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Pakistan: A Case for Mother-Tongue Based Education

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Imagine you’re seven or eight years old sitting in your 2nd or 3rd grade classroom. Now imagine the textbook in front of you is in a language you don’t speak, but you’re still being asked to read and learn from it.  How do you feel? Are you frustrated? Feeling nervous? Confident? Motivated? This exact situation is currently happening to millions of children in schools across Pakistan.  


There has been a lot written about the number of children and adolescents out of school in Pakistan. According to UNICEF (n.d.), twenty-three million children aged five to sixteen are not enrolled in school which is the second highest number worldwide. Of the children aged five to nine, five million are out of school. However, there hasn’t been very much written about the seventeen million primary aged children who are enrolled in school. Of those seventeen million Pakistani children in school, the majority are illiterate (Naviwala, 2019).  

Only 35 percent of children in grades two and three are achieving minimum proficiency in reading (UNESCO, n.d.). This statistic is contributing to Pakistan’s learning poverty  which is when children, by the age of ten, cannot read and understand a basic text (The World Bank, 2019). There are many reasons for this low literacy rate including lack of government funding for educational institutions and the outdated curriculum (UNESCO, 2012). However, the fact that the majority of students in Pakistan are not being instructed in their mother tongue is a major factor in why so many students are illiterate.

Pakistan is home to almost 220 million people with diverse traditions, cultures, and languages (Pakistan, 2020). There are 74 living languages in Pakistan but the majority of the students in both government and private schools are being instructed in either English or Urdu, and sometimes both due to educational reforms (Pakistan Language, 2017; Naviwala, 2019). However, only 8 percent of the population speaks Urdu or English as their first language (The World Factbook, 2020). 94 percent of teachers in “English-medium” private schools in Punjab don’t speak English.  

Why are Urdu and English currently the medium of instruction in Pakistani schools?  

In 1948, the Advisory board of Education decided that the mother tongue (which included Punjabi, Siraiki, Sindhi, Urdu or Pashto) of a state or region would be the medium of instruction. However, because of the Hindi-Urdu controversy Urdu remained the language used in schools. Then because of the colonial influence in the country and the elitist status attached to English, English became more dominant. In 1973, Urdu was made the national language of Pakistan with the idea that it would replace English at the official and national level, which at that time never fully happened.  Today, both Urdu and English are official languages, while Urdu remains the national language of Pakistan. Thus, the medium of instruction has gone from Urdu to English and back creating challenges for the Pakistani education system (Mahfooz, 2019).  


Pakistani children are not taught to read but are taught rote memorization, regurgitation, and copying. The teacher will say a word in Urdu and/or English and students repeat it and copy it into their notebooks. Students are also given paragraphs of text to recite in Urdu and/or English accompanied by a translation or maybe just the gist in their mother tongue.  This depends on how much the teacher actually understands because teachers are not receiving adequate training and preparation to teach in multiple languages. Students learning is not about comprehension, critical thinking, or conceptual understanding. Because primary school students are not being taught to read in their mother-tongue, they are not cognitively prepared to learn in other languages. Researchers globally have agreed that primary education needs to be in the children’s first language (Naviwala, 2019). 

Source: ASER
Source: ASER

Despite educational reforms being implemented in Pakistan, literacy rates continue to drop for primary school children (ASER, 2015 & 2019).  


Developing literacy skills in early education sets up students for educational success and shapes their perception of learning (Iqbal, 2019). Being literate builds human capital and creates opportunity for human, economic, social and cultural contributions (UNICEF, n.d.). However, by not being able to read, Pakistani children are being excluded from learning which often leads to negative consequences, such as increased dropout rates from over 20 percent in 2013 to almost 30 percent in 2017, low social mobility, and unequal opportunities (UIS, n.d. & Naviwala, 2019). Children who have not mastered reading by the age of ten, the end of primary school, usual are unlikely to master reading later in life (The World Bank, 2019).  

To improve literacy rates in primary school children, Pakistan should consider changing the language of instruction from Urdu and/or English to students’ mother tongue. While this might require time and financial investment, in the long run it will be worth the effort to stop the illiteracy cycle so that Pakistan and its citizens can develop and progress (Naviwala, 2019 & UNESCO, 2012). By not using the language that children speak at home as the language of instruction, children are learning that intellect is only associated with Urdu and English and that their mother tongue is worthless. Furthermore, teacher education programs need to be reformed because what happens in the classroom is the key to quality education and supports student success (Naviwala, 2019).  


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Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.