The writer addresses language disparities existing in our society and highlight their role in our educational institutions from a historical perspective.
If you are eating in prominent restaurants of the country, you will find many people from nearby tables talking in English. Similarly, if you go to coffee shops or ice cream parlors in posh areas of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, you will find children chatting fluently in English. The same is the culture prevailing in high-rise corporate offices, where executives who speak in English have bigger clout.
It is saddening to see that our nation prefers to speak ‘English’ in all their matters of life. Despite their little command over the subject, they do everything within their power to speak few words of English, in the hope of achieving false prestige and power in society. When we move into our friends or family circles, unconsciously we switch from Urdu to English and back as we don’t find the right word in one language. I remember that a few years ago, one of my friends was fined Rupees 200 at her English medium school for speaking in Urdu to a friend during the break.
I confronted a similar situation at a famous grocery store where a 10-year old boy was rebuked by his mother on demanding a ‘toy’ in Urdu, until he spoke English. Clearly this is an indication that English is the language of status and power. Children from well-to-do families consider ‘Urdu medium’ an insult and think of it as a mode of language to be used for ordering servants. The poor families understand this message and spend most of their meager amount on the education of their children, so that they can speak English. Unfortunately there are only few institutions which are imparting quality spoken and written English classes but their fee structure is very high and beyond the range of most parents. Luckily, if you have graduated with a sound command of spoken English, you are bound to succeed. Generally, it is assumed that if you have a command on spoken English, you are intelligent and come from ‘well to do’ family. Once you are settled, you look down on the less fortunate ones in terms of ‘Urdu Medium’ only.
Pakistan is an economically divided society and 60% of its population is surviving on less than $2 a day. More than a quarter of national income is in the hands of the top 10%. Unfortunately, the language policy for educational institutions, which is inherited from the British Era is damaging the effectiveness of state education. Due to this, poor people are unable to learn skills and training which can help them reap economic rewards. There are more than 65 languages spoken in Pakistan, yet Urdu, the national language and the medium of instruction in the majority of state schools, is spoken by just 7% of the population.
According to the latest publication, ‘Education Policies in Pakistan’ by Shahid Siddiqui, the major challenge before policymakers in Pakistan has been the choice of language and its central role in the process of learning. Since 1947, Pakistan has tried nine different policy guidelines in education. Interestingly, five of these were crafted during the reigns of various military dictators. As we go through history, we reach the conclusion that language issue has not been given much priority and more emphasis was placed on the political aspect of the language.
We cannot deny the importance of English language in the modern age but Urdu should not be ignored at the cost of more than 65 other languages spoken in the country. We need to pay attention to all these languages as they reflect the rich culture and history of Pakistan. Our education policy has to be designed on a trilingual model in which the native language should be the medium of instruction at primary level along with Urdu and English. Also, the mother tongue should be promoted at higher education as a separate discipline.