What happened when a Pashtun child tried to read Urdu

Published: July 20, 2013
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Are the learning issues this child faces a consequence of his poor aptitude for studies? PHOTO: SCREENSHOT

Note: To fully understand this post, it is mandatory that you watch the video pasted above.

If one knows Urdu as well as Pashto then watching this video invokes instant laughter. I had great fun carrying out this experiment on a lot of my friends, having them watch the video and crack up.

However, the post-laughter response to this video has usually been a lament about the state of education in Pakistan. There were many who were genuinely saddened by the unfulfilled potential of this boy to learn. Many deficiencies in the education system of Pakistan can be attributed to the meager amount we set aside for our education budget every year.

The question is: are the learning issues this child faces a consequence of his poor aptitude for studies? Or is it our education system that has failed him, and millions of others like him?

Personally, I think he is a brilliant kid. Not only has he learned to read an alien language, but while he reads, he is creative enough to weave a story around the few words that he cannot comprehend in Urdu, but which sound similar to words in his own native language, Pashto.

For instance, when he hears the word ‘kaash’, which in Urdu means ‘to wish’, he recognises it as kaash, the Pashto word for ‘pistol holster’ and makes up a story about the book’s character, Shehla and her father’s pistol to explain the sentence. Similarly, when he reads the Urdu word ‘chupkay’, meaning ‘silently’, he substitutes it for the Pashto word ‘chuka’, meaning ‘stick’ and coins a fable to make sense of what he reads.

There is barely a hiccup in the fluency of his narrative – as he reads, he replaces any Urdu vocabulary that is unfamiliar with Pashto words that he knows well.

Once we get past the initial amusement and consider the struggle this child is up against, we are struck by the educational deprivation he suffers. Consider the fact that this weakness in comprehension is not only something he confronts in his Urdu lessons – he has to learn science and mathematics in Urdu as well, a language he regularly falls short of understanding.

True, our education system is underfunded. But in this instance, it is not just the lack of education spending holding us back. It is our teaching policies as well. Due to a policy decision, we are not making use of the biggest educational advantage that our children have: their comfort level with their native languages. The child in this video is able to achieve a higher level of comprehension when he thinks in Pashto. However, this lingual capability remains untapped. Our education system demands that teaching should not occur in the native language of students but instead in a more widely spoken language, in this case, Urdu.

See this infographic.

However, have we done enough to ensure that the new, ‘better’ language we impose upon these kids is taught properly, with all pertinent resources widely and easily accessible? The answer is clear in this video.

We can draw a parallel between the shortcomings evident in the video, and the policies of schools in city centers that insist teaching should be in English.  It is a common concept that exposure to English is mandatory for the young so that they can be at ease with textbooks at a higher level. We have all heard smug urbanites trash any notion of teaching in local languages because-

‘Duniya kahan ja rahi hai aur hum kahan!’

(The world is progressing, and us? We lag behind!)

It is not impossible to teach a child from any background a more widely understood language, be it Pashto speaking children learning Urdu, or Urdu speaking children learning English. However, while private schools like Beaconhouse School System or Karachi Grammar School may have the resources for thorough linguistic education, our government schools, especially in rural areas, remain underpaid. They employ under-qualified teachers and offer poor infrastructure to struggling students.

In a report titled Language and Education: The Missing Link, the authors prove that dropout rates are much higher in linguistically diverse societies that impose a single national or international language for schooling. According to the report 72% of the world’s out-of-school children were from the linguistically fractionalised countries. Pakistan, with 75 languages, has an estimated 92% of its population devoid of education in their mother language. Comparatively, India with 401 languages has only 25% of its population without education in their mother language.

There of course is merit with the concern that mastery of commercially spoken languages like Urdu and English is necessary. However, it might be a better idea to introduce these later in the child’s schooling years, and conduct his initial learning in his own language.

According to ASER research, several Pakistani parents wish their children to be taught in their native language instead of a mainstream language. However, there is divergence within provinces at district level where these opinions are concerned. While Sindh is overwhelmingly in favour of local languages, Punjab is the exact opposite. The situation in Balochistan is more complicated with the highest variance among districts.

In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), the northern Pashtun districts have a stronger preference for Pashto when compared with the southern Pashtun districts. While progress towards giving local district languages a better status in the education system remains slow, K-P has seen some growth in the past few years. An appreciable move by the previous government of K-P was to make a switch to local languages as mediums of instruction. But there is still a long way to go, in K-P as well as the larger country.

I hope that the newly elected government can learn from the evidence supporting the merit of education in our local district languages. Be it giving Urdu a higher preference in schools that gives greater standing to English, or having local languages play a more integral role where Urdu is emphasised over students’ native languages, this transition will not be a smooth one.  However, in the long run this can be a move towards significantly improving the educational scenario in Pakistan.

INFOGRAPHICS : IMRAN KHAN

This post originally appeared here

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Imran Khan

Imran Khan

An Economist by profession, who is currently based in Islamabad. He blogs at iopyne.wordpress.com and his twitter handle is @iopyne.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.