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.