By Zubeida Mustafa
Asifa, 12, lives in Karachi, the port city in southern Pakistan. She is a child of the lesser gods. That means that she is malnourished and falls ill frequently. Her home is a modest two-room house with no running water in which her family of eight lives. She is fortunate to go to a better school than the public sector institutions many of her friends and neighbors attend – that is, if they go to school at all. Being the first generation school-goer in her family, Asifa’s is not the carefree existence a child deserves. Her parents have invested a lot in her to provide her education, and have pinned all their hopes in her future.
Will Asifa be able to lead her family out of poverty? Most unlikely. That may sound strange because education is supposedly the magic wand that is expected to bring prosperity. But Asifa was born on the wrong side of the social divide that splits Pakistan into two unequal parts. She speaks the wrong languages. At this young age she is fluent in Punjabi (her mother tongue) and the national language Urdu. But English is alien to her and to progress she must be fluent in English – so she is told. Though her school teaches her English, her language skill will never match that of the children who live in huge houses, go to school in chauffeur-driven cars, and have private tutors to provide extra coaching after school hours. Their Urdu might be what people dub as Urlish (a strange concoction of Urdu and English) but their competency in English matches any native speaker in Britain or the US.
Why and how does language place Asifa at a disadvantage? The fact is that English enjoys a superior status in Pakistan, as in most countries that once formed part of the British Empire. The imperial legacy lives on. The British ruled India by creating a class who were “interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” to quote Lord Macaulay, a member of the governing council of the East India Company.
The British Raj ended in 1947 but this class continues to control the future of Pakistan. True English is an international language which gives an advantage to those who are proficient in it in the global market and in international politics and trade. But for children like Asifa, learning English is a daunting job for several reasons – the most important being lack of facilities for accessible, affordable and good education. With not many good English language teachers available to teach her the language, Asifa will remain handicapped on this count. The chase for English is destroying her education. With no clear-cut language policy in place, educationists have no clue as to what is to be done. When schools turn to English as the medium of instruction with the ill-founded belief that thus the child will learn faster, they ensure that little knowledge is actually transmitted. It is rote learning that takes place, with very little understanding of the subject being taught.
Only good schools, with the help of good teachers, manage to get over the language barrier. With their high fees, these institutions are not within the reach of people like Asifa. This exclusivity in education has denied a large chunk of the population the benefits of good education. Education in English is equated with quality, although language is a medium that should not determine the quality of education. But such is the perception, and so there is no endeavor to raise standards without linking them to a specific language. In this scenario Asifa and others like her stand no chance of entering the job market at the higher level.
Language as a marker of class is encouraged by the power wielders – the government, big business, and social elites – who could change this trend if they wanted to. All laws are drafted in English even though lawmakers conduct Assembly proceedings in any language they feel comfortable in. The government’s written public communications are mostly in English. Employers make no bones about their preference for English speakers even though most jobs do not call for mandatory competency in English.
Linguists as well as human rights activists have questioned the wisdom of this approach. But it is so entrenched in the national psyche that the privileged position of English is not going to vanish soon.
The overarching presence of English in Pakistan has cast a shadow on and undermined the status of local languages and has been detrimental to the indigenous culture. This affects women negatively because women are traditionally known as the repertoires of cultural values, arts, and crafts.
Until recently, social prejudices have also held women back from entering the education mainstream in the same way as men. With less exposure to outside influences they are disadvantaged in terms of foreign language skills as well as education. The scene is changing as girls like Asifa have started taking to education in a big way. Unfortunately, the language barriers are certainly not going to help them. This means women have yet another hurdle to cross.
Zubeida Mustafa is a senior journalist and former assistant editor at Dawn, Pakistan's most widely circulated English language daily newspaper. She writes a weekly column for the paper focusing on social issues, including education, health, and women. She is the author of Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution.