Plight of Urdu as a national language
Title: Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution Author: Zubeida Mustafa Publisher: Ushba Publishing International, Karachi. (May 2011) Pages: 234 pages, Hardback Price: PKR. 200 ISBN: 978-969-9154-22-5
After the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, it was quite logical to expect that Urdu, which had already been declared the national language of Pakistan, would get its due place as the official language of the country. However, that has not happened and English, the language of our former rulers, continues to thrive as the dominant medium of communication in all walks of life.
Besides Urdu, the national language, there are a number of regional languages in Pakistan. The choice of medium of instruction at various levels in schools has become a complex issue due to the plurality of languages and also because of political and economic factors. The book under review, ‘Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution,’ discusses this particular aspect of our educational systems.
At the time of independence, government schools were, by and large, considered to be the best. Schools which have now come to be known as ‘Elite Schools’ were very few in numbers at that time. I can say from my personal knowledge that in those days, even the sons of ministers and millionaire industrialists attended those government schools along with the children of middle class families. The medium of instruction at these schools was English. But a mixture of English and the regional language of the respective area, was used by the teacher for academic instruction. And even then, students were required to answer their examination papers in the English language.
But soon the private sector elite schools began to grow at a fast pace. They adhered strictly to English as the medium of instruction at all levels. Most of them subsequently adopted, at the secondary level, Britain’s Cambridge system while the government schools continued to stick to the indigenous Matriculation system. The class divide in the society was thus further strengthened.
During the British Raj, those who possessed proficiency in the English language enjoyed a privileged position. As early as 1837, when India was still governed by the British East India Company, the official language of the law courts was changed from Persian to English. It was also decided a few years later, that only those Indians would be appointed to administrative posts who knew English. Hindus were quick to learn the language of the new rulers. But Muslims were prevented by their ego from turning towards English, the language of those to whom they had lost their territories. Subsequently, it was through the efforts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan that Muslims began to acquire the knowledge of English language and thus of modern learning.
After Independence, though Urdu was declared to be the national language, it could not be introduced as the official language because of the resistance from the Eastern wing. It was not possible to give it that status even after the secession because, by then a privileged class had already come into existence which was and still is using competency in English as a tool for gaining authority.
The current position with respect to language in education is that every parent, irrespective of the class to which he belongs, is craving to give education to his child in English. That is why there has been a mushroom growth of English medium schools, some real, some fake.
Coming back to the book, the author, who is a senior journalist, has studied the issue of medium of instruction over the years. Discussing the various theories of language acquisition and cognitive development of a child put forward by researchers of international eminence such as Dr. Maria Montessori, she has arrived at the conclusion that a child must be taught
in the language of his environment, which is usually his mother tongue, for achieving best results. She believes that a system of education based entirely on English restricts the mental and intellectual horizons of children who have not been exposed to the language from birth.
The author has also stated that according to those scholars, there is a ‘critical or sensitive’ period in a child’s life extending from birth to approximately six years, during which the ‘maturation and lateralization’ of the brain takes place. If during this period the child is taught in his mother tongue or the language of environment, optimum benefits would be derived by him in terms of comprehension and vocabulary. Keeping in view all these factors, the author has suggested a plan for the medium of instruction and the teaching of a language as a subject, to be adopted at various levels. This plan is slightly different from those recommended by two other experts. On the whole, she is in agreement with the others quoted by her, in that the mother tongue or the language of environment is highly preferable as the medium of instruction in schools, especially in the lower grades. She too, like the others, realizes the importance of English and recommends it to be taught as a subject before being adopted as the medium of instruction.
In the process of determining the most suitable medium of instruction at various levels, the author has also brought to light some other problems faced by our systems of education such as the absence of capable and trained teachers, good text books and the irrelevant curricula. All these problems need to be addressed.
However, this rather pedantic debate on the medium of instruction becomes unnecessary if the national language is also given the status of the working language in offices. In spite of the fact that English has now attained an international status, this switch over is not impractical. After all none of the European countries, not to speak of China and Japan, have adopted English as the working language in their offices, as we have done.
However, this is hardly possible in the presence of the privileged class which the author has referred to in her book. This elite class has not allowed the issue of the medium of instruction to be settled and thus put in danger their own prospects for empowerment. How can they permit a change that would open the door to an egalitarian distribution of authority, the author questions?
The reviewer is a senior journalist and radio professional with a special interest in book publishing.