The role of language in education and its impact on society

By Zubeida Mustafa

Language which is a basic capacity with which man has been endowed is something that distinguishes the human being from all living species. It is a multi-dimensional issue that has an impact on every sector of life and human relationships. Here I am reminded of a seemingly small slip of language that could have led to a chain of events that in turn could have preempted the formation of this alliance between Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences and the Hamza Alavi Foundation, the sponsors of today’s talk.

It was way back in the late nineties when Prof Hamza Alavi was preparing to return home to Karachi after his retirement from Manchester University that a colleague of mine at Dawn, Ghayurul Islam, who was also a founding member of Irtiqa, requested me to introduce Irtiqa to Professor Alavi. Since I had met Hamza Bhai and was in touch with him I could always write to him, Ghayur Sahib suggested. I agreed and sent Hamza Alavi an email mentioning this group of intellectuals who were keen to meet him on his return to Karachi and to have a working relationship with him. That was all fine except that I made a faux pas. I jumbled up the alphabets when describing this venerable group – a different name emerged. Promptly I received a reply from Hamza Bhai saying he was skeptical about a group with such a name and he advised me to keep a distance from it. It was then that I realized what a blunder I had made. There was another exchange of emails and the matter was clarified to my great relief.

Importance of language in human relationships

Hello_World_In_Several_LanguagesMore importantly, this incident also proved to me how important language, words and even letters are in human interaction. Vocabulary, usage and even an expression can change the meaning of a communication and by virtue of that human relationships. In view of that is it not strange that we attach no importance to the language we should use not just in our daily lives but also in education?

It is, however, a fact that language acquires a lot of importance when it comes to the political complexities of a people. In fact language has emerged as one of the most sensitive issues in the political life of a nation. In our own case we know that the process of the break-up of Pakistan actually began less than a year after the country came into existence as an independent state when it was announced that Urdu was to be the national language of the country. The Bengalis reacted strongly. Of course other factors also expedited the split-up but the first public protest that took place in East Pakistan against the west wing was on the language issue.

In West Pakistan too there was discontent in different provinces on issues related to the languages spoken in different provinces. Language in education is a more explosive issue, though. It has far-reaching socio-cultural, political and economic implications for the speakers of a language especially if their language is not the language of the state.

Colonial legacy

In the age of colonialism language was used by the colonial powers in gaining control over foreign lands. It is well known that when North America, Australia and New Zealand were colonized the conquering powers adopted the strategy of taking away the children of the natives from their families – the Red Indians as they were derogatively called, the Maoris and the Aboriginals – and put them up in boarding schools where their mother tongue was snatched away from them Thus the colonisers hoped to deny the natives their socio-cultural and political heritage.

When the British came to India this strategy could not be adopted. India was too large a country. Hence the British adopted a different approach. They turned their language strategy to their own advantage. Through their language in education policy they bequeathed to the people of the subcontinent a class-based system of education that was pegged to the English language. Lord Macaulay famously stated in his Minutes on Education of 2 February 1835:

It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.1

Thus under the Raj, English was used to create a class of rulers who lent their services to the British raj to whom they were subservient. Education was used as a tool for that purpose. In other words those who ruled were a privileged class and they knew English which the masses did not know. This pattern has persisted and more than 67 years after the advent of Pakistan we have an English-speaking privileged class which uses language to benefit its own class. Education has been used as the tool to promote imperialism. Robert Phillipson, a linguist, calls it linguistic imperialism.2

This also clearly shows that if someone wants to control a society fully he shapes his strategy through the use of language in education. It is therefore strange that our government has not addressed this issue sufficiently.

English language in Pakistan’s education policies

Before I briefly trace the language in education policy as it has emerged over the years and how it has promoted the class divide in Pakistan, I should clarify the three dimensions of language in the education system of any country.

First a language may be taught as a subject. If it is the mother tongue of the students its grammar, literature, vocabulary and history of the language may be taught. If it is not the mother tongue it may be taught as a second language.

Secondly, a language may be used as the medium of instruction in which various subjects are taught. And the two languages may be different.

Thirdly, in a multilingual setting one has to strike a balance between different languages taught in schools and they should all receive equal treatment and respect. Demeaning one language vis-à-vis another amounts to showing disrespect to the speakers of that language.

This confusion in the use of languages in education creates problems as there is no clarity of approach and the net result is that education is in a shambles. Inherently the policy adopted is ill-suited to our conditions.

Since the First Education Conference held in December 1947 in Karachi until 2010 when Article 25-A was adopted by the National Assembly making education free and compulsory it has been clear that few in the government are seriously interested in promoting education as a means of creating a level playing field. On the contrary education has intensified the class divide and made society more unequal.

Karachi Conference 1947

At the Karachi conference it was agreed that the common language to be taught in every province should be Urdu but the question of the medium of instruction should be left to each province to decide according to its own requirements. English should be retained at the school stage as a transitional measure. The idea was to allow the provincial languages maximum scope for growth in education and as instruments of cultural dissemination. It was categorically stated that until a child has learnt one language well enough, she should not be made to learn any other. ‘That this first language should be the mother-tongue needs no argument’. On this assumption it was recommended that the mother-tongue should be the medium of instruction at the primary stage.3

This was a sensible approach but it was not implemented fully. Gradually language emerged as a sensitive issue especially when it was clear that education in a language which had been mastered by the student because it was his mother tongue or the language of his home environment gave him an advantage in his studies and later in finding employment.

Subsequently, governments became reticent on the medium issue. Some of the local languages were specifically defined as being the medium in the primary schools of the province where they were spoken – such as Sindhi and Pushto – the status of English was left blurred. Urdu, as the national and official language, was given preference over the local languages by making it compulsory and also by giving it the status of a medium of instruction at the secondary level ln some provinces.

Karachi Conference 1951 & Shareef Commission 1959

As a result the thrust towards Urdu became quite perceptible, while the pre-eminence of English remained unchanged. This trend is visible in the Second Karachi Conference of 1951 and the Sharif Commission report of 1959 . But paradoxically the Sharif Commission defended the use of English as the medium of instruction in the elite schools as they alone were believed to be capable of bringing in ‘modernisation and efficiency’.

Hamoodur Rahman Commission 1964

In 1964 the Hamoodur Rahman Commission which was set up to investigate the student unrest that followed the promulgation of the University Ordinances did not issue clear instructions on the elitist English medium schools either. The Commission defended the use of the English language as the medium of instruction in the universities and the role of English in education. It cautioned against any hasty changeover to Urdu and proposed the establishment of a committee of experts to decide on the medium issue in university education. It also suggested that until the committee reached a decision on the changeover, it should not be allowed to take place. This ambiguity in approach to language in education left the language situation vague.

Nur Khan Commission 1969

Nur Khan, who headed another education commission, made some very radical proposals in the language context in 1969. His report spoke of the language barrier and the barrier of privilege that were not helping in promoting national integration. In view of these criteria it categorically stated that the continued use of English could not be justified.   The policy firmly demanded the nationalisation of English medium missionary schools, accusing them of ‘perpetuating the barriers of distinction’. It declared that ‘the continued use of English as distinct from the study of English as a language cannot be justified as it tends to defeat the basic objectives of the use of the right media of instruction’. Urdu was to be the medium of instruction at all levels in all schools.4

This was the closest Pakistan came to admitting that a rational approach was needed to make education a leveler that would do away with class divisions. But the report’s recommendations were overtaken by events in East Pakistan which led to the break-up of the country and the emergence of Bangladesh.

PPP’s education policy 1972

The Pakistan that rose from the ashes of the 1971 war was a country led by the Pakistan People’s Party, that had promised roti, kapra, aur makan (bread, clothes, and shelter) to the people. That implied better education opportunities for the population as well. But the education policy of 1972 came as a serious blow to the principle of equity and contradicted the pro-people philosophy announced by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Its linchpin was the principle of free and compulsory education based on the policy of nationalisation of private educational institutions. But not all schools were taken over by the government and the thrust of the policy was more towards form than substance. The policy was intriguingly silent on the language to be used as the medium of instruction. This issue should have been one of the major questions to be addressed if the education of the masses and equity were the true concern of the authors of the education policy. In effect, the divide between the vernaculars and English deepened further as the elite schools adopted English while Urdu was the medium of instruction in the public sector schools (Urdu/Sindhi in Sindh) in Sindh whose numbers escalated on account of the nationalisation of the modest-fee private schools all over the country. By nationalising some schools—and not the up-market institutions—and destroying them totally the government formalised the language barrier between the classes.

Ziaul Haq’s policy 1979

General Ziaul Haq’s aversion to English and his pronouncements on education in Pakistan that were made in 1979 pushed the pendulum back to a staunchly pro-Urdu position in education as the language was deemed to be a symbol of ideology and Islamic solidarity. The policy statement described Urdu as a great repository of Muslim culture and the lingua franca which served as a link language for people speaking a variety of languages. Hence Urdu was to be strengthened as the national language. Having said that, the authors of the policy seemed confused about the medium of instruction and the role of regional languages. Thus it was categorically stated that ‘communication can best take place in the mother-tongue of the child at the primary level’ and it would be a good educational practice if primary education is imparted in the approved provincial language’ . Thus the importance of regional languages was recognised and linguistic diversity appreciated. Urdu was given pre-eminence by reminding educationists that the ‘switchover to the national language as the medium of instruction is the ultimate aim. English was also recognised because of its position in the world of scholarship and therefore it was advised that the switchover to Urdu or a regional language from English should not be too sudden. It is not clear whether General Zia adopted this stance as he was so advised by a linguistic expert who understood the importance of the mother tongue or the General was trying to counter English in his Islamisation drive. In any case, nothing came out of this policy announcement and the situation did not change in any way.

Nawaz Sharif’s education policies 1992 and 1998

Under Nawaz Sharif, a flexible approach was adopted towards the medium of instruction issue in the 1992 education policy. For the primary level, the policy stated, ‘The medium of instruction shall be either provincial languages, national language or English.’ This was in recognition of the fact that Pakistan’s society was multilingual. It was left to the provinces to choose the language they wished to adopt. Nawaz Sharif was a true protégé of his patron (General Zia) and had no desire to encourage critical thinking as education in a child’s mother tongue is designed to do. The emphasis of the policy was on ‘promoting Islamic social sciences to enable students to understand the Islamic worldview’ and ‘strengthen their cultural moorings as members of the Muslim Ummah’. This was a clear indication that education was not intended to teach a child to think but to indoctrinate her. Thus the flexibility in the policy did not serve a good purpose and allowed educationists to manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

The second Nawaz Sharif government in 1998 adopted another education policy even before the first had run its course. By now the government’s Islamic orientation was more pronounced. The policy spoke of narrowing “the gap between purely religious and purely secular education, leading finally to the purposeful integration of the two systems”. At the same time the policy spoke of the “immediate and urgent need for giving scientific and technological education to our people in order to build up our future economic life and to see that our people take to science, commerce, trade and particularly well-planned industries.

Education under Musharraf

In this scheme of things language was neglected and was not taken into account when education was under debate. By 2005, the language policy in the education system was in total disarray on account of the government’s failure to adopt a clear and rational stand on it. This was also the time when, in the wake of 9/11, General Musharraf came under immense pressure from the US and Britain to reform Pakistan’s education system as it was believed to be contributing to the militant mindset in the youth that was promoting terrorism.

As a result, the government, especially the federal education minister, a retired ISI chief, General Javed Ashraf Qazi, took it upon itself to promote forcefully the teaching of English language in Pakistan. The misplaced notion was that the earlier a child was introduced to English, the better his education would be. No attention was paid to the fact that English taught badly by teachers who did not even know the language would damage beyond redemption the child’s capacity to learn. General Pervez Musharraf’s government was then sensitive about the country’s image abroad and wished to showcase Pakistan as a modern state. English served as an ideal instrument for that purpose. By championing the use of English the government hoped to establish its credentials of moderation and enlightenment.

The next education policy came in 2009 and in it the choice of the medium of education up to Grade 5 was left to every provincial education department. But the document contradicted itself by stipulating that English would be the language of instruction for science and mathematics from Grade 4 onwards, though the implementation of this language policy for science and mathematics could be delayed for five years (until 2014), but not later than that.

Thereafter the 18th Amendment in 2010 devolved education to the provinces and Article 25-A made school education compulsory and free. This required every province to adopt a Right to Education Act which all of them have. But the law is silent on the critical issue of language in education. The ambiguity on language continues allowing vested interests to to exploit the status quo.

The present state of education

What is the status quo today? Pakistan’s education system has been cracked by an obscene class divide. Broadly speaking there are two categories of schools that exist in the country. They are given below followed by their distinguishing features.

Elite private schools                                    Public sector schools and low fee  

                                                                                       private schools

Expensive                                                    Free or low cost

Good quality education                             Low standards

Foreign boards O-Levels exams               Local board exams

English is medium                                     Urlish is the language used

Enrol children from elite class                   Children of the poor are enrolled there

As a result society has been split into two classes. The inequity in education is now deeply entrenched. One class comprises those who have many privileges and power which wealth can buy. Their children are well educated in private elite institutions and the majority of them have received higher education from the best universities in Europe and North America. By virtue of their education they get highly paid jobs and that enables them to hold on to their privileged status. They are also English speakers.

The other class – the underprivileged – does not have the resources to educate its children in good schools. These children manage to learn something anyway but are not skilled enough to get into the coveted job market. It is not a coincidence that their proficiency in English is not high.

Thus the stratified society continues to perpetuate itself. The government has played a role in creating this unfortunate state of affairs. By destroying the public sector education system, the government has given a boost to the private sector, forcing people to turn to private institutions as they have no choice. According to government sources nearly a third of primary school enrolment in Pakistan is in the private sector. Half of all school going children are enrolled in private institutions. Of course there are low cost private schools also in existence but they do not have the resources to offer quality education. The high class institutions charge exorbitant fees which far exceed the monthly salaries of a working class person. All this creates the impression in the mind of a common man that English offers a solution to the problem of low standards. This is not true especially if we believe the aim of education to be to inculcate critical thinking in our people.


Why English becomes a problem

How does English add to the miseries of the oppressed? First I must explain how a child acquires language which should not be such a challenging process. After all even a person who never attends school all his life knows how to speak his own language without being tutored in it. Literacy – that is reading and writing a language comes later – that is if at all. Few people understand the process of development of language skills in an infant and why a child from an underprivileged background is at a disadvantage if she is required to study in English and why the children of the elite pick up English so easily.

Maria Montessori, an educator from Italy who founded the education system  named after her, has described the language acquisition process very well.5 According to her every child has a language mechanism in her brain. Immediately after birth—some say even during the mother’s pregnancy — a child begins collecting a repertoire of human sounds and words in the subconscious recesses of her mind.

When the speech centre in their brain is sufficiently developed and their larynx, mouth, tongue and other parts used in producing speech are matured the child begins to talk. The language she uses is the language she has been hearing. It is initially the language spoken at home by the family and then the language of the environment.

That should explain why some children can learn English so easily while others can’t. It all depends on the language in the environment that a child is exposed to. Most children in Pakistan are not exposed to English as their mothers do not even know the language.

There are others whose situation is quite different. I remember listening to a lady, the wife of a minister, boasting at a seminar that her son of four could speak three languages with ease. He had learnt Urdu from his grandmother, Punjabi from his father and English from both his parents.

The minister’s son was the privileged child to whom his mother had been speaking in English from the start. Here motherese must have been in English. The mother must not have endearingly addressed him as “Mera chanda” but as “My darling”. The grandmother and the father provided the input from the other languages.These languages would have come very naturally to him. But that is not the case with the vast majority. English is not the language of the environment. Even Urdu is not in many areas for it is the mother tongue of barely 7 per cent of the population of Pakistan.

From this one can deduce that in the initial years of schooling children taught in their own language that they understand puts them at an advantage. Thus they continue to build on the knowledge and thinking that have been accumulating in their mind since a very early age. They do not have to unlearn what they have been learning naturally from their own observation, experience and environment and start learning in a new unfamiliar language. Children are required to rote learn a lot in school when the language they are taught in is new to them.

Need for clarity

It is time we adopted a clear cut policy on the medium of instruction. It should be the home language of the child for at least the first three or four years of her schooling. In this period other languages can be gradually introduced with the home language continuing to be the base. The minister’s son as described above would still be at an advantage because of his multilingual home environment but at least the son of his driver would not be pushed against the wall if both of them were to study in Punjabi.

A major disadvantage the poor face is that in this scheme of things English comes to be equated with quality while the local language is deemed to be undeveloped and therefore not really fit to be used as the medium of instruction. No effort is made to uplift the non-English schools that are dubbed as inferior. Since they are government schools or low fee private schools the children of the poor go there and small wonder they are deprived of good education.

In this process the underprivileged children fail to learn English because no effort is made to improve their school and train good English language teachers. As a result we have a small elite class that speaks English fluently and has received relatively good education – but has not learnt to think. The vast majority can speak no language well, has learnt nothing and cannot think either.

Exploitation by the haves

This is the scenario Pakistan finds itself in today. This situation is being exploited by the haves to hold on to the privileges they enjoy and to perpetuate the status quo. How do they do it? By virtue of their better education they bag the better high paid jobs. They meet no competition. Being in influential positions they can set trends and give new directions to the economy and society. As such the jobs created are tailored to their education. For instance take a report prepared by by Euromonitor International commissioned by the British Council to assess the benefits of the English language for individuals and societies in five Afro-Asian countries in 2011.6 Some of its findings are unbelievable. Others are shocking.

The report said that 49 per cent of the population of Pakistan speaks English of the Intermediate level. I challenge that. With a literacy rate of 58 per cent – and we know who is taken to be a literate in Pakistan – can one really believe that of all the people living in this country nearly half can speak English when that percentage has not even gone to college? After creating this fake data it does not seem strange that multinationals should demand proficiency in English as a precondition for recruitment and justify it by declaring English to be important for the company’s growth. Euromonitor points out the “direct correlation between English as a language and economic prosperity”.

This is reinforced by making the salary structure so unequal that the salary gap between one who spoke English and one who could not ranged from 10 to 15 per cent. With hiring agencies playing a key role in recruitment, this manipulation is possible and 65 per cent of the employees in such companies are said to speak English. Thus an artificial demand for English is created.

At the back of this is what Robert Phillipson, a linguist from Britain but now in Denmark, describes as linguistic imperialism. He defines it as “the dominance asserted and retained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages”.7 According to him English is not a tool just for perpetuating the hegemony of English-speaking powers in the post-colonial age in the erstwhile colonies but also for creating new spheres of influence in the neo-colonial era in Europe.

There are many methods being employed to achieve this end the most notable being the approaches being promoted to destroy the indigenous languages and replace them with English. According to David Crystal, a leading linguist, there are nearly 6000 languages in the world today but they are dying out at a rapid speed. He calls it “language extinction on a massive scale”. According to him 3000 languages will die by the end of the century. Even today just 4 per cent of the people speak 96 per cent of the languages and he laments the impending end of linguistic diversity.8

In our own case, an important tool that has emerged in this phenomenon is education. The destruction of our examinations has created a vacuum that has been filled by O-Levels and A-Levels exams from the examination boards in Britain. Now we have the International Baccalaurete exams being promoted. They all use English as the medium. The number of students appearing in these exams is growing phenomenally. The British Council’s Annual Report for 2009-10 says that for every $1.60 it receives of the taxpayers’ money it earns $4.00 from the examinations it conducts and its ELT programmes.9

At times we are not even aware of the insidious ways in which English is being promoted in the cause of capitalism. The World Bank and the IMF are regarded as the biggest agents of this thrust towards capitalism. English is the major instrument used in this game. Here I quote from the Introduction of the book 50 Years is Enough edited by Kevin Danaher.

The unwritten goal of the IMF and World Bank was to integrate the elites of all countries into the capitalist world system of rewards and punishments. The billions of dollars controlled by the IMF and World Bank have helped to create greater allegiance of national elites to the elites of other countries than they have to their own national majorities. When the World Bank and IMF lend money to debtor countries the money comes with strings attached. The policy prescriptions are usually referred to as “structural adjustment” and they require that debtor governments open their economies up to penetration by foreign corporations, allowing them access to the workers and natural resources of the country at bargain basement prices. Other policies imposed under structural adjustment include: allowing foreign corporations to repatriate profits, balancing the government budget (often by cutting social spending), selling off publicly owned assets (“privatization”) and devaluing the currency.

Many grassroots groups in the Third World talk about the recolonization of their countries as they steadily lose control over their own factories and services.10

Impact of English on society

English is being used as a handy tool to promote this neoimperialism. It is not just an economic issue. Sad to say it has grave social and cultural implications as well. People who do not manage to enter this privileged elite circle – and most can’t – are relegated to a position of inferiority and subordination. They are treated as second class citizens to be looked down upon that destroys their self-esteem and confidence. Their culture, language, mannerism, tradition and social behavior is looked down upon. Since they are also deprived of economic advantages they are denied access to many things which have come to be identified as “classy” and cost a lot. In the process, the majorities who cannot speak English and were traditionally regarded to be the custodians of indigenous culture, language and values are abandoning these in their quest for upward mobility that they believe comes from learning English.


1 Lord Babington Macaulay, Minutes on Education, 2 February 1835, From: Bureau of Education. Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839).  Edited by H. Sharp.  Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1920. Reprint. Delhi: National Archives of India, 1965, 107-117.

2 Robert Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism, London: OUP, 1992.

3 Proceedings of the Pakistan Educational Conference Held at Karachi from 27 Nov to 1 Dec 1947, Karachi: Government of Pakistan, 1947, p. 11.

4 Proposals for a New Education Policy. Islamabad: Government of Pakistan, Ministry of Education, July 1969.

5 Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, Karachi: Pakistan Montessori Association, 2000.

6 The Benefits of the English Language for Individuals and Societies: Quantitative Indicators from Cameroon, Nigeria, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Pakistan, A custom report compiled by Euromonitor International for the British Council, London, 2011.


7Robert Phillipson, “Linguistic imperialism alive and kicking” Guardian, London, 13 March 2012.

8 David Crystal, “Death sentence”, Guardian, London, 24 October 1999

9 Phillipson, “Linguistic imperialism alive and kicking”, op cit.

10 Kevin Danaher, 50 Years is Enough: Case against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Boston: South End Press, 1994.

Thirteenth Hamza Alavi Distinguished  Lecture

Karachi: 20 December 2014