From Urdu to English and back | Pakistan Today

From Urdu to English and back

  • Medium of instruction in the throes of indecision

From the next academic year, all primary schools in Punjab have been instructed to revert to Urdu as the medium of their instruction. While the step may be commendable keeping a nationalist view, but it simply adds to the back and forth progress of education in Pakistan, which has overall been on the decline.

Sometime back, The Department of School Education in Punjab carried out a survey, asking students, parents and teachers of 22 districts about their preferred medium of education. It is reported that in each category, more than 85 percent of the people were in favour of Urdu.

The government also studied the education systems of different countries before changing the medium of instruction. It had been observed that children were spending more time in translating rather than understanding when English was the medium of education in Pakistan. Therefore, they did not grasp information or learning anything new. Also, it was difficult for teachers as well to perform their duties effectively due to a foreign language being medium of instruction.

If the school’s medium of instruction is Urdu, then English, when introduced at secondary level, should be taught at a high standard, comparable to countries where English is similarly introduced at a later stage of life. This is essential to allow citizens of all backgrounds to freely and confidently participate and excel in mainstream professions, for lacking proficiency in English pushes them away from opportunities

The case has been well argued, but sadly, it is just one of the policies which has rocked the education system of the county like a see-saw– there have been too many ups and downs and reversal of policies, resulting in multiple systems, instead of a unified education system. The outcome is even worse, with Pakistan still far behind in literacy targets compared within the region, and a much lesser number of children going to school than desired.

Let us briefly look at the education policy of the country since its inception. A research paper titled “Language Policy and Medium of Instruction in Pakistan” sheds valuable information on the topic. The paper traces the journey to the very first meetings of the Advisory board of Education in 1948, when it was decided that the mother tongue (either Punjabi, Siraiki, Sindhi, Urdu or Pashto) would be the medium of instruction. “But due to colonial influences and emotive value of Urdu especially in the Hindi-Urdu controversy, Urdu remained the official medium of instruction in most of the institutions of Pakistan. (Later) the elitist ideology and status attached to English by the ruling class kept English at the dominating level, and Urdu started to recede and began to be associated with the concepts of religious fundamentalism and conventionalism.”

Yet again, the Constitution of 1973 states that Urdu would be national language and further necessary arrangements would be made in the next 15 years for Urdu to be used officially and for other purposes.

Then in the revised National Education Policy manifesto of Federal Government of Pakistan of 2009, “the challenge to carry forward the cultural asset i.e. Urdu language and literature, and also to be able to meet the growing needs of modernism and economic well being i.e. learning of English”, was addressed. The solution offered was to include in the curriculum from Class I onward, English, Urdu and one regional language as subjects, while Mathematics and Sciences were to be taught in Urdu or English language for five years and after that only in English. This latter policy was in continuation till present, which is to change from next year at least in one province, for after the 18th amendment in the Constitution of Pakistan, education is now a provincial subject.

Hence, education for the masses has rocked back and forth between Urdu and English, to the extent that entire generations can be identified which differ in their schooling systems from each other. And while we trace the journey of Pakistan’s educational policy in terms of its medium of instruction, it would be pertinent to note that this applies to only public sector schools. Private sector institutions, at-least in the urban centres, account for nearly 50 percent of school-going children. Here, the medium of instruction is and has remained English.

So while generations of the past may differ in their schooling, the present generation is also marked with varying degrees of contrast with each other. Not surprisingly, this has led to a major class divide in the society, with the unprivileged, low-income class receiving education from public sector schools, termed as Urdu-medium, and those from the upscale private sector schools labelled English-medium. In-fact, any conservative-minded or traditional person, from any strata of the society, can be grouped in the looked-down-upon Urdu medium class, while one speaking fluent English would be taunted as a “burger”– the westernised version of the local bun kabab.

The truth is, that yes, most developed countries have retained their native languages as the medium of instruction in schools. The policy, in essence, is indeed beneficial. But what is even more important, is consistency– over the years as well as within systems. If a decision regarding the medium of instruction is consistently followed year after year for a considerable period, only then it will have a far reaching effect.

Moreover, since Urdu is the national language and English one of the official languages, they are both equally important, and a status of parallel development should be applied. If the school’s medium of instruction is Urdu, then English, when introduced at secondary level, should be taught at a high standard, comparable to countries where English is similarly introduced at a later stage of life. This is essential to allow citizens of all backgrounds to freely and confidently participate and excel in mainstream professions, for lacking proficiency in English pushes them away from opportunities. At the same time, if English is the medium of instruction, then Urdu should not be reduced to the level of a mere subject. There should be greater emphasis on its teaching. The lack of skills in this has resulted in most students of private schools unable to converse or even read, let alone comprehend, Urdu properly.

In a conversation or work experience, it may be observed that the majority of those Pakistani citizens who were the first generation of graduates in Pakistan, be it our parents or be it any person with an academic background, are fluent in both Urdu and English. Not only that, their understanding and application of both languages is far better than that of most of us today. Many amongst them, if not all, were students of a sarkari (public) school. If this standard can be brought back and maintained, then there is nothing better than keeping Urdu as a medium of instruction.

The writer is a broadcast journalist and freelance writer. She has keen interest in issues concerning women, religion and foreign affairs.



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