Mother language education

Published: November 27, 2011
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Unesco has been emphasising the importance of teaching children in their mother-tongues since 1953. Several reports, statements and conferences have been dedicated to this theme. The latest conference I happened to attend, thanks to the British Council in Pakistan, was the 9th International Language and Development Conference held between 17-19  October 2011  in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The best thing about the conference was that the British Council had financed two young men from Pakistan: Mohammad Zaman Sagar and Khwaja Rehman. I knew both of them as language activists since many years but I did not know the extent of the work they were doing to teach small children of several small communities in their mother-tongues.

Before I go into the remarkable achievements of these two young men and others like them, I would like to mention very briefly the language situation in Pakistan. The Summer School of Linguistics (SIL), which is a language-research institute, publishes a book called the Ethnologue. This is a record of languages all over the world and is available both in the printed form as well as the internet version. The SIL team estimates that Pakistan has 72 languages. The important point is that except for Sindhi and Pashto (but that too up to class-5 in some areas) none of these languages are media of instruction in the state sector or the expensive, elitist private schools, colleges and universities. Some of them are taught as subjects in educational institutions and are subjects of examination in the civil service examination both at the provincial and the federal levels. However, they are not taken seriously either by students or teachers. They are treated as easy-to-pass subjects. Their examiners and teachers are people who have degrees but they feel that if they fail students, nobody would take their subject and so resort to liberal marking.

The conditions described above create pressures which bring about what has been called ‘language death’. When the last speaker of a language dies, a world view, a culture, an identity, a repository of collective knowledge and literature dies. This by itself is a great loss and there is great concern in the world that the languages of the world are vanishing at a very fast rate.

In Pakistan, conditions for all indigenous languages are such that they are under pressure and small languages are in danger of dying. Now, one of the things which can save a language from dying, which can reverse language shift, is teaching it to children. For this one needs primers, books and recorded folk tales and other oral literature. This, in turn, requires a standard spelling to be determined and some dialect of the language to be selected as the one in which the teaching will be carried out. In short, teaching a language immediately makes it standardised and gives it the support it needs to survive. This is one reason for supporting mother tongue education. But that is not all. Researchers have discovered that children who are taught in their own language understand concepts better and actually learn the other languages they are taught later than those who start their schooling in an alien language. They found that even in mathematics those who are given mother language education are better learners.

Zaman Sagar and Khwaja Rehman have pioneered schools in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in communities that speak small languages with the help of European and American researchers from the SIL and the Frontier Language Institute, which was first established in Peshawar and then moved to Islamabad where it is called Forum for Language Initiatives. One of its pioneers was Dr Joan Baart who has written much on Gauri (Kalami) and recently translated a book on Ormuri from Russian into English. These people trained teachers and prepared teaching material in these small languages. Zaman’s own language is Gauri and he was instrumental in setting up a school in the Gauri community in Swat which has six teachers and 135 students. The community itself consists of about 100,000 people. Yet another community is the Torwali community, which is also in Swat. It also consists of 100,000 people and has a school with 85 students and three teachers. This initiative came about in 2008 and is at the preschool level. Zaman is the director, or coordinator as he modestly puts it, and his job is to train the teachers and write primers in order to make the programme a success. And his hope is that the pre-school will eventually go up to class-5 as early as next year. In Hazara, Gojri is taught in 10-12 schools to the Gujjar community. As these people are nomads and keep travelling with their herds of goats, these schools are mobile and move with the Bakarwals (keepers of goats). However, there is a permanent school near Shogran up to Class-5. This school has 35 children who are taught by two teachers.

In Chitral, too, some of these experiments are taking place. For instance, Palula is taught to 50-52 children. It is spoken by about 10,000 people. It is taught in two schools and there are three teachers teaching it at the preschool level. In Chitral, too, Kalasha is also taught. This is taught in the Bumboret valley and a Greek social activist and philanthropist, Athenesios Leronis, devoted himself to teaching the Kalash children up to Class-5 using the Roman script to write it, whereas all other languages are written in variants of the Perso-Arabic script.

The experiment of using the mother tongue for teaching little children is also taking place in some communities of Sindh. Kachhi and Parkari are being taught to children of these rural working-class communities. The present author met some of the young activists who run these schools in Bangkok, in 2010, and was much impressed with them.

The two young researchers, Khwaja Rehman and Zaman Sagar, carried out a survey of the capability of students in languages and mathematics and found that they were better in their comprehension of concepts than those who had studied in Urdu-medium schools, since Urdu was a foreign language for them. The rest of the world confirms this result as students everywhere do better, even in learning English, if they have been given their basic childhood grounding in concepts in their mother tongue.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Mir Agha
    Nov 27, 2011 - 11:17PM

    This should be the responsibility of the provincial/local governments. People have to realize their rights and responsibilities and stop waiting for Islamabad to give a nod for their every move. Also has to be an issue of availing the best education to children rather than a political issue.

    Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli.
    Nov 27, 2011 - 11:23PM

    @Tariq Rehman
    What about Hazara peoples and Hinko language why we get step mother treats from every
    one????

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  • Nadir
    Nov 27, 2011 - 11:33PM

    Yes, yes and yes!!

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  • Nov 28, 2011 - 5:03PM

    Excellent write up Professor – its really a very sorry state of affairs with serious implications for identity of the peoples of Pakistan at the heart of crisis of state and society

    Recommend

  • Vijay K
    Nov 28, 2011 - 5:45PM

    I enjoyed your article, and I think you have raised some very thoughtful points.

    There is some debate about the “language of thinking” I do believe that we think in the language of our infancy, and that “hard-wiring” in our brains occurs in the first year or two of our lives. As is true of other animals, so it is for humans too : a preservation/survival mechanism… recognizing the mothers voice within hours of birth and so on. And that probably becomes our language we think in. It may explain that civilizations progressed as long as the thinking process occurred in the language of their birth. (Arabs, Ottoman, Ancient Indians etc). Much “brain-power” is wasted in translation, and the original message never gets across. Maybe that is why the Anglo-saxon want to press their language so much ! A new kind of slavery. Our best brains being used to further their civilization. Aren’t some of the finest and brightest Pakistanis working in the west?
    None of the developed countries (France, Germany, Japan, China, Russia) teach their science, mathematics in English, or any other foreign language.
    We should be teaching in our own language, and keeping up with progress by translating journals, as happens in Japan, Russia or China. That way we will serve our own people, not just learn English and then spend the rest of our lives standing in line for a visa to serve in the industrially advanced English speaking countries and serving them.
    Knowing additional languages is always an advantage, but the medium of teaching should remain in the language we think in, which I think is the language of our childhood.

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  • goggi
    Nov 28, 2011 - 7:35PM

    Sadly, one must note that our indigenous languages ​fell victim to the brutal imperialistic languages. The forced introduction of Urdu, followed by English and Arabic has disastrous impacts on the multilingual and multi-ethnic society of Pakistan.

    In a city like Lahore, Urdu has successfully banished the original lahori Punjabi and a funny Pidgin of Urdu+English+Arabic+indispensable lahori galigaloch is in vogue.

    As long as our uppermost religion of music is cultivated, our native languages have a good hope to survive and expose themselves. It is very important, that our children learn to sing in their native languages.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Nov 28, 2011 - 8:07PM

    @Vijay K,
    U stole my words man thats not gonna happend untill we have those Aligarh Shurfah rulers.

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  • Nurmomad
    Nov 29, 2011 - 10:11AM

    The languages of Gilgit – Baltistan (Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Wakhi, Khowar, Gojri, Kashghari) are among the most unique and most endangered languages of Pakistan.

    The GB government should take special legislation to ensure that these languages are taught in the region’s school.

    Except for the community-based Al-Amyn Model School (Gulmit, Gojal), who are managing classes in Wakhi language, no other institution in GB is teaching a regional/local language as a subject.

    If the governments are too busy, then the civil society should come together and take initiatives to preserve and promote their languages in an organized manner.

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  • Nurmomad
    Nov 29, 2011 - 12:28PM

    Apologies for the typing errors in my previous comment.

    I would also like to point out the possible negative impact of introducing more foreign languages in Pakistan.

    The government of Sindh has introduced Chinese as an optional language to be learnt. A similar misstep is under-consideration in Gilgit – Baltistan, where the chief minister has yesterday “expressed interest” in introduction of Chinese language in the public schools.

    While agreeing with the fact that there is no harm in learning languages for professional/economic purposes, we shall not overlook the fact that by introducing multiple languages in schools, the chances of survival for regional languages are being significantly decreased.

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  • Balma
    Nov 29, 2011 - 7:39PM

    Don’t worry folks.
    Within our lifetime, all langauges of India and Pakistan, including Urdu-Hindi, will be dead.
    How many of you can type in Urdu or your own native langauge? Zero?

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  • Nov 30, 2011 - 3:28PM

    This is the responsibility of the government.Recommend

  • Raja Hasrat
    Dec 3, 2011 - 11:11PM

    There is a Hindko Language Project based in Abbottabad that has published a premier and some pictures stories books i.e. Mityala Bhalu etc. Project has also started working on Hindko Dictionary (with phonetics, English and Urdu) consisting of round about 13000 words from different domains of Hindko language. Initially project was started by a linguist Mr. Mark Alan Robinson who launched HLP (Hindko Language Project) twelve years ago. The project is publishing fortnightly nonpolitical A4 size pager consisting of Hindko poetry, proverbs and health stories etc.
    Note: For further information about language and ‘Hindko Language Project’ contact on 0333-5008859Recommend

  • Dec 3, 2011 - 11:16PM

    There is a Hindko Language Project based in Abbottabad that has published a premier and some pictures stories books i.e. Mityala Bhalu etc. Project has also started working on Hindko Dictionary (with phonetics, English and Urdu) consisting of round about 13000 words from different domains of Hindko language. Initially project was started by a linguist Mr. Mark Alan Robinson who launched HLP (Hindko Language Project) twelve years ago. The project is publishing fortnightly nonpolitical A4 size pager consisting of Hindko poetry, proverbs and health stories etc.
    For further information about language and ‘Hindko Language Project’ contact on following address.
    Address: Mark Alan Robinson C/O Raja Hasrat Khan
    Village: Bahali
    City: Mansehra (KP)
    Pakistan
    Phone: 0333-5008859

    Recommend

  • Dec 4, 2011 - 4:18PM

    a very sad state but it is our duty to ensure the languages is pass down to our next generation.
    the experiment of using mother tongue to teach young child is a great start.

    Recommend

  • Dec 4, 2011 - 4:24PM

    it is our duty to ensure the languages is pass down to our next generation.
    teaching younger generation with mother language is one great way we can use.

    Recommend

  • Farid Ahmad Raza
    Jan 17, 2012 - 10:14PM

    I am impressed by Dr, Tariq Rahman article “mother language education”. very detail report about the MTB MLE School system in KPK. Our prominent writers ignore these very important issues in Pakistan. I appreciate Dr. Tariq Rehman and hope he will discuss the minority language issues in the press. I also like to add further information about the MTB, MLE School system in mid 2013 we able to open some more school for more four language community.

    Farid Ahmad Raza, MTB MLE Coordinator at Khowar Language

    Recommend

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