Language matters

Published March 24, 2023
Zubeida Mustafa
Zubeida Mustafa

A STORY that went viral recently was of a little boy whose teacher marked his face with a black dot. The other children were then asked to shame him. Where did the child go wrong? He had spoken in Urdu in a supposedly English-medium school. It was shocking and I felt the pain the child must have felt when he was so humiliated. This was no less than a cardinal sin that was committed against the child, against our national language and against all those children who were made to participate in this hate game.

On another occasion, I felt proud of my friend’s daughter who told me the story of her nine-year-old girl who on returning to Pakistan was admitted to an ‘English-medium school’. Having been born in the US, she spoke perfect English with an American accent. Her Urdu was also perfect as at home her parents always communicated in their native language. The class teacher was impressed by the child’s English and appointed her as the monitor. The mother asked her daughter what her duties were in that capacity. “I will have to inform the teacher if any child speaks in Urdu in school,” she said innocently. The mother was flabbergasted and immediately withdrew all three of her children from the school. “I will never send my children to a school that nurtures such linguistic biases and teaches my children to hate their own language,” she told me angrily.

Against this backdrop it was a pleasure to attend the Urdu Tadrees [pedagogy] Conference organised by the Pakistan Tanzeem-i-Asatiza Barai-i-Tadrees-i-Urdu. One listened to the speakers, each of them highlighting the Urdu language’s forte and the wealth its literature offered. As one speaker pointed out, no mention of Urdu literature is complete without a mention of the inimitable Annie Apa’s Aag ka Darya.

Then I was reminded of my youngest friend, eight-year-old Sitara, from Kheiro Dero who declares me to be her best friend “in the whole world” (she said with her arms wide open). When Sitara joined the Urdu-medium school in her village, Urdu was not music to her ears. She had to struggle with her lessons because the language was alien to her. The only language she understood was Sindhi. The teachers, Sindhi speakers themselves, were not helpful either and dubbed her a slow learner. One day, Sitara rebelled and refused to go to school. Everyone was angry with her as she had candidly declared that she didn’t want to study.

A child should begin schooling in her own language.

I understood Sitara’s aversion to school. She was obviously not enjoying her lessons. Hence I advised her ‘Adhi’ (sister, who manages the Trust which runs the development project in Kheiro Dero) to teach Sitara in her own language. Our friendship continued in spite of Sitara’s rebellion against my language. I continued to shower books on her but they were always Sindhi books beautifully produced by the Book Group.

Whenever we met, our body language sustained our friendship. Then came the miracle. Sitara sent me a message. “Please give me some Urdu books too.” That is not all. A few months later, I received a beautiful letter from Sitara wishing me a happy birthday in perfect Urdu. And above all, she continued studying in Sindhi and was way ahead in her studies than other children of her age.

That is why I believe so firmly that a child should begin schooling in her own language and should gradually be transitioned to Urdu, which is the language of wider communication in Pakistan. By virtue of that, Urdu is the national language. If the principle of mother tongue first is followed, Urdu will emerge as the winner. The fact is that non-Urdu speakers constitute 93 per cent of children who enter school. They speak and understand a language other than Urdu. If handled sensitively, they become Urdu lovers as our experience has shown.

Teaching a small child in a language she understands offers many advantages. It gives her emotional security. It enables her to continue thinking critically as she understands all that she is learning and is not required to memorise. She enjoys her lessons and can express herself clearly.

Above all, her language acquisition capacity is enhanced. This means she can learn other languages faster and with ease. Of course, Urdu will come next as it is the national language. In other words, every child will be a star like my Sitara.

In this context, Tahir Javed of Pakistan Tanzeem-i-Asatiza Barai-i-Tadrees-i-Urdu and Farid Panjwani, dean, Aga Khan Institute of Education Development, can play a positive role by conducting research on when and how a non-Urdu speaking student can be transitioned to Urdu effectively and tearlessly.

A major advantage Pakistan has is that all its languages come from the same root, have a similar syntax and script (with slight variations). Why can’t we attempt the miracle that transformed Sitara’s life?

www.zubeida-mustafa.com

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2023

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