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.