SINCE 1999, when Unesco first declared Feb 21 International Mother Language Day, this issue has received much attention throughout the world. In Pakistan, where the language issue has always had a complexity of its own, educators, linguists and activists are now more vocal than ever.
Will the ruckus being created have a real impact on the language situation in various sectors of national life? The courts have given two major language-related verdicts in the past two years. One was the Supreme Court’s directive of 2015 asking the government to use Urdu as the official language of administration. The second is the recent order of the Lahore High Court asking the Federal Public Commission to conduct CSS examinations in Urdu.
There is a logical link between the two. A person who is to conduct the affairs of governance in one language should be fluent enough in it to pass an exam to qualify as an administrator. The conclusion that follows is that the CSS candidates should have studied Urdu in school as well as college to be able to take examinations in that language.
Instead, confusion reigns supreme in the language-in-education policy. While we are still ambiguous about the status of our indigenous languages, policymakers and stakeholders have leapfrogged to English in an effort to make it the medium of instruction. Even the sensible proposal of introducing mother tongue-based multilingualism, which is universally recognised as the most feasible approach, has failed to win supporters.
The debate on language policy continues to defy logic.
One misconception is that English is considered a superior language — that if we wish to keep up with the world, our children must study in English and abandon their own so-called inferior languages. Even the idea of teaching English as a second language subject is rejected out of hand. As a result, we are driving a wedge through our already fragmented society, and this quixotic approach is also destroying our education system.
A legacy of colonial times, English is promoted as the language of the political elite — the “language of power” as Dr Tariq Rahman, our leading linguist, puts it. Being dubbed as inferior, native languages are neglected and their speakers become the underprivileged of society. Given our limited resources, it has not been possible to teach English well to all people, thereby ensuring that the majority remains disadvantaged. A small minority, which has the resources to learn good English from highly qualified teachers, becomes the empowered elite.
One wonders what stops us from thinking rationally about this issue. In 2011, the British Council commissioned a world-renowned linguist, Hywel Coleman, to make suggestions related to this matter. Coleman proposed a three-language policy starting with the mother tongue, followed by Urdu (the language of communication) and finally the global language in vogue, English. This was not reaffirmed in the follow-up report. Instead, Coleman proposed further advocacy on the matter.
Recently, I asked Coleman, “Why advocacy?” He explained that extensive consultations and meetings with provincial ministers of education made him realise that his “original proposal [though ideal for Pakistan] was simplistic and naïve”. So, in the revised proposal, he suggested a lengthy process to raise awareness about the “nature and roles of language in education”.
He emphasises that nobody pressured him to modify his position. He wants advocacy to be directed at parents (so that they appreciate the risks involved in not using the mother tongue in the early years of primary school), education policymakers and planners, politicians, government officials and, above all, the general public so that they see linguistic diversity as a divine blessing.
The tragedy is that language myths persist and are destroying education in Pakistan. There are many reasons for this failure, but the main one is our inability to produce competent and committed teachers. This is not surprising given the fact that the teachers are the products of a system that collapsed several decades ago. An attempt to revitalise teaching will be a major task, but it has to be done. Teachers can be taught pedagogy quite quickly; subject knowledge is a bigger challenge but not impossible to cultivate in short courses spread over several months. But can you teach a language to a teacher in a few weeks and expect her to use it perfectly as the medium of instruction? Yet this is what is attempted from time to time. It would be easier for teachers to learn a subject in the language that they are fluent in, while some teachers with potential could be selected for more long-term training to teach English as a second language.
Why this simple logic eludes us is not clear. But this lack of clarity is making good education the privilege of a few — those enrolled in upscale private schools — while the majority is denied its basic right.