Language in Sindh schools

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE language dilemma in education remains unresolved in Pakistan because educationists fail to understand how basic language is to the child’s learning process, as also to the psyche of the speakers.

Those who ignore this fundamental truth can undermine national integrity. If they are running schools they cannot maximise the learning advantage of their students. Language has a political dimension as well. When our leaders fail to understand that imposing a language on a people amounts to linguistic imperialism, the consequences can be grave. We know what happened in 1971.

In this context, Sindh should be the last province to pose a problem. It has speakers of mainly two languages — Sindhi and Urdu. Geographically they are broadly divided between the rural and urban areas. Public-sector education follows this demographic feature in the medium of instruction policy. Unsurprisingly, from ASER 2012 (the annual report on the status of education) to be released in January it emerges that 90 per cent of the parents in Sindh want their children to be taught in Sindhi (presuming that is the language of their choice when they said no to Urdu and English and opted for “other” in a survey conducted there).

Then one wonders why schools run by NGOs otherwise doing an excellent job of educating the underprivileged children of the province are reluctant to teach them in their home language.

Last week I received an email from a friend who is doing wonderful work in her ancestral village of Khairo Dero where she has set up the Ali Hasan Mangi memorial trust to honour the memory of her grandfather. Naween Mangi’s commitment to serving her community is impeccable. There are few who have made it big, and have still taken the trouble to return to their roots to uplift their people.

One of Naween’s ambitions is to educate the children of Khairo Dero. She joined hands with The Citizens Foundation (TCF) that has done a phenomenal job of opening 830 schools all over Pakistan in the last decade or so. TCF has been cited as a model and has many success stories to its credit. Naween raised the required amount from philanthropists to enable TCF to open a primary school in her village which she visits regularly to keep track of the progress of the children.

Naween is, however, having a problem with TCF’s language policy. Adopting a uniform approach vis-à-vis language in all their schools, TCF policymakers understood early in the day that it would be futile to try to educate their students in English. That was a very sensible decision though English is recognised as being the ‘language of power’. TCF seemed to understand how a child is at a disadvantage when he has to learn in an unfamiliar language (English) from a teacher who is not proficient in it either.

Hence TCF adopted Urdu as the medium of instruction in all its schools. Some objected to that. But not Naween, a broadminded, liberal and highly educated journalist. She says she doesn’t mind if the children in her village are taught in Urdu and also learn Sindhi as well as English. She cites her own case. She is trilingual and feels she has benefited from her diverse language competencies.

The problem that has dismayed her is that in the process of learning Urdu the children are getting alienated from the Sindhi speakers who they bully and look down upon. This should not really happen if the teachers are briefed on how to handle the challenges of bilingualism. Naween’s letter to TCF (forwarded to me) summed up her concerns.

“As earlier, I found children speaking to each other in Urdu and replying to my persistently Sindhi questions in Urdu. Worse, the teachers and staff all speak to each other in Urdu … and replied to all my Sindhi questions in Urdu,” she wrote. “Are the children and the teachers this brainwashed that they cannot … respond in the same language they are being spoken to?” she asked. They believe “they must not speak their native language”. This she termed “as a great disservice to the children themselves, to the rich tradition of our language and to the community you aim to serve”, she added.

TCF has promised to respond.

This news saddened me. It meant that the dialogue we have been attempting to have with the high-ups of TCF for the last two years has not impressed upon them the significance of language. Their argument in support of their policy — mainly lack of resources — is not convincing.

This doesn’t answer the question why the pre-primary classes, where written text is minimal and there is more emphasis on the spoken language, should not use Sindhi and also let this period be treated as a transitional phase to introduce Urdu. Also intriguing is the failure of the teachers to inculcate love and respect for a language — in this case Sindhi — which is after all the language of all TCF teachers in rural Sindh.

Language cannot be equated with quality. Quality is determined by pedagogy and textbooks. Take the case of the Indus Resource Centre schools which use Sindhi as the medium of instruction. They have produced excellent results in the latest school-leaving examination. Sadiqa Salahuddin, the executive director, tells me that of the 41 students of her schools who appeared for their Matriculation exam this year 24 got A-plus or A.


One thought on “Language in Sindh schools”

  1. Many countries have initiated innovative programs that begin instruction in the children’s first language, bridging successfully to a second language that is a language of wider communication. Children in these programs have the opportunity to develop their cognitive skills, including reading and writing, through their first language while acquiring the basis for learning the second language. As a result, they secure their identity within their own group and gain the ability to participate in the wider society within and outside their countries.

    They attend classes taught by teachers speaking, often poorly, a language the children do not understand and through which they therefore cannot learn. As a result, many children drop out before finishing even the primary cycle, without mastering skills in their first language, not to mention skills in the official language, the language of instruction.
    In addition to the cognitive factors, there are emotional ones. Members of minority ethnic groups, whether children or adults, are empowered when their first language is used. Conversely, when the mother tongue is not used, they are made to feel awkward, inferior, and stupid. Their culture is denigrated, and the children are scared, confused, and traumatized. This has long-term effects.

    In the words of G. Richard Tucker of Carnegie Mellon University, international leaders would encourage educators to

    begin innovative language education programs that will lead to bilingual or multilingual proficiency for participants as early as possible. The graduates of such programs will be culturally rich, linguistically competent and socially sensitive individuals prepared to participate actively in our increasingly global economy (Tucker, 2001, p. 338).

    If indeed these graduates achieve all of that, and still remain rooted in their own cultures and identities, we can at last say that there is hope for Education for All!

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