I have a little friend in Kheiro Dero in Larkana district named Sitara, a bright child of six. She speaks Sindhi. I speak Urdu. Yet, we get on well. We don’t need a language to communicate in our friendship.

But in education, one needs a language. Sitara’s father has dreams of educating his little darling and so Sitara started her schooling at the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust community school, which makes education a fun activity for its students — the best way for a small child to learn.

Sitara was happy there. Then, when Sitara was five, she was sent to The Citizens Foundation (TCF) school in her village, because the government school is “dysfunctional.” The TCF school is a wonderful institution in every way. But it uses Urdu as the medium of instruction. The intermittent lockdowns have delayed its plans to implement its new language guidelines, which envisage a switch from its current use of Urdu to Sindhi, in the schools where Sindhi-speaking students are predominant.

For Sitara, the pandemic posed a challenge that she failed to cope with and she lost interest in her studies. Probably some among Pakistan’s highly qualified educators would dub Sitara a slow learner — which she is not.

A child’s education begins at birth, not in the school, and is automatically in the mother tongue. Any interruption in the language-learning process fosters rote-learning rather than critical thinking

Recently, she came to Karachi with her Adi [elder sister] Naween, who teaches her in her own language. Sitara has made rapid progress and is happy once more. She is actually a “little rebel” who has the guts to stand up for her language rights. I know she will learn Urdu one day, but only when she is ready for it. There is no politics in her action, for we continue to be friends. If anything, I am the slow learner in my efforts to learn Sindhi.

I don’t know how many Sitaras there are in Pakistan, for education is not a high priority item on our governments’ agenda. Hywel Coleman, a world renowned linguist who also prepared a report for the British Council on Pakistan in 2011, attributes the high drop-out rates in many countries to language barriers. The government doesn’t believe in wasting time on research on such mundane issues. Mercifully TCF — the only institution I know of — is conducting research on education in Pakistan.

The fact is, we need serious research as well as a public discourse on language in education if we are serious about upscaling education in the country.

It must be clarified at the start that language has two roles to play in education. First, it is used as the medium of instruction to transfer knowledge and communicate ideas — put simply, to teach. For this, it is important that the students and teachers know the language well at their level so that the process of education takes place smoothly. In fact, I should add that the students should be fluent enough to express themselves. The new approach to education demands the students’ participation in the classroom discourse.

Secondly, a language may be taught as a subject, as a second language. In fact, a number of languages may be taught, and this is generally acceptable as long as there is no linguistic overload and the methodology used is correct.

A healthy trend in the language in education debate, I have noted, is that the number of those who argue heatedly for English being used as the medium of instruction, ostensibly to improve education standards, has been falling. The Zoom conference which the Federal Ministry of Education organised on the issue had at least half the participants arguing that the English medium policy in Pakistan had failed. Even the British Council had to concede that.

The question then arises: what, if not English? And here the multiplicity of voices increases, which should be welcomed to clarify issues. The line seems to be drawn between Urdu, because it is the national language, and the mother tongue — any one of the indigenous languages that Dr Nomanul Haq, in his recent column in these pages, implies politicises the issue.

I stand for the mother tongue. Or, to be precise, the language of the environment which is, by and large, the mother tongue of the majority community in an area. The mother tongue approach is a child-centred approach. Why is it so important that children’s schooling should begin in a language they understand? Here, most of our academics from universities are grossly ill-informed.

The common belief is that children’s education begins when they join school at the age of three or so. But that is a serious misconception. A child’s education begins at birth, and it is a process of self-learning. Children begin to acquire a language and also knowledge of their surroundings. That is why a child who joins school is already a “veteran” in the education game, with an estimated vocabulary of 300 words.

Our conventional schooling in its ‘wisdom’ tries to halt this natural learning process and takes control of the so-called education of our children, instead of carrying it further. Language is the medium through which our children’s cognitive development takes place. An interruption in the language-learning process actually dumbs children down, rendering them ‘bezubaan’ [mute]. I have seen it happen.

There are two major advantages that learning in the mother tongue offers to children: one, it keeps them rooted in their culture and two, it gives them a sense of security.

Good education should aim at optimising children’s learning experience, knowledge and the language they are rapidly acquiring at this age. Central to this is the mother tongue, in which is rooted the security and emotional stability of the child. Take that away and you rob children of their sense of security so vital to their being. An unfamiliar language that a child doesn’t understand brings alienation. These are negative traits and should be best avoided.

Education in the mother tongue fosters critical thinking. An unfamiliar language, on the other hand, encourages memorisation and the rote-learning culture.

Another dimension of the mother language has been pointed out by Sindh’s great scholar and writer, Vali Ram Vallabh, which hardly finds mention in today’s materialistic world. He says: “A piece of text written in any language is associated with the embedded values, ethos and pathos of a region. Students who do not study in the mother tongue can qualify in their examinations by reading and memorising textbooks, but are ignorant of their cultural and ethical values, history, local anecdotes, poetry and folk wisdom. They may not even have an understanding of the social dimensions of these issues either.”

A problem with our education planners is that they actually do not step out of their offices to understand how our people live. Not being aware of their problems, such experts hardly consider the needs of the child, even in the context of education. To suggest that television, Bollywood and the smartphone are a young Pakistani child’s teacher of Urdu is bizarre. Let us give the youngsters something better.

In the absence of research, how can one assess how much Urdu children learn by watching television and videos? Nor do we know at what age what level of competency non-Urdu speakers acquire. Given the poor standard of the electronic media’s language skills, let us not mix education with the media.

It is disappointing that not many university teachers take interest in school education. It is time this trend was reversed, because the matter concerns them directly. Their classrooms contain the product of the school system.

We now know that, in multilingual Pakistan, education also has to be multilingual, but based on the mother tongue. What needs to be debated, and also tried on the ground, is the language ladder. In other words, we have to decide which language must be introduced in which grade, and how it is to be taught.

The writer is a former assistant editor of Dawn. Her latest book, Reforming School Education in Pakistan and the Language Dilemma, is expected to be published shortly by Paramount. Her writings can be accessed at www.zubeidamustafa.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 19th, 2021

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