EducationNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 15

Why not multilingual education model in Pakistan

The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training’s initiative to prepare and introduce Single National Curriculum (SNC) textbooks for students of pre-one to five grades across the country has been put off until August 2021. The ministry had announced almost one-and-a-half years ago that SNC textbooks would be ready for delivery to students in March 2021, in phase-I. However, federal education authorities issued a notification in the last week of January that the plan had been delayed and now the books would be taught at primary level from August this year.

According to the earlier statement, textbooks under the SNC would be provided to class sixth to eighth students in March 2022, in the second phase, and in phase-III, Single National Curriculum textbooks would be developed for 9th and 10th graders till March 2023.

While making public the SNC plans, Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood said that one system of education for all, in terms of curriculum, medium of instructions and a common platform of assessment, was aimed at providing all children a fair and equal opportunity for their better learning, and imparting of quality education to them.

While the federal education ministry has, in consultation with the provincial authorities, decided that education will be imparted in the same (national) language across the country, experts believe the decision can prove counterproductive as far as students’ learning and imparting of quality education is concerned.

Zubeida Mustafa, a journalist and the author of “The Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and Its Solution”, believes imparting education to children with different mother language backgrounds could prove a major hurdle to their learning process. “Language can facilitate children’s social, cultural and intellectual development, or it can hurt their capacity to learn. The failure to look at language as a crucial component of education per se has resulted in our failure to spread literacy and learning in the country,” she said in her comments on a report, recently released by The Citizens Foundation (TCF).

Various other educationists and researchers also believe that using familiar language (mother language) when children are young, and then gradually introducing other/foreign languages maximises comprehension and fluency among students. The Citizens Foundation (TCF) and Thar Foundation recently concluded a research study spanning three years in Sindh’s Thar district and released a report, titled “Finding Identity, Equity, and Economic Strength by Teaching in Languages Children Understand”, in the second week of January 2021. The research study suggested how countries like Pakistan – where people speak a host of regional and local languages – can adopt a “mother tongue-based multilingual education” model to help increase learning among their students and enhance their literacy rates.

Ajay Pinjani, senior manager at the Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB MLE) at the TCF, says more than 130 practitioners, policymakers and academics from across the world were interviewed during the study and the language policies of similarly diverse countries were made part of the research. Talking to Cutting Edge by telephone, he said it was no secret that primary education in Pakistan was not delivering the results that government policies, the donor community, and non-profit organisations envisioned. Millions of children in the country are not in school. And yet, millions more who attend school suffer the effects of a flawed education system. One of the major reasons for lack of, or slow, learning among students is the language hurdle, he believes.

Ajay Pinjani says in a country with over 70 native languages, a critical impediment is the language used as the medium of instruction. In Pakistan, parents demand “English-medium education” for the many academic and professional doors it can open to their children. But because majority teachers in Pakistan are not proficient in English, it is only textbooks that are in English, while teachers and students speak local languages in the classroom. He regrets that schooling is reduced to memorising the textbooks that children do not understand, hindering intellectual growth and the joy of learning.

The TCF senior manager says that the meaningless memorisation of information happens in classrooms across Pakistan, where children’s language and cultural context is not taken into consideration. It has led to a crisis – one where children, who regularly attend school, can’t read or write a simple sentence in any language albeit being in school for several years.

The TCF study showed that using an unfamiliar language as the medium of instruction in the primary years’ curriculum hurt children’s ability to learn to read and understand concepts. There is an overwhelming consensus amongst educationists around the world that learning should be in a language that students understand – usually the language that they speak at home, referred to as their mother tongue. The research also established that children, who develop strong language skills in their own language, are better able to learn foreign languages, like English later on.

According to Ajay Pinjani, TCF partnered with the Thar Foundation in 2018 to develop a mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB MLE) model for schools in the desert region of Tharparkar. While Sindhi is the provincial language in the district, over 13 sub-regional languages are used by the local population. The study demonstrated practically how educational practitioners can adopt a language progression path in which children are initially taught in their mother tongues/ regional languages, then in the provincial language, then the national language, and then in an international language (English). It also laid out principles for the transition from one language to another.

The researchers divided learning languages into three stages:

First stage: Strengthen foundation in the most familiar language (mother tongue) from nursery to grade 3.

Second stage: Gradual transition from most familiar language to less/least familiar language from grades 4 to 7.

Third stage: Using the previously unfamiliar language as the solo medium of instruction to acquire academic proficiency and knowledge from grade 8 onwards.

The study findings say: “As long as children are being taught in a language which is foreign to them, they will not be able to learn effectively. The conversation of adopting the most familiar language as the medium of instruction is not simply one of mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB MLE), it is a matter of literacy and learning.”

A pilot project based on the language progression path was initiated in Thar, according to the report. “Both TCF and Thar Foundation schools implemented the research-based MTB MLE model in over 21 classrooms in Tharparkar, starting with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.

According to the report: “Students in the classrooms will transition through fluency in three or four languages over the course of their education, from diverse mother tongue languages (Dhatki and Sindhi) to the regional language (Sindhi), then the national language (Urdu), and then to an international language (English).”

Obviously, it is a great model, which has practically proved its effectiveness in various parts of the world, and in Tharparkar district of Sindh also, it is in the process of showing its utility. As setting curriculums and revisiting the education policies is a continuous process, it’s hoped the federal government would consider the MTB MLE model for its implementation across the country for better learning of Pakistani students and imparting quality education to them.