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Medium or message?

It was the late 1980s and the early 1990s. There was a municipal committee-run secondary school in Gujjar Khan, district Rawalpindi, which was seen as the best girls’ school in the vicinity where the local influential people – landowners, traders and relatively affluent government and military employees – sent their daughters to study.

After finishing primary school from their village or from a facility in the town of Gujjar Khan, seeking admission in this secondary school was a challenge for local girls. This was because many government schools still functioned at that time and people eagerly sought admission in these schools, and the management of this particular school was considered qualified and efficient. The school always produced good results in middle and matriculation exams held under the Rawalpindi Board.

There was a girl born into the family of a village barber. When she was young, polio had its way and affected one of her legs permanently. Growing up in a country where, due to malnutrition, even the weak strains of inoculation cause the disease in some children in remote areas and then they are anathematised for life, this girl was a little luckier as she was born in the outskirts of Rawalpindi. Supported by other village children, she would limp her way to school and not only finished primary school, but topped in the examinations.

Some village elders, impressed by her exceptional feat, helped her get admission to the best secondary school in the area. She started doing well in most subjects in class six. However, she was penalised, caned and sent out of the class by a strict teacher for many months. Her classmates felt bad, the village barber never found the strength to speak to the teacher or the principal when the girl told her parents what she was going through and there was no one else to speak on her behalf. So she struggled and suffered in silence. She was bright and made it up by putting in extra effort to learn the subject and passed her final exams. She continued to finish her secondary, higher secondary and graduate education. But she never topped again.

The one subject one of the brightest of our girls struggled with was English language, comprehension and writing. No one had ever spoken English around her, no one had ever introduced her to the English alphabet. She did not know what a comic book was and she had never watched a cartoon in English or a Disney film. The only place she had visited outside her village was Gujjar Khan. Only once had she attended a wedding ceremony in Rawalpindi with her family.

When I passed my higher secondary exams and joined an engineering university in 1985, I had classmates of ours who had studied physics, chemistry and mathematics in Urdu at the secondary and/or higher secondary levels. They were far better students then and proved to be far better engineers later than most of us. I left the discipline at an early age anyway but am sure that I wouldn’t have reached the level of excellence in mechanical engineering that they have achieved over the years.

I remember that they were the ones who helped people like us understand the complex concepts in engineering. But they never topped the exams because English was the medium of instruction and examination. The reason they struggled in articulating themselves while sitting these exams was that the language was never taught to them properly. And, as with the girl from the Rawalpindi village, no one spoke or used English in their family or neighbourhood.

Fortunately for them and unfortunately for Pakistan, almost all of them immigrated to North America. The new conditions and the enabling environment they were exposed to there not only made them suitably proficient in the language over the years, it also helped them excel in their fields.

I once had a chat with a taxi driver in Karachi who hailed from a village outside Multan and had told me that he had just returned from Saudi Arabia after spending six years there. I asked him how he survived there without knowing Arabic. He said that he learnt functional Arabic in some time. Then he smiled at me and said, “By the way, it was the same for me in my own country when I came to Karachi for work. There was so much English all around me and I had no clue of how to get to one place from the other as most hoardings, names of shops and offices and some road signs were only in English. I learnt it the hard way.”

If you go by figures, half of the population is non-literate but 80 percent of the other half is only literate in Urdu. What the state has done here is to first educate most of its population in Urdu and then deliberately relegate them to a lower level. I call it deliberate because if the affairs of the state are to be run in English then why are all our children not provided the same education?

In and around our workplaces, we see young upwardly mobile professionals hogging all opportunities of decent work with good remuneration. In many cases, the only reason is their ability to fluently speak English (writing properly is a different ballgame altogether). There are much more intelligent, knowledgeable, politically and intellectually sound women and men of the same age who are denied any such opportunity only due to one reason – they do not come across as individuals who are fully conversant in the English language.

You go to a public seminar in a hotel or a conference hall in a Pakistani city where proceedings are being conducted in English. A large number of people in the audience will remain quiet. Then one speaker comes to the dais and switches to Urdu, and the hall becomes animated.

English, undoubtedly, is the global language of learning and opportunities. I, for one, cherish literature that is not only in English but also what we get to read of other languages through superb translations offered in English. Likewise, in all other disciplines of art and sciences, it opens avenues like no other language for us. However, it is not the only source of learning and information nor progress and enlightenment. If it were only the English language that brought wisdom, the Americans would not have elected George Bush twice as their president.

One is not arguing for reinventing the wheel and translating everything into Urdu when it comes to superior sciences and high-end research since we are unable to generate any knowledge ourselves. One must be reminded, though, that it takes people only a couple of years to learn languages like German, Russian, French and Japanese to such standards that they are able to pursue their doctorates in these countries. Nevertheless, why can’t the affairs of the state and governments be run in our local national languages – Sindhi, Seraiki, Pashto, Hindko, Punjabi, Balochi, Brahvi, Shina, Brushiski, etc – in the provinces and in Urdu at the federal level?

Why can’t parliament legislate in our language and why can’t the courts issue their verdicts in Urdu? Why can’t all our children be taught their mother tongues, Urdu and English in parallel at the school level? It should be the will of the majority that dictates the medium of instruction in schools. If they think that English should be made the medium of instruction and other languages are taught as subjects, there should be enough preparation and investment by the state to provide this facility to every child.  decision

It is ironic that the affluent Punjabi middleclass and the remnants of North Indian migrant elite want the poor Pakistani child to be taught in Urdu on the pretext of saving the national language while sending their own children to elite English medium schools. Not just access but access to quality education is every child’s right. It is not the syllabus that needs to be uniform. It is the standard of education that should be the same.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.  Email: harris.khalique@gmail.com

Harris Khalique, "Medium or message?," The News. 2013-10-31.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social needs , Social issues , Society-Pakistan , Child education , Language-English , Language-Urdu , Education , Schools , Polio , Pakistan , Rawalpindi , Karachi , Saudi Arabia , India