. TCF has responded to social pressures in Sindh and has introduced Sindhi as a language but not as the medium of instruction. This issue will have to be resolved, but resisting the English- language Hydra has given TCF the confidence to adopt an education policy that is not English-centric.

TCF’s success can be attributed to the fact that it targets the poorest of the poor who do not have choices and will accept whatever is offered to them. As most of them are not in a position to aspire for highly paid jobs, and the influence of the English-language Hydra has yet to filter down to the lowest levels, TCF has not felt threatened. It has done well by teaching English as a subject.

These are small efforts. There are others, too, working at the grassroots, who have managed to dodge the Hydra. Were they to succeed, they could serve as models. They would show others that by saving our young children from the tyranny of an imposed language, we can save our education system itself. The most important achievement would be that our children will learn to think critically and creatively, which most of them cannot do in the alien language that English is for them. By sustaining these experiments we can help our people reclaim their socio- cultural values and encourage greater equity in society. Success in resisting the English-language Hydra will enhance the children’s language skills by allowing mother-tongue-based multilingual programmes to establish themselves.


According to Pakistan’s finance minister (Dawn, 2014), over 60% of the country’s population are living under the poverty line.

Association Montessori Internationale (n.d.) List of AMI training centres. See http:// (accessed 12 August 2014).

Barber, M. (2013) The Good News from Pakistan. London: Reform.

The Citizens Foundation (n.d.) Quality education for the less privileged. See http:// (accessed 12 August 2014).

Coleman, H. (2010) Teaching and Learning in Pakistan: The Role of Language in Education. Islamabad: British Council.

Coleman, H. and Capstick, T. (2012) Language in Education in Pakistan: Recommendations for Policy and Practice. Islamabad: British Council.

Dawn (2014) Dar: Over half of Pakistan lives under poverty line. 3 June. See http://www. (accessed 29 November 2015).

Euromonitor International (2011) The Benefits of the English Language for Individuals and Societies: Quantitative Indicators from Cameroon, Nigeria, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Pakistan. London: British Council.

Institute for Education and Development (n.d.) Programmes. See (accessed 12 August 2014).

Mazmoon-i-Shauq (n.d.) Handbook. Islamabad: Unpublished.

Ministry of Finance, Pakistan (2010) Pakistan Economic Survey 200910. Government of Pakistan, Islamabad. See (accessed 29 November 2015.

Ministry of Finance, Pakistan (2014) Pakistan Economic Survey 201314. Government of Pakistan, Islamabad. See (accessed 29 November 2015).

Rahman, T. (2004) Denizens of Alien Worlds: A Study of Education, Inequality and Polarisation in Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

With permission.

Source: Why English? Confronting the Hydra (2016). Edited by Pauline Bunce, Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana & Ruanni Tupas. Published by Multilingual Matters