Saturday, 20 April 2013

Shehla Pucha Shwa

by Imran Khan

I came across the above clip some time back and if one knows Urdu and Pashto then listening to it invokes instant laughter, as I have carried out this experiment on many of my friends. Yet, the post laughter response to this has often been a “tsk tsk” at the status of education in Pakistan. There have also been those who were saddened by the capacity of this boy to learn.

While there is no doubt that the status of Pakistan's education is appalling and is a reflection of the amount of budget we have set for it every year. Can we also blame this child and assume that he is also deficient when it comes to his learning abilities?
I think he is a very brilliant child, for, not only has he learned to read an alien language, but while reading he is  also creative enough to weave a story around the few words that sound similar to his language, which is Pashto. When he hears the word Kaash, which in Urdu means, “To wish," he recognizes it as Kaash, which in Pashto refers to “Pistol Holster.” He further goes on to create a story about Shehla’s father and his pistol. He reads the Urdu word Chupkay, which means “Silently,” and he mistakes it for Chuka -- a Pashto word meaning “Stick” -- and weaves a story around that.

The result is hilarious in the first instant, but is also very tragic when one considers the struggles that this child is up against. Consider the fact that this weakness, in comprehension, is not only about Urdu but he also has to learn science, as well as mathematics, with this same level of comprehension in Urdu.

Nevertheless, our education system in Pakistan is definitely under-funded, but in this instance it is more about policy than budget. This is because, as a policy decision, we have failed to make use of the massive educational advantage that this child has, which is his mother tongue: Pashto. He clearly achieves a higher level of understanding when he thinks in Pashto. Thus, a lack of funding would not be the only thing to blame if this particular advantage is not utilized.

Often, we hear smug urbanites trash any notion of teaching in local languages because of the saying, “Duniya kahan ja rahi hai aur hum kahan." (Rough translation: Our priorities are so misplaced when compared with the rest of the world.) This saying thus indicates that local languages are not important, or even mandatory for that matter, because we need to give priority to languages that are considered more "important," i.e. English. Hence, the argument is that exposure to English is mandatory for the young so that they can be at ease with textbooks at an elevated level.

While it is not impossible to teach a child how to write and read in English, the name and reputation of the school is more than often placed at the utmost importance -- such prominent schools include Beaconhouse and Karachi Grammar School. Yet, what we see in this video is a product of our government school system from rural areas. We are talking about underpaid and under qualified teachers and schools without roofs. And, no, these schools cannot be turned into "Beaconhouses" with simply a wave of the magic wand.

In a report titled Language and Education: The Missing Link, authors Pinnock & Vijayakumar (2009) highlight that drop out rates are much higher in linguistically diverse societies that use a single national or international language for schooling. According to the report, 72% of the World’s out-of-school children were from countries that they term to be the “most linguistically fractionalized."

Pakistan, albeit consisting of 75 languages, has an estimated 92% of its population devoid of educational curriculum in mother languages. Comparatively India, with 401 languages, has only 25% of its population without educational curriculum in their mother languages.

There is, of course, merit with the concern that mastery in the English language is necessary in order to understand textbooks at a higher level of education. But, as Pinnock and Vijayakumar (2009) point out:
“Evidence demonstrates, however, that studying in an English-only or national-language-only curriculum is not the best way to develop proficiency in that language. In fact, children have higher achievement levels in both their mother tongues and in national and international languages when they study in their mother tongues." 
Thus, the idea is to introduce English later in the child’s schooling years, but initiate his initial learning in his own language -- his/her mother tongue.

This infographic shows the educational attainment of 17-22 year old Pakistanis, illustrating the clear differences among various linguistic groups. Urdu appears to be the least poor and seems to validate the conclusion of Pinnock & Vijayakumar. But one has to be careful in interpreting these results as native Urdu speakers in Pakistan reside in more developed and urban settings; therefore, a higher enrolment rate may be a result of better school facilities, and not necessarily because of education in the mother language. 

Further, a report commissioned by the British Council in 2012 titled Language in Education in Pakistan had some quite interesting observations. One of its findings was that “there is evidence that many people are strongly attached to their languages and wish to educate their children through those languages.” 

Hence, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is a good source to map this particular wish as it actually asks parents, living in rural Pakistan, about what language they would prefer as a medium of instruction. This infographic depicts the provincial demands from parents regarding English, Urdu, and the mother language (which ASER calls “Home Language”).

However, there is more divergence within provinces at the district level, as shown in the map below.

While Sindh is overwhelmingly in favour of local languages, Punjab is its exact opposite. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have more mixed preferences. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northern Pashtun districts have a stronger preference when compared with the southern Pashtun districts. Furthermore, the predominantly Hindko-speaking districts of Hazara have a lower preference for Hindko to be used as a medium of instruction. The situation in Balochistan is more complicated and, compared to the other provinces, it has the highest variance among districts. 

Nevertheless, an appreciable move by the previous government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was to make a switch to local languages as a medium of instruction. However, problems were foreseen; for instance, teachers who had inadequate skills to teach Pashto and Hindko. Apart from that, some less prominent languages were also left out. 

It goes without saying that such a switch to local languages would not be a smooth one. Yet, this government dealt with improving a system that was designed to not take advantage of the child’s existing language skills.

In the long run, it is a move in the right direction.  

The author is a freelance writer and blogs at and tweets @iopyne. He can be reached at
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