Pakistan Swat Valley 2009. Tyranny of Poverty

Pakistan Swat Valley 2009

Ingrid briefly mentioned Zubeida Mustafa’s new book Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its solution recently. Since then, we’ve had numerous enquiries about the book here on Language-on-the-Move, and I’m pleased to offer a review and more information about language education in Pakistan today. Zubeida Mustafa is well-known in Pakistan as a veteran English language journalist and Tyranny of Language in Education is her first book. It has multiple focuses around language and power, bilingualism, language learning, equity in education, globalization, and, of course, language-in-education policy. Here, the readers of this review need to understand that the author has written this book not for academics but for the general public and policy makers of Pakistan. The book’s central argument is as follows:

The child begins life with an advantage in a certain language, namely his mother tongue or his first language, which he uses to communicate and when learning is imposed on him in another language, he is robbed of this natural advantage … . He is additionally burdened with the handicap of a linguistic barrier that he has to surmount when he goes to school. (p. 6)

It’s hard to argue with this point in Pakistan where the national language Urdu could be said to have been imposed on a hugely multilingual society. Parents and pupils are not usually given a choice to have formal education made available in local languages. Furthermore, the author points out the unsound and unjust language education policies and practices in Pakistan, which she argues have been developed and are being sustained by a small elite class:

Polices should be made for the greatest good of the greatest number and not for a small elite class which formulates state policies and thus ensures that its privileged position is not undermined. (p. 6)

By way of background to Zubeida’s work, let me provide you with further information about languages, education and poverty in Pakistan. Ethnologue lists 72 languages for Pakistan. Out of these, 14 languages have more than 1 million first language speakers. The number of speakers and their percentage of the population differs significantly: Western Punjabi, for instance, has 60.6 million speakers and is spoken by 38.3% of the population but there are also languages which have only a few hundred speakers such as Aer, Bhaya or Domaaki. Overall, 85% of the population speak 14 languages and the remaining 58 languages are spoken by 15% of the population. The key point is that Pakistan’s population is a highly multilingual one.

This multilingual population, however, is not served by an equally multilingual language-in-education policy. As a matter of fact, Pakistan’s language-in-education policy is not explicitly stated. While the policy maintains that comprehensive school language policies should be developed in consultation with provincial and area governments, it does not seem to realize the importance of community, school management and teachers and pupils in the development, sustenance and implementation of a policy. Like all other previous language policies the approach adopted seems to be top-down. The current language-in-education policy of the country maintains that Urdu is the medium of instruction in government schools and English is introduced from Class 1 onwards. Most private schools in the country have English as medium of instruction.

Whether as a result of the policy or other factors, education outcomes are dismal: the literacy rate is 57.7%. For males it is 69.5% and for females 45.2%, and urban populations with 73.2% are more literate than rural populations with 49.2%. Furthermore, most people only receive elementary education. Only 18% of girls and 24% of boys are in secondary schools and only 5% of the population of tertiary age are in tertiary education.

While monolingual language-in-education policies for a multilingual population are certainly one aspect of the failure of education in Pakistan, the linguistic facts only go so far by way of explanation, as I’ve argued before. In my view, the material conditions of deep, widespread and entrenched poverty in Pakistan probably go a much longer way to explain the failure of education in Pakistan. For instance, let me tell you about the actual buildings and spaces of schooling in this country: 32.7% of elementary schools are without boundary walls; 36.6% without drinking water; 35.4% without toilet facilities; and 60% without electricity. These statistics help us understand at a surface level why only 10% children out of roughly 70% enrolled in schools manage to finish their secondary education.

Some more statistics: 23% of Pakistan’s 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. Shocking inequalities manifest in every sphere of life, the poorest 10% of the population have access to 3.9% of the total national income while the richest 10% access 26.5%. The state of the country can also be measured by the fact that perhaps the cheapest thing in Pakistan is human life. People are killed on an everyday basis. Since 2006, 35,000 civilians and 3,500 security personnel have been killed in a “war on terror” that terrorizes our people.

Coming back to Zubeida’s book, I would say that the author at some places in her work makes attempts to connect language-in-education policy with societal power relations, inequalities and the material conditions in the country, such as chapter 7 titled “Ground Realities,” where the accounts are based on her personal visits to a less-privileged area of Karachi. In these account, the reader can easily hear the fresh voice of the author, which in other chapters sometimes gets lost in the scholarly sources tracing the development and explaining language policy in pre- and post-colonial Pakistan. To me, the key achievement of the book then is that it stimulates debate and puts educational disadvantage in Pakistan back on the table of public debate. However, with much of the work the author draws on, the book also shares particular weaknesses in positing particular interpretations of colonial language policy. These often give inadequate empirical evidence and tend to make straightforward links between past and present. It would not be incorrect to maintain that scholarship produced in this country has largely been overly deterministic in such matters without engaging with the material base of education in Pakistan and exploring what actually goes on in schools in Pakistan. Unfortunately, to date the country does not have one single study that could describe and explain the everyday language practices in specific institutions and explore the interlinked micro and macro levels of language in education in Pakistan. My ongoing PhD work is designed to partly fill that lacuna.

In Pakistan, as elsewhere, scholars all too often take refuge in political constructs and partial historical narratives without attending to empirical grounding and depth. If education in Pakistan is embedded in the power structures of the society, giving rise to inequalities and polarization, we would like to know how such dominance, inequalities and polarization is developed, maintained and implemented.

Author Muhammad Ali Khan

More posts by Muhammad Ali Khan
  • Vahid

    Thank you, Khan, for the review and also for the useful information.

  • Huma Ehtesham Syed

    The answer to your question ,“If education in Pakistan is embedded in the power structures of the society, giving rise to inequalities and polarization, we would like to know how such dominance, inequalities and polarization is developed, maintained and implemented.” is yet a big question mark for all of us.In Pakistani society a foreign language such as English plays a vital significance in every walk of life yet its implementation in education policy in a proper way lacks .Education policy hardly exists and if it does, is not properly implemented. As far as Government institutions are concerned it is only confined to paper work.The bitter truth is we develop policies but never maintain them so its implementation is out of question.We talk big but do nothing! I believe it is the educational institutions responsibility whether government or private that theyshould mutually set the educational policy and make it manadatory for all to follow. Whatever practise done in the past is gone , lets make the future better- remember the better would help us reach the best!
    Thanks Ali for such a good review of the book that ultimately inclines me to read it Your precious additional knowledge in the review is highly commendable.

  • ambreen

    Dear Khan,

    Thanks for the post. I would like to realate the post to my everyday experiences in schools, colleagues, bazaars and I would like to say that people look extremely frustrated with what they are living these days. If you smile to children, they even dont even respond to it. I think formal education comes much later. Their eyes tell me that they are underfed, they are unprotective, they dont have clothes to put on. When people basic needs are not met, how can you expect them to go to schools and learn.

    When I would teach children English, I would ask them to express themselves in their home languages but even in their home languages, most of them were unable to express them. There were three reasons for that, one was the financial deprivation and the other was the norm of the society which does not allow children to speak out. Third was the

  • ambreen


    culture of corporal punishment. When I stood against it and spoke to school managment about it, the principale replied, ‘ I have topped in School managment course and I have learnt that children never learn unless they are thrased everyday’. I resigned from the school because I could not bear to look at the brutual physical punishment children were subjected to.
    My last day in the school was when the headmaster called in the children of grade 9 in his office and beat them with stick because they have not gotton good grades in examination held by board of examination. I realised later that school business depends on pupils performance in board examination.
    In short, I would say that the issue of language comes a lot later. The country should eduate its educators and parents.

    Thanks once again the post.

  • Thank you Mr Khan for your positive comments on my book and also for the additional information on languages. I am pleased that you grasped the objective of the book so correctly — namely to start a debate on the language in education issue because no one seemed to consider it important. Of course experts like you will have to take up the policy formulation and implementation aspect but I have noticed that lay people take notice only when someone from amongst them raises a hue and cry. Probably they are over-awed by the experts. I had to borrow something from the experts to make my arguments convincing otherwise the status quo would never change. But I have noticed that this is an issue on which everyone has an opinion. On my website I shall be posting a radio programme I had as well as a tv programme I participated in. Thank you all of you who have commented on my book.

  • Thanks for your reply, Zubeida Mustafa sahiba, which I profoundly appreciate. In my last session on Language and Education which had a particular focus on politics of mother-tongue education in Pakistan and elsewhere, I gave three options to my students to choose from for writing their paper . And to my delight all of them opted for reviewing your work. Congratulations to you and to Ushba publishing.

    Best wishes for your good works,


  • sobooh Fatima

    The question ‘What is mother tongue?’ is the title of the article written by Mark Sebba. The author maintains that the question of ‘what is mother tongue’ is a very important question to ask especially when a child is exposed to different languages in the initial period of his/her life. It is more so important because at times educational, social and economical decisions are made on it. In other words, a child’s mother tongue chooses the path for him/her in all his/her life.
    What I have learnt from my classes on language and Education is that the meaning of the term changes from individual to individual and from context to context. It is so because through this term one can trace the bi- and multilingualism of individuals which influence the concept of ‘mother tongue’ as well as throughout the generations of a migrant family.
    The writer stresses that an individual of a certain group or community be a bi- or multilingual, however the primacy among these languages of that of mother tongue would depend on ethnicity, status and/or identity of the language traditionally identified as ‘mother tongue’. Moreover, the writer implies that the traditional definition of ‘mother tongue’ in terms of ‘traditional language’ or the language of the surrounding is largely a political construct and how it is often maintained to conserve the ethnicity and uniqueness of the language.
    Sebba has tried to prove that how the term ‘mother tongue’ could be defined if an individual is a British-born Caribbean. The language spoken in Caribbean is known as Creole. However, the migrants to England’s second and third generations are fluent in London English. While, on the other hand, they claim they are well versed in Creole because it is their ‘mother tongue’. This variation of Creole is termed as ‘London Jamaican’.
    The interview which the writer evaluates is a story of a boy identified as V, of a Jamaican-South London background. V has narrated the story in Jamaican Creole and often code-switches between Jamaican Creole and London English. The writer is of the opinion that this makes V’s narration poses a question as to whether his ‘mother tongue’ is not Creole but London English mixed with Creole.
    The writer illustrates that the linguistic competence of V cannot be argued upon in context of the term ‘mother tongue’, rather the term ‘mother tongue’ itself defines the linguistic competence of the communities and how the language is received and conveyed. He further suggests that the term should be abandoned in consideration of more accurate and research-based description of the actual linguistic competencies of the speaker.

  • The review by Mr. Khan under the title “Tyranny of Poverty” is very much thought provoking. His discussion about the inequalities that the local or regional langauges suffer in Pakistan provide the readers an opportunity to observe and analyse different minor daily life incidents to understand the tyranny of poverty.
    Fortunately for me Mr. Khan is my teacher and we are having hot debates and discussions with him on the issue of Language in Education. This very issue of Tyranny of Poverty also remained the topic of dicscussion.The outcome of these discussions made me utter a new term(at least for me), keeping in view Pakistani political and feudal influence on language in education, “Language Feudalism”.
    The term defines those people who almost go mad out of rage and jealousy when they listen to a poor parents’ child speaking English, considered as the language of “elite class”, fluently and accurately. This class control has given rise to Tyraany of Poverty.

  • The role of economy and the role of education of a country together play a vital role in the progress and
    prosperity of that very country. Pakistan is suffered from the problem of poverty as well as the issue of language in education.These topics have been discussed very beautifully in our socio-linguistic class. All discussion directly or indirectly show that these problems are the gifts of the policies of higher classes. When we talk of languages then we think about different types of languages i.e.’mother tongue’, first language, second language and foreign language.In this fast era it has become difficult to say what is a mother tongue.Because today a mother speaks a sentence in front of her child that is cosisted at least three languages. This is the condition at home and out of home a child faces different situations of language. Simply lanuages have become problems. They have become fassions. Especially English language has become a complete fashion.

  • Nasreen

    The article of Mark Sebba from Lancaster University is based on a question “what is mother tongue”. The mother tongue is what a child’s medium of language in school and with friends, or his/ her mother’s language which is Gujarati or any other language. A child brought up in multilingual environment where he/ she acquire and learn languages for communication. The research shows that the schooling of child should be through medium of mother tongue because they understand best from it. In addition to this, most of the countries are following this notion i.e. England and Singapore. Jespersen said that a child who acquires language in natural setting is not their mother tongue. A child comes across with different language because of heterogeneous society and in a multilingual society there is a possibility of more than one language as a mother tongue. Skutnabb-Kangas indicates the data of bilingual individuals who learn Second language in their later life, found less understanding (Cont…

  • Nasreen

    and lack of vocabularies. Most of the people consider mother tongue a language of prestigious than actual mother tongue. For example, if my parents speak Gujarati and I speak the language which is common in society i.e. Urdu then my mother tongue will be Urdu.
    The researcher has discussed the effects of different varieties of language found in Britain. British born Caribbeans claim Creole as their mother tongue. People consider Creole as similar to English but Caribbeans do not accept it. The research shows that the adult of second generation are the speakers of Creole but it is also vary from place to place i.e. Guyanese Creole, Trinidadian Creole or Jamaican Creole which is widely spoken by young adult. But pre-adults are not much interested in London Jamaican because of limited competence. In the case of white people they acquire thus language through their peer and not from their parents.
    In this article, a case of 16 years of boy of Jamaican background from South London (Cont…

  • Nasreen

    … has been discussed. This research indicates he felt hesitation and do code switching. He clearly understand Jamaican Creole.

  • saba

    Hi Khan,

    Thanks for sending the copy of Tyranny of Language in Education across
    and for writing this insightful review.I have not gone through the
    whole book as yet but it is encouraging to
    see Pakistani students engaged in the debate. I read the author’s
    article with great interest when I am in Pakistan, however, the little
    I have read her current work up till now, I find it very stimulating.
    While reading the following lines
    ‘ The real challenge was for the Urdu speakers
    who had for the last two-and-a-half decades made little attempt to
    learn the language of the land that had welcomed them when they fled
    their homes at the time of partition’ (p.28), I could not help
    wondering whose voice is it that the author posits, the voice of
    disadvantage or the voice of power brokers of the country? They
    certainly have deafening echoes of the discourse of internal
    colonialism which have always misguided the common ordinary citizens
    of Pakistan from the central issues of poverty, killing and

  • Azhar Mahmood Nasir

    Dear Ali,
    got a chance today to look at your review and then cross comments, all sounds interesting and exciting. I would say a great effort from your end, however at the same time author has done a wonderful job too. I’m not sure how would such barriers be overcome, but what I know from my personal experience is that human brain and body has been granted extraordinary strength, stiffness, courage and motivation capability that such challenges can be taken on board, and as long as individual and collective efforts are made to train the nation it’s achievable. Having said Australia is a collection of almost all major languages including but not limited to English, French, Italian, German, Greece, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Russian but as a nation they have found ways to overcome the language barrier to establish a peaceful and progressive society. Their cutlural diversity policies and respect to individual’s school of thought keep them focussed to deliver best possible outcome……

  • Azhar Mahmood Nasir

    ….Not everyone speaks English well in Australia but at least everyone knows that much English which is sufficient for someone to deliver and discharge their duty, and that has been achieved with individual and collective efforts; and this is where nations progress when roles and responsibilities are delivered with individual’s best capabilities under the umbrella of a nice check and balance. Love to stay tuned, best regards.
    Brisbane, Australia.

  • Alifar

    Thanks for this great read, Khan! Appreciate your work and waiting to read more from you actual PhD work findings.


  • This is a really interesting debate, something I always wanted to have in Pakistan. Thank you Khan Sahib for starting this. Here I come with something more to give you food for thought. Some of you have raised these points about motivation to learn a language, what is the mother tongue and how multi cultural societies manage pretty well. I think three points are important; One; everyone should respect the other’s language and not show any contempt for it. Two, for education purposes what can be used is the language of the environment which is usually the màther tongue of the majority. The need to transition the minority language speakers into the language of the majority in the region needs to be recognised. Three, language should not be made into a tool to stratify society and economically disadvantage some classes. If you look at this reference you will understand what I mean.

  • Thanks zubeida Mustafa sahiba for your valuable contribution to the on-going discussion at Language-on-the-move. I agree with your first point in principal. However, I would like to link it once again to the massive transformation in social, economic and political sphere we as well as others are living through. The move from agrarian/ national industry to corporate/globalised economy, what Bourdieu calls ‘ market/ field/game’, calls for newer understanding and reflection on what is going around us. I see three large patterns, one is that of linguistic homogenization myth perpetuated by state. Second is linguistic marginalization which you pointed out. Third is the social institutions which serve to produce and reproduce as well as distribute the valued resources, hence leading to differences in social relations and social inequality ( Heller, 2006:5). I argue here once again that we need to focus on the central issue of poverty, social and economic inequality taking into account who

  • gets the privilege and who gets marginalized? How such inequalities manifested at all levels are naturalized in the changing times. For your second point and suggestion of using the language of environment, I would like to suggest that the term ‘language of environment’ appears very simple and straightforward. It has certain assumptions on the linguistic capital possess by people in different parts of the country: 1) Majority of Pakistani in certain geographic settings share a common language without taking into account the dialectical variations and pervasive multilingual nature of the country. The term want us to reach an examined conclusion, that all Sindhi/ Punjabi speak a particular Sindhi and Punjabi. 2) As a student of Language and Education I really hesitate to make suggestions for language in education. I think school community, parents and pupils should be involved in the development of school language policy. What I stress in my classes is the issue of social, economic

  • and political power distribution in Pakistani society. Three) I will again draw here on the work of Bourdieu which help us understand the meaning of language in social context. I think it is not the proficiency of English language that makes the difference but the ‘linguistic habitus’

    Heller, M (2006) Linguistic Minorities and Modernity, Continuum, New York.

    Bourdieu, P (1991) Language and Symbolic Power, Polity Press, Cambridge.