Language, education and poverty

Private school in Machar, Karachi; Source:

Private school in Machar, Karachi

Last year the British Council initiated a dialogue about language policy and particularly language-in-education policy in Pakistan, and their report was recently published. The introduction includes the following two statements:

The report […] is the result of two visits made by Hywel [=British education consultant Hywel Coleman] to Pakistan in March and July 2010 taking him to Sindh, Punjab and Azad Kashmir, as well as over six months of desk-based research. (p. 4)

This document is a report on a consultancy visit to Pakistan between 4th and 17th March 2010. (p. 3)

While these quotes from the report are inconclusive as to whether the consultant was in Pakistan once or twice, he comes to some sweeping and far-reaching conclusions. The report argues that Pakistan has a language crisis in its schools and calls particularly for the promotion of indigenous languages through making them a medium of instruction in Pakistan.

In principle the idea of promoting students’ home languages is appealing. It certainly touches the heart; less so the intellect, considering the practical, social and political constraints prevalent in the country. The report argues that in contemporary Pakistan, Urdu and English are being imposed on speakers of other languages. This may or may not be the case. The fact is that Pakistanis of all stripes and colors want to learn both Urdu and English from as early as possible because they understand the social and financial implications, and teaching through indigenous languages is a very low priority.

In order to understand language policy and education in Pakistan, and the global South more generally, I think people must experience what it means to live in Pakistan in the present circumstances. In Pakistan the central issue is not the language crisis but poverty. Pakistan is a country where 23% of the population live below the poverty line of USD1.25 per day. The 2010 Human Development Index has Pakistan in 125th position – out of a total of 169 countries. Pakistan is a country where water is more precious than human lives. People are killed every day, no one bothers. The media report loss of human lives in numbers only. “So and so many people have been killed in this bomb blast, and so and so many people in that suicide attack.” Humanity has simply been numbered in this part of the world: 30 killed, 40 killed etc.

The salary of a private sector university lecturer in Karachi is less than GBP1,200 per year; even so, this is considered a very good salary by local standards. At the same time, it is not enough to put the fees of a good school for their children within the reach even of university lecturers, not to mention the vast majority of the population.

Power cuts for four hours a day are routine in city areas and in villages they exceeds eight hours every day. Imagine living without electricity every day for eight hours! Who gives a thought that the severed heads of the suicide bombers are often the young ones of their family? What makes them go to this extent? Do they have anything in their lives to live for or to look forward to?

Anyone talking about the promotion of indigenous languages among the poverty-stricken multitudes of Pakistan cannot be but alien to the realities of our lives. Why should we care about maintaining indigenous languages in the face of such bitter life experiences? Common ordinary Pakistanis want to have access to socio-economically powerful languages. They know very well that multilingualism is strength and they want to teach their children local, national and global languages at the same time.

Language death, language preservation, language revitalization and mother tongue education are for those who haven’t walked in our shoes. The way I see it they are nothing but distracters from the real issues of grinding poverty, suicide bombings and the energy crisis.

Author Muhammad Ali Khan

More posts by Muhammad Ali Khan
  • abeer

    Sir Khan,
    Good artical, really it`s touch my heart before my mind .
    I want to ask :you have written about main issue (language,education and poverty),but what are the best solutions for this issues?why this artical not published for public people?
    I think that the public people need to rise their voice high and ask for fast solutions for education,electricity and English Language.
    I`m looking forward a new topic.

  • Mohammad Zafar

    Dear Mohammad Ali
    Your comments really deserve merit as it contradicts made by a passing passenger to Pakistan. In this capitialist dominated world people want and need a straight answer. What do I get in whatever I invest ? What are my returns on this investment. Will my scholarly insight into a provincial language of Pakistan ensure a good job in an national/internation bank ? The answer is obviously No so why should I invest in something that does not offer any returns.
    How many peoplein England, today, are keen to learn Latin and Greek ? If not, why not ? English is no more a language but now it is capital. Good communication skills in English are honoured worldover as an international currency, accepted everywhere. Please do not offer offer me skimmed milk while you enjoy the cream ! Make good easily accessible to all ! Provide equal opportunities. These concepts will improve social justice and bring about balances in inequality present all over the country.

  • Lachlan Jackson

    Thanks Kahn for this moving post. You wrote recently in your reflective ALMA post of your hope to let your own voice come out in your writing. You have excelled! Thanks indeed for YOUR moving words. I really enjoyed reading this piece.

  • Andrew

    Thank you for this post. I agree that, too often, Western linguists do not sufficiently consider the grinding poverty of the language groups they work with.

    Are you sure youve thoroughly understood Colemans intentions, though? Indigenous languages as a _transitional_ medium of instruction in early primary education has actually been shown to _promote_ the learning of national and global languages; as I understand it, that was in fact the goal of his entire report. Students who go to school and have to learn to read in a language they dont know face strong setbacks. Do you think there is room for local language development in that limited capacity?

    Also, you state that ordinary Pakistanis want to teach their children their local language, but perhaps this is not true everywhere, as Coleman found (see p.18). If mothers speak only English to their children, eventually the local languages will die. Do you see this as a concern?

    Thank you again. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Dr. Hafiz Muhammad Iqbal

    Dear M.A Khan Sahib

    I agree with you that the real issue is poverty, but does the solution lie in English as a medium of instruction? I do agree that every one needs to learn English to compete and live a successful life in today’s world. But, as a student of “Education” I believe that current policy of the government using English as a medium of instruction will lead to further deprive and margenlize the poor and rural people as they do not have enough resources and infrastructure to provide an input needed for thier children to decelop skill and competence in a foreign language. This will result in a competetive disadvantage for them rather beniffiting them.

  • L

    “Common ordinary Pakistanis want to have access to socio-economically powerful languages” – indeed; so why not try to change which languages are socio-economically powerful? There’s no intrinsic reason why English should be a prerequisite for middle-class jobs within Pakistan, or why it should be the working language of much of the civil service. The mistake of nativisation campaigns in places like Algeria has been to start from the bottom, depriving “the poverty-stricken multitudes” of languages they need to advance themselves; try starting from the top, and depriving the elites of the privilege of being able to work in a language whose mastery distinguishes them from poor people.