Opinion] Language, learning and identity

Gilgit – Baltistan is home to some of the world’s rarest languages 

“To reject a child’s language in the school is to reject the child”

According to 1973 Constitution of Pakistan chapter 2 article 28; preservation of language, script and culture is fundamental human right of people of this country and in this context Pakistan is a signatory of Dakar Forum (2001) as well. Pakistan has rich bio-cultural and language diversity. According to Ethnologue-Languages of Pakistan about 72 Languages are spoken in the country. Despite of being home to speakers of 72 languages, Pakistan has promoted Urdu as the language of wider communication (LWC) in the country while English is used as the official language.

While the political and social scenario of Pakistan is altogether changed and researches show some non-linear political tendencies in this regard what Dr. Tariq Rehman (2001) call them “language-based assertions of ethnic identity”. In order to resolve the assertions and uplift literacy rate and quality education as well as promoting creativity among students of local languages, Mother-Tongue Literacy (MTL) and Multilingual Education (MLE) programs are indispensable. This thought is best abridged in the words of Dr. Susan Malone (2005) that the purpose of multilingual education (MLE) program is to develop appropriate cognitive and reasoning skills through a program of structured language learning and cognitive development, enabling children to operate successfully in their native, state and national languages. MLE provides a strong foundation in the first language (mother tongue), adding second (e.g. national) and third languages (e.g. English) enabling the appropriate use of both/all languages for life-long learning.

Researches proved that MTL and MLE are key tools for understanding myths, local wisdom, oral tradition, folktales, culture, literature, performing art, fine art and natural phenomenon as well as critical and imaginative sense. This approach enables children to have life-long intellectual approach of what Dr. Tariq Rehman stated in his article Medium of instruction debate that a recent conference in Bangkok on language, education and the Millennium Development Goals (9-11 November 2010) reiterated that every child has the right to be educated in MT, especially during the early years of life. While the focus of UNESCO is to aid projects which aim at creating materials for minority language. The consensus of researchers is that children learn basic concepts better in their mother tongues than in any other language.

Hywel Coleman, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, UK, believes education must be imparted to the children in their mother-tongue, as it will enable them to understanding the fundamental concepts. We know well that existing education system of Pakistan is lacking well-defined and coordinated mechanism for uplifting of MTL and MLE except few efforts that are being implemented by some indigenous community based organization (CBOs) and NGOs. While in traditional teaching mechanism, rather than MTL and MLE, teachers and students focus mainly on memorization rather than conceptualization that cause lack of intellectual approaches among them.

As the World Bank (2004) points out: “An education system which does not take into account local culture and language is characterized by low intake, high repetition and high dropout rates. The dropout rates are high because education has little perceived relevance; achievement levels are low because concepts and competencies are difficult or impossible to learn in an unfamiliar language.”

In addition, the current system of education encourages class system on one hand and stigmatizes and discriminates minority language communities on the other. As a result, these communities feel sense of deprivation and disbar. Dr. Tariq Rehman articulates this situation as “The ruling elite finds it in its interest to teach a few in English; most others in Urdu and not to use the peoples’ smaller languages at all for teaching. If this is changed the power equation of this country will change also.” Moreover, these tendencies create inferiority complex among deprived communities as well as disharmony in the society. We can realize the gravity and sensitivity of ignoring MT by saying of Jim Cummins (University of Toronto) that “to reject a child’s language in the school is to reject the child”. Furthermore, numbers of minor languages are being died and at the position of extinction e.g. Badeshi, Oshojo, Chiloso, Yidgha, Domaaki, Gawro, Kundalshahi etc. because of such detrimental tendencies as well as ignorance and denial of legislative, executive and policy makers at provincial and national levels in Pakistan.

Shakil Ahmed Shakil, a renowned Shina language expert shares his enduring experience in promotion of Shina language and phrases his view in these words, “I, for my part, believe in one of the significant statements of “the charter of the Council of Europe” and disclose it in the context of Pakistan. “The protection of the historical, regional and local languages of Pakistan contributes to the maintenance and development of Pakistan’s cultural wealth and traditions. The promotion and protection of regional or local languages in the different provinces and regions of Pakistan represents an important contribution to the building of a Pakistan based on the principles of democracy and cultural diversity within the framework of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It is evident that our policy-makers have irrational fear about granting protection to the local languages of the country. While we observe that Switzerland has as many as four official languages: German, French, Italian and Rheato-Romance. Some 70% of the population is German-speaking but the people have not chosen it to serve the official language of the country. Even so, these factors have never been perceived as a threat to the unity and identity of the Swiss. In my sense, it is need of hour to pick out the very reality and elevate the status of local languages.

In expert’s opinion, execution and mainstreaming of MLE is not a big deal, if commitment and sense of ownership in placed towards mother tongue by all key stakeholders. Many countries and communities are executing MLE programs successfully. In Pakistan, Govt. machinery and policy makers do not play a proactive role in this regard. Nevertheless, some local CBOs and NGOs are implementing MLE in Northern Pakistan with financial and technical support of Forum for Language Initiative (FLI), Islamabad and Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) for last about five years. Mr. Fakhruddin Akhunzada, Assistant Director FLI is optimistic for success of MLE program. He says that “People from most of these minor language communities are facing a kind of social stigma that their mother tongue is symbol of backwardness. They hesitate to use it and many believe that education in the mother tongue is inferior to education in Urdu or English. But our studies of pilot projects suggest that positive attitudes towards the mother tongue have been gaining ground over the past few years.” (Max de Lotbiniere, Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 7 December 2010.). While Zubair Torwali, Executive Director, Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), Bahrain Swat, shares their success story as “Going holistic we succeeded to not only retain the MLE School intact but also created a need in the community for mother tongue based literacy for the adults. Now after seeing the tangible results of the MLE approach in the form of our first school children (of KG 1 level), who can even now outshine the students of grade 5th and 6th at the government and private schools, the people request us to open more schools. Now we see an increasing demand of admission to our schools.”

Keeping in view the prevailing awful situation of MTL and MLE programs in Pakistan, all stakeholders must play a proactive role before it would be too late. At least, they need to materialize the following key demands of the “Resolution” passed at the 5th Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Languages & Cultures Conference held in Peshawar from December 25-26, 2010 where 200 participants from KPK and Gilgit-Baltistan vowed that:

  1. The primary education should be imparted on the basis of mother tongue, not district basis, as there are districts in the province where more than one language is spoken
  2. The option should be given to the children in all the bilingual and multilingual districts of the Khyber – Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit – Baltistan while introducing the mother language teaching as a subject in the educational institutions

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