[Opinion] Language, learning and identity

Gilgit - Baltistan is home to some of the world's rarest languages

Ishtiaq Ahmed Yaad

“To reject a child’s language in the school is to reject the child”

According to 1973 Constitution of Pakistan chapter 2 article 28; preservation of language, script and culture is fundamental human right of people of this country and in this context Pakistan is a signatory of Dakar Forum (2001) as well. Pakistan has rich bio-cultural and language diversity. According to Ethnologue-Languages of Pakistan about 72 Languages are spoken in the country. Despite of being home to speakers of 72 languages, Pakistan has promoted Urdu as the language of wider communication (LWC) in the country while English is used as the official language.

While the political and social scenario of Pakistan is altogether changed and researches show some non-linear political tendencies in this regard what Dr. Tariq Rehman (2001) call them “language-based assertions of ethnic identity”. In order to resolve the assertions and uplift literacy rate and quality education as well as promoting creativity among students of local languages, Mother-Tongue Literacy (MTL) and Multilingual Education (MLE) programs are indispensable. This thought is best abridged in the words of Dr. Susan Malone (2005) that the purpose of multilingual education (MLE) program is to develop appropriate cognitive and reasoning skills through a program of structured language learning and cognitive development, enabling children to operate successfully in their native, state and national languages. MLE provides a strong foundation in the first language (mother tongue), adding second (e.g. national) and third languages (e.g. English) enabling the appropriate use of both/all languages for life-long learning.

Researches proved that MTL and MLE are key tools for understanding myths, local wisdom, oral tradition, folktales, culture, literature, performing art, fine art and natural phenomenon as well as critical and imaginative sense. This approach enables children to have life-long intellectual approach of what Dr. Tariq Rehman stated in his article Medium of instruction debate that a recent conference in Bangkok on language, education and the Millennium Development Goals (9-11 November 2010) reiterated that every child has the right to be educated in MT, especially during the early years of life. While the focus of UNESCO is to aid projects which aim at creating materials for minority language. The consensus of researchers is that children learn basic concepts better in their mother tongues than in any other language.

Hywel Coleman, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, UK, believes education must be imparted to the children in their mother-tongue, as it will enable them to understanding the fundamental concepts. We know well that existing education system of Pakistan is lacking well-defined and coordinated mechanism for uplifting of MTL and MLE except few efforts that are being implemented by some indigenous community based organization (CBOs) and NGOs. While in traditional teaching mechanism, rather than MTL and MLE, teachers and students focus mainly on memorization rather than conceptualization that cause lack of intellectual approaches among them.

As the World Bank (2004) points out: “An education system which does not take into account local culture and language is characterized by low intake, high repetition and high dropout rates. The dropout rates are high because education has little perceived relevance; achievement levels are low because concepts and competencies are difficult or impossible to learn in an unfamiliar language.”

In addition, the current system of education encourages class system on one hand and stigmatizes and discriminates minority language communities on the other. As a result, these communities feel sense of deprivation and disbar. Dr. Tariq Rehman articulates this situation as “The ruling elite finds it in its interest to teach a few in English; most others in Urdu and not to use the peoples’ smaller languages at all for teaching. If this is changed the power equation of this country will change also.” Moreover, these tendencies create inferiority complex among deprived communities as well as disharmony in the society. We can realize the gravity and sensitivity of ignoring MT by saying of Jim Cummins (University of Toronto) that “to reject a child’s language in the school is to reject the child”. Furthermore, numbers of minor languages are being died and at the position of extinction e.g. Badeshi, Oshojo, Chiloso, Yidgha, Domaaki, Gawro, Kundalshahi etc. because of such detrimental tendencies as well as ignorance and denial of legislative, executive and policy makers at provincial and national levels in Pakistan.

Shakil Ahmed Shakil, a renowned Shina language expert shares his enduring experience in promotion of Shina language and phrases his view in these words, “I, for my part, believe in one of the significant statements of “the charter of the Council of Europe” and disclose it in the context of Pakistan. “The protection of the historical, regional and local languages of Pakistan contributes to the maintenance and development of Pakistan’s cultural wealth and traditions. The promotion and protection of regional or local languages in the different provinces and regions of Pakistan represents an important contribution to the building of a Pakistan based on the principles of democracy and cultural diversity within the framework of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It is evident that our policy-makers have irrational fear about granting protection to the local languages of the country. While we observe that Switzerland has as many as four official languages: German, French, Italian and Rheato-Romance. Some 70% of the population is German-speaking but the people have not chosen it to serve the official language of the country. Even so, these factors have never been perceived as a threat to the unity and identity of the Swiss. In my sense, it is need of hour to pick out the very reality and elevate the status of local languages.

In expert’s opinion, execution and mainstreaming of MLE is not a big deal, if commitment and sense of ownership in placed towards mother tongue by all key stakeholders. Many countries and communities are executing MLE programs successfully. In Pakistan, Govt. machinery and policy makers do not play a proactive role in this regard. Nevertheless, some local CBOs and NGOs are implementing MLE in Northern Pakistan with financial and technical support of Forum for Language Initiative (FLI), Islamabad and Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) for last about five years. Mr. Fakhruddin Akhunzada, Assistant Director FLI is optimistic for success of MLE program. He says that “People from most of these minor language communities are facing a kind of social stigma that their mother tongue is symbol of backwardness. They hesitate to use it and many believe that education in the mother tongue is inferior to education in Urdu or English. But our studies of pilot projects suggest that positive attitudes towards the mother tongue have been gaining ground over the past few years.” (Max de Lotbiniere, Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 7 December 2010.). While Zubair Torwali, Executive Director, Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), Bahrain Swat, shares their success story as “Going holistic we succeeded to not only retain the MLE School intact but also created a need in the community for mother tongue based literacy for the adults. Now after seeing the tangible results of the MLE approach in the form of our first school children (of KG 1 level), who can even now outshine the students of grade 5th and 6th at the government and private schools, the people request us to open more schools. Now we see an increasing demand of admission to our schools.”

Keeping in view the prevailing awful situation of MTL and MLE programs in Pakistan, all stakeholders must play a proactive role before it would be too late. At least, they need to materialize the following key demands of the “Resolution” passed at the 5th Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Languages & Cultures Conference held in Peshawar from December 25-26, 2010 where 200 participants from KPK and Gilgit-Baltistan vowed that:

  1. The primary education should be imparted on the basis of mother tongue, not district basis, as there are districts in the province where more than one language is spoken
  2. The option should be given to the children in all the bilingual and multilingual districts of the Khyber – Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit – Baltistan while introducing the mother language teaching as a subject in the educational institutions

The writer is associated with Shina Language and Culture Promotion Society, Gilgit, as General Secretary. Email:

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  1. Ishtiaq Yad has produced very nice piece of writing and touched important topic close to our hearts.
    Language is an important tool, skill and art, as well as identity and source of inspiration. How to make mother/father tongue, part of our school curriculum, teaching and learning has always intrigued the literati and policy makers. Use of ICTs have created opportunities to instill this through out of school and informal learning at home and in communities.

    By the way, as you have listed Urdu and English in GB we also have good number of Kashmiri, Pashto, Punjabi, Hindko speakers. In some areas we have families and communities of Uyghur/Kahsgari, Turk, Kirghiz and .Persian speakers also.
    This is the plurality of GB and we need to appreciate this diversity.

  2. The innate ability to communicate through language is the key to the progress of human civilization. It not only is the medium of self expression; it also shapes the culture of a society through accumulation and transfer of collective knowledge. While I agree with writer on the importance of native languages, I want to share a few comments from a different perspective.

    At the time of inception of Pakistan, one of the highly deliberated issues was the adaptation of a national language. A after much debate, Urdu was decided to be the national language – a language born from the amalgam of Persian, Arabic and Turkish in subcontinent , the language of romantic poetry and prose. But due to the fact that the new country was freed from the British Raj, it was further decided that English will remain the official language. Since then, conflict over national vs. official took its roots and dual standards in education system ensued. It is a paradox that which is official is not national and that which is national is not official. Some might argue that English is a language of international impart and is inevitable in order to connect better with rest of the world. If so, why English was not taken as the national language? Why a never ending confusion was created and drawn a line between haves and have nots?

    This dichotomy has created a breeding ground for a number of sublime issues that has created confusion at the national level and a sense of apathy has transpired at regional and local levels. Let me argue that the so call English knowing officials have failed to transform Urdu into an intelligible and scientific language. Urdu by its very nature still remains a romantic language, a legacy of Emperors of subcontinent. All the knowledge of any real substance is available in English. Unfortunately, there is a lack of healthy connect between what is international, national and local. It is now really hard to find the modern terminologies and means of conceptualization dealing with contemporary issues in our national or regional languages. This is a double sword, as the national and local languages are not equipped with the means to survive in modern era, they will be gradually degraded to the point of their extinction. To prevent this catastrophe from happening, just reinforcing the identity of local languages and cultures will not be sufficient unless broader understanding is created for the place and importance of all that is local in a rapidly globalising world.

    It is not too late to mend this serious flaw in our system and learn from history and restore the integrity of our people.

  3. Great efforts and great insight into the MTB-MLE domain. All the projects which are carried by the NGOs and INGOs lack sustainability as they lack the patronge by the state. What we need is to coordinate with the government and start such MTB-MLE programs in the public sector schools.

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