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Shehla Pucha Shwa; Guest Blogger Imran Khan talks about the importance of native language in education

23 April 2013
Shehla Pucha Shwa; Guest Blogger Imran Khan talks about the importance of native language in education
I saw this clip sometime back, if one knows Urdu as well as Pashto then listening to it invokes instant laughter. Believe me, I have carried out this experiment on a lot of my friends.

The post laughter response to this has usually been a “tsk tsk” at the status of education in Pakistan. There have also been those who were saddened by the capacity of this boy to learn.

While there is no doubt that that our status of education is appalling and is a reflection of the amount of budget we set for it every year. But is this child also deficient when it comes to his learning abilities?

I think he is a very brilliant kid; not only has he learnt to read an alien language, but while reading he is creative enough to weave a story around the few words that are similar sounding to his language, i.e. Pashto.

When he hears the word Kaash, Urdu “To wish”, he recognizes it as Kaash, Pashto “Pistol Holster” and makes a story about Shehla’s father and his pistol. He reads the Urdu word Chupkay: “Silently” and he mistakes it for Pashto Chuka: “Stick” and weaves a story around that.

The result is hilarious in the first instance but is very tragic when one considers the struggle that this child is up against. Consider the fact that this weakness in comprehension is not only about Urdu, he has to learn science as well as mathematics with this same level of comprehension in Urdu.

Our education system is definitely under funded but in this instance it is more about policy than budget. Because as a policy decision we have overlooked to make use of the biggest educational advantage that this kid has, i.e. his mother language.

He clearly gets onto a higher level of understanding when he thinks in Pashto. A lack of funding would not be the only thing to blame if this particular advantage is not utilized.

It is very often that you hear smug urbanites trash any notion of teaching in local languages because “duniya kahan ja rahi hai aur hum kahan”. The argument is that exposure to English is mandatory for the young so that they can be at ease with the textbooks at a higher level.

While it is not impossible to teach a kid how to write and read in English, but for that the name of the school needs to be Beaconhouse or Karachi Grammar School. What we see in this video is a product of our Government School system from rural areas. We are talking about underpaid and under qualified teachers and schools without roofs. And no, those schools cannot be turned into beaconhouses with the wave of a magic wand.

In a report titled “Language and Education: the missing link” , authors Pinnock & Vijayakumar (2009) highlight that drop out rates are much higher in linguistically diverse societies that use a single national or international language for schooling. According to the report 72% of the World’s out of school children were from the countries they term “most linguistically fractionalized” countries.

Pakistan, with 75 languages has an estimated 92% of its population devoid of education in mother language. Comparatively, India with 401 languages has only 25% of its population without education in their mother language.

There of course is merit with the concern that mastery of English is necessary to deal with textbooks at higher level of education. But as Pinnock and Vijayakumar point out “Evidence demonstrates, however, that studying in an English-only or national-language-only curriculum is not the best way to develop proficiency in that language. In fact, children have higher achievement levels in both their mother tongues and in national and international languages when they study in their mother tongues ” The idea is to introduce English later in the child’s schooling years, but initiate his initial learning in his own language.

The following infographic shows the educational attainment of 17-22 yr old Pakistanis and there are clear differences among linguistic groups. Urdu appears to be the least poor and seem to validate the conclusion of Pinnock & Vijayakumar. But one has to be careful in interpreting these results as native Urdu speakers in Pakistan reside in more developed and urban settings, therefore a higher enrollment rate might be a result of better school facilities and not necessarily because of education in mother language.

A report commissioned by the British Council in 2012 titled “Language in Education in Pakistan” had some pretty interesting observations. One of its findings was that “There is evidence that many people are strongly attached to their languages and wish to educate their children through those languages.”

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is a good source to map this particular wish as it actually asks parents in rural Pakistan which language they would prefer as a medium of instruction. The infographic found here shows the provincial demands from parents regarding English, Urdu, and the mother language (which ASER calls “Home Language”) but there is more divergence within provinces at district levels, as shown in the map here.

While Sindh is overwhelmingly in favor of local languages, Punjab is its exact opposite. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan have more mixed preferences. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northern Pashtun districts have a stronger preference when compared with the southern Pastun districts. Furthermore, the predominantly Hindko speaking districts of Hazara have a lower preference for Hindko to be used as a medium of instruction. The situation in Balochistan is more complicated and among the provinces it has the highest variance among districts.

An appreciable move by the previous government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was to make a switch to local languages as a medium of instruction. But some problems were foreseen, for instance teachers with inadequate skills to teach Pashto and Hindko. Apart from that some smaller languages were also left out.

It goes without saying that such a switch would not be a smooth one. But these deal more with improving a system that has designed to not to take advantage of the child’s existing language skills. In the long run it is a move in the right direction.

The article can be found here at the writers own blog, where he writes about issues plaguing Pakistan.
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