Language plays an important role in the social systems of a country. At the time of independence in 1947, Urdu was declared as the national language of Pakistan. In the presence of Bangla and Punjabi, which were the languages of the two large communities in terms of population, Urdu was chosen for two major reasons: a. its association with Muslims as an identity marker during the Pakistan movement and, b. its intelligibility across provinces. This decision sparked opposition in the then East Pakistan where people demanded to declare Bangla as a national language together with Urdu. Unfortunately, the federal government showed a cold response to this legitimate demand.
The Bangla language demand picked up its momentum and turned into a violent movement forcing the federal government to revisit its stance and grant the Bangla language the status of a national language, together with Urdu, in 1956. One of the factors in the separation of East Pakistan, however, is considered by many, was the unnecessary delay in declaring Bangla as the national language. Though Urdu and later Bangla were declared as the national languages of the country, English occupied the elite status of the official language of Pakistan. Being the language of masters, English enjoyed a positional superiority and acted as a gate keeper to the corridors of power e.g., armed forces, judiciary, and civil bureaucracy.
In Pakistan a large number of schools belonged to the public sector where Urdu remained the medium of instruction. With the mushrooming of private English medium schools during Zias era, a sharp stratification emerged that was based on socioeconomic factors. During Zias times, Urdu was used as a political slogan together with the slogan of Islamisation of curriculum.
The political rhetoric of Zia, in favour of Urdu, was not backed by sound planning and preparation. On the contrary, a large number of private schools opened up that started attracting the masses mainly because they called themselves English medium schools. This trend of private educational institutions gained fresh momentum during Musharrafs times when the private sector was encouraged to show its potential.
In the last two decades, the stratification between public sector schools and private schools has further deepened. One major difference between these schools, apart from other factors, is the use of English. The perception of a good school in the masses is the one that can prepare their students to get A grades and enable them to speak English fluently.
Proficiency in English is considered crucial for a number of reasons including higher studies, obtaining jobs, and entering into the corridors of power through joining the Armed forces, judiciary, bureaucracy, and multinational companies. Thus, it is considered an important tool for social mobility.
The ruling class in Pakistan would occasionally mention Urdu as rhetoric but there is no political will behind those slogans. In the recent past, the government has almost given up on the public sector schools and quality education is now increasingly associated with private schools. Interestingly, if one unpacks the notion of quality, English would emerge as a major distinguishing feature between the public and private sector.
Contemporary research signifies the role of mother tongue in education. Some obvious advantages of the use of mother tongue in education ate primary level entail facility in concept formation, better performance on cognitive tasks, and confidence in ones own identity. A number of countries that use their mother tongue have progressed remarkably.
Is Pakistan ready for that change? The answer is not that straightforward. As mentioned before, language has been used as a political slogan but no serious efforts were made to implement the announcement.
A glaring example is the 1973 constitution of Pakistan which was approved unanimously. It is stated in the constitution that English would be replaced by Urdu within 15 years. This deadline ended in 1988. Since then, 38 years have passed but we still do not see any signs of homework in this direction. As a result, the provincial languages in Pakistan like Punjabi, Balochi, Sindhi, and Pashto etc. are getting marginalized.
The 1973 constitution permitted the provincial governments to develop their language policies but no steps were taken in this direction. Now sixty four years after independence we see that English has gathered more strength and national and provincial languages have gradually lost their power. A greater role of national and regional languages in education requires thorough planning, elaborate preparation, firm political will and a sustainable language policy.
The writer is Professor & Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan