My education, my language | Pakistan Today

My education, my language

The importance of mother tongue instruction

“Quail coos and the nightingale sings. / Each in its own language. / Punjabi is the language of your mothers and fathers.” Babu Rajab Ali, 1894-1979 (Punjabi poet)

This is one of the five inspirations quoted by Dr Hywel Coleman in his research book ‘Language in Education in Pakistan: recommendations for policy and practice’ which was launched on 28 March in Islamabad. The research was conducted for the British Council primarily supposed to promote English round the world. It is refreshing that institutions like the British Council are now recognising the importance of mother tongues in education.

In mainstream Pakistan, the linguistic diversity of the country is still thought to be a threat to the national cohesion despite the fact that Pakistan has lost one of its arms mainly (including other factors as well) due to the denial of linguistic diversity.

It seems most of the respondents and informants in the report were not enthusiastic about an education policy incorporating mother tongues in education. They asserted that in Pakistan only five or six languages exist while the rest are just ‘small dialects’; second, there exist no such models anywhere in the world; and finally they say that a mother tongue inclusive education is expensive.

There are about 66 languages and dialectic variations spoken in Pakistan. Besides the regional languages Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi and the national language Urdu, people often do not know about other languages. For instance, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa alone, many languages are spoken besides Pashto.

Linguists agree on a yardstick to differentiate a dialect from language: if two speakers do not understand one another and use a lingua franca to communicate instead, what they speak will be two separate languages. For instance, if a Lahori can understand what a Patohari speaks, their language must be the same but with variation. Thus, they can be considered two different dialects of Punjabi. But if a Multani does not understand what a Lahori is speaking, it would mean they speak two different languages. Another example from upper Swat would help. In the two scenic towns, Bahrain and Kalam, two distinct languages Torwali and Gawri are spoken respectively. They are two separate and complete languages in themselves because a Torwali or Gawri use either Pashto or Urdu to communicate with each other. These two towns are just 30 kilometres away from each other.

In Africa, Southeast Asia, India and even in the US mother tongue based education exists and is practiced. There has been done a great deal of research in the field by UNESCO, Save the Children, World Bank, Aga Khan Foundation, SIL and the British Council. In some parts of the world, these agencies are involved with the respective governments in programmes called mother tongue based multilingual or bilingual education. In Pakistan, too, there are a handful of such programmes run by organizations. A similar programme has been designed and is run by the Institute for Education and Development in the Torwali speaking community in Bahrain Swat. The programme is called mother tongue based multilingual education. It was established in 2008 and has by now 150 students. It is a pre-primary school programme for two years.

Here the students start their education in their native language exclusively for a year. After getting literacy in the mother tongue, the learners are transitioned to Urdu. At a specific stage in the second year, the learner is further bridged to English first orally and later on its literacy begins. Besides the languages, other subjects such as Maths, Science, Ethics et al are also taught in the mother tongue. A two track pedagogical system is applied with emphasis both on ‘accuracy’ and ‘meaning’, in other words on skills and critical thinking. In the planning stage a ‘Language Progression Plan’ is designed clearly indicating which language is to be started when, how, how much and at what stage.

The Torwali based multilingual education programme has so far attained significant achievements: at the start, parents were reluctant to send their kids to schools on the pretext that they understood their language but gradually this trend changed as the parents saw the success of their kids. The parents have by now gained a sense of dignity about their language and culture; it has connected the children with the elderly and created a sense of affection. The children now go to the elderly and learn words, proverbs and riddles in their languages. Third, the endangered language was preserved, documented, promoted and used as an effective tool to learn other languages; and finally the students in this programme are performing better than the ones at the government schools. The programme is not only better for kids but the mother tongue based multilingual education can effectively educate adults as well. Mr Khair Muhammad was ale to become literate at age 70 thanks to learning aids in his mother tongue. The following anecdote might also be illustrative of the importance of education in the mother tongue.

“Salman Malik and Ghufran Malik are two brothers. Ghufran is 11 and is in the fifth grade in a public school whereas Salman is just 6 and is at our multilingual education demonstration school, Mhoon School, run by IBT in Bahrain, Swat. Salman has to date completed two terms (four months) of schooling.

Performance of both the brothers was evaluated in December last year before the winter holidays. They were given common words in both their mother tongue and in Urdu. The words were “Baba”, “Mama”, “Kaka” and “Lala”. Salman quite comfortably wrote the words while his elder brother Ghufran failed to do so. This story shows two trends viz the lack of quality in our public schools and the effectiveness of multilingual education primarily based on the learner’s mother tongue.”

The writer is a researcher and activist, who leads Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), a civil society organisation working on languages and education. Web:


  1. javed said:

    Well done! Great! These kind of institutions should be opened in each and every town of pakistan.

  2. muhammad yar said:

    Its a good effort of the author for promoting the education

  3. Pakistani said:

    An excellent analysis.There appears to be a complex that governs our mannerism and language.Electronic media and our 'alien' FM radio stations have corrupted our behaviour and language.

  4. Afsar Ali said:

    In pakistan most people are confuse or do not know that what is language and what are dialects? I hope this question is nicely answered by this article. Great research by ZB

  5. paul johnston said:

    "A language is a dialect with an army and navy"
    Seriously the differences between Danish, Norwegian and Swedish probably don't qualify them as separate languages but statehood does,
    Anyway education in the mother tongue should always be the norm IMHO

  6. kevin said:

    I was very interested in this good article, having lived in (and loved) Pakistan and its peoples and languages. Well done!

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