Pakistan: Children in primary schools should be taught in their mother tongue

Credit: UNESCO/Amina Sayeed

By Bushra Rahim, PhD student.

“If we start speaking other languages and forget our own, we would not be we, we would be clones of an alien people; we would be aliens to ourselves” (UNESCO, The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education, 1958)

The Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) announced that the medium of instruction would change from Urdu to English in public schools from April this year. The arguments put forward for the change were to make public schools the same as private schools in the province and to provide a uniform education to all children. But did the government of KP take into consideration the following questions? 1) What is the preferred medium of instruction of parents, students and teachers? 2) What is the impact of changing the medium of instruction on educational outcomes? 3) What does international research on the subject tell us?

In order to understand people’s perceptions about their preferred medium of instruction we need to know first about the most commonly spoken languages in KP. According to the 1998 Census, 74% population of KP speaks Pashto, 3.9% speak Siraiki, 1% Punjabi, 0.8% Urdu and 20.4% speak other languages. A more recent household survey by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012 shows that the four commonly used languages in the province are: Pashto (77%), Hindko (11%), Siraiki (3.5%), Chitrali (3%) and others (5.5%). Changing the medium of instruction to English, therefore, means that most children are learning in a language that is not their own.

Parents, teachers and students are opposed to the change.

Credit: UNESCO/Amina Sayeed

Research conducted on the subject in Pakistan and especially KP shows that parents want their children to be educated in mother tongue. For instance, one of the recommendations of a 2012 British Council Report was that: “There is evidence that many people are strongly attached to their languages and wish to educate their children through those languages” (p. 8).

Another study by the ASER, 2012, based on a survey involving 13,702 households in 23 districts of KP, showed that 45% households in KP preferred Pashto as medium of instruction in schools whereas 39% percent preferred Urdu. These surveys indicate that the decision of the KP government to change the medium of instruction to English is not aligned with the demands of the parents and others in KP.

Even primary school students and teachers are opposed to the change. Last year I visited a girls’ primary school in Peshawar had two female teachers teaching six grade levels (from katchi/pre-primary to grade 5). The only language the teachers could speak was Urdu, even though the students could not understand Urdu as their mother tongue was Pashto. The students of grades 4 and 5, who were sharing the same classroom, complained that due to the language barrier their precious learning time was being wasted. If the students have problems in understanding a teacher speaking Urdu, one can imagine how difficult it would be for students to understand their teachers when they are speaking English, especially given that most primary school teachers are unable to speak a single sentence in English.

The second question, which is usually ignored in policy discourse, is about the impact of the medium of instruction on children’s educational outcomes. My research on the subject due out early next year revealed that teaching in Urdu reduced the completion rate by 0.7 percent during the 2007-2012 academic cycle in comparison with the previous academic cycle. The shift in the policies of the successive governments from Urdu to mother tongue (Pashto) and from mother tongue to Urdu during the two academic cycles is one of the factors responsible for declining educational outcomes. The impact of these political shifts is also manifested in the annual Education Census statistics: the ratio of Urdu versus Pashto medium schools was 52:46 in 2005 which increased to nearly 60:40 after 2007.

Being taught in your mother tongue increases your cognitive skills in the future

Credit: UNESCO/Amina Sayeed

Researchers argue that the best medium for early education is the language a child already  knows and to which a child is naturally exposed in his/her social environment.  Their argument is that once a child develops conceptual knowledge in a mother tongue it helps them to then understand and gain proficiency in another language. Studies also indicate that teaching in mother tongue improves access (attendance and attainment) to education. An analysis of data from 26 developing countries and 153 linguistic groups revealed that children who had access to mother-tongue instruction were significantly more likely to be enrolled and attending school, while a lack of education in mother language was a significant reason for dropping out of children. Furthermore, studies indicate children especially girls who learn in native languages stay in school longer, do better on tests, and repeat grades less often than students who do not get instruction in familiar language.

Changing the medium of instruction will not make private and public schools the same

Finally, the argument that changing the medium of instruction will make public schools equal to private schools in the province is also shaky. Many factors contribute to improving educational outcomes such as school resources; instructional time; curricular focus; teacher motivation, training and accountability; parental education and socioeconomic status. Simply changing the medium of instruction will achieve little unless these other influential factors are addressed as well.

The Government of KP needs to reconsider its decision and take steps to implement the decision of the previous government to embed mother tongue as medium of instruction in primary schools across the province. Parents, teachers, researchers and the evidence in educational outcomes cannot be ignored.



  1. Hi, You appear to be indicating from your statistics that 0.8% speak Urdu yet the instruction is in Urdu. If this is correct doesn’t it mean that 99.2% speak something other than this language of instruction? Thus the call for a consolidation language of instruction (English) that would not cause the same difficulty that the adoption of Urdu culturally would. That is, the rest of the population would not see their particular language subjugated to the adoption of one of the other “native” languages. There are many successful bilingual programs that have sessions of English in the morning and a range of “native” languages in the afternoon to counter many of the arguments for mono (native) use to the exclusion of other “native” languages in instructional media. English then becomes an economic tool for travel, tourism, globalisation aspects of trade etc as well..

    1. Yes, you are right. Nearly 99.2% people in the KP province speak other than Urdu language. However, the issue is not about subjugation of a ‘foreign language’ (English) over native languages only. As Mr. Clegg rightly pointed out imparting education in foreign language works in context where majority of the parents are educated, SES is high, teachers can speak the foreign language (at least) with some ease and sufficient resources (books, internet, and computers) are available in the classrooms. In addition, such brazen initiatives need a large amount of money to fully transform the education system (train teachers properly in foreign language, revise curriculum and remodel the examination system). In the absence of such an environment how can such ill-planned policies work?
      According to an estimate, nearly 60-70% of the children who attend public schools in Pakistan are from the poorest of the poor families. The only source of learning is teachers. How can these children understand the lessons when the teachers communicate in a language alien to them?

      1. I have done a fair bit of farmer literacy activity in China for UNESCO. One of China’s research projects looked at teacher training and changing the curriculum. As you know there are about 156 Chinese “dialects” but the government mandated English for the curriculum, especially around the Olympic Games time. They had a great deal of success in English usage, but of course many hours of teacher development went into the exercise and incentives for city teachers to travel to country centre, country teachers coming to the city etc. Many texts were printed and village by village computer literacy encouraged and resourced. Parents and children doing it together. A whole package was adopted not merely a mandated language activity. Your last sentence highlights the problems and the mismatch between political policy and educational resourcing. Back in Australia an added difficulty with mandating English as the language of communication within indigenous populations is that all the many aboriginal dialects are oral only! so reading is a further necessary skill base. Two Way education however has been somewhat successful in attempting to lift the “foreign” language mastery, that is, English, as well as preservation of the oral indigenous traditions. The key to success is teacher professional development and texts in a range of styles and dialects over a sustained period of time.This is a well known approach but politicians tend to ignore it!

      2. bushra mam, can you plz provide me any written document regarding this change in medium of instruction in khyber pakhtunkhwa.
        Madiha khan
        MS student

  2. This is a typical argument for so-called “neutral” languages which are usually even more foreign to children than a regional lingua franca. If we are talking about Education for All, i.e. making literacy and learning across the curriculum available to 100% of children, we need to be talking about L1 medium of instruction. Learning through your own language is never questioned for speakers of dominant languages.

    1. An abrupt change in the medium of instruction (from local to a foreign language (English)) is lethal in contexts where schools are poorly resourced, teachers are short in supply, are not proficient in the newly mandated language and the students who attend such schools are from low SES whose parents are mostly illiterate or have very low qualification. Implementation of such policies require other parallel interventions as well as has been mentioned by Dr. Darol while citing the example of teacher training in China.

  3. This is an extremely valuable article on the decision to educate through the medium of English in one part of Pakistan. Education through the mother-tongue has been called for unequivocally by UNESCO and large numbers of other international and national bodies for some 50 years throughout the world. The author has put the reasons for this succinctly. What I should like to enlarge on are the damaging effects of education in a second language (L2).

    Education through 2 languages or through the medium of a foreign/second language does work in some parts of the world. By and large however these are contexts in which parental education is good, SES is high, first language literacy is established, teacher and learner levels of ability in the language are satisfactory or better, school resourcing and teacher qualifications are adequate and materials are appropriate. In particular, these contexts are selective – i..e a small number of successful schools with mainly middle-class parents are involved. In contexts in which these conditions are not found (especially those to do with family educational background), the effect of attempting to educate through the medium of a second/foreign language, especially one to which learners are not well-exposed socially, is likely to depress educational achievement, probably severely. Especially in schools in poorer, perhaps rural areas, learning and teaching will be very slow and ineffective, will in actual daily practice end up being conducted partly in the L1 anyway – and may well render the education service in this part of Pakistan gradually unfit for purpose. This is not rocket science: you can’t learn if you don’t understand lessons and you can’t teach if you don’t have speak the language of teaching well enough. The language abilities of both learners and teachers – in the critical academic variety of the language with which we are concerned here – are likely to be too low to sustain achievement in curricular subjects. The crucial issue is that the change in Pakistan is apparently system-wide and is likely thus to affect a large number of relatively poor schools. A small proportion of schools with middle-class intakes will thrive. Most schools however will find it too difficult.

    Throughout the world there are glaring examples of how system-wide (as opposed to selective) education services working in a second language fail to provide children with the education they need and – especially in developing countries – contribute to the failure of national economies to thrive. A large and distinguished body of academic evidence – quite apart from everyone’s daily routine experience of classroom practice – reveals that this is the case, especially for example in sub-Saharan Africa (I speak as someone who works in English-medium education in different African countries). There, limited levels of learner subject knowledge and limited ability to express this knowledge in L2, are common, because learners have learned through European languages which they do not speak well enough.

    With a large amount of money and time one can make L2-medium education work. One crucial factor would be to import into every classroom the levels of learner and teacher English language ability and especially the kind of specialist pedagogy which enables bilingual and L2-medium education to work in the contexts in which it is visibly successful in limited and mainly high-SES contexts elsewhere. The education service in this part of Pakistan might have a chance of making English-medium education work if it spent a large amount of money over a long period of time (say some 10 years) wholly retraining all its subject teacher-educators and all its subject teachers both in English and crucially in this specialist pedagogy, rewriting all its subject materials and adapting its examinations to the needs of second-language medium assessment. If it did that, it would be the first education service in the world to undertake such a major development across the system. No other country with the exception of Singapore has done so. Any country or province intending to do so would have to have the requisite (large) amount of money as well as the key levels of pedagogical and academic expertise. Countries which have attempted to switch medium of instruction with much more money than I suspect is available in this part of Pakistan, but without this huge professional and academic investment have failed – note the case of Malaysia which tried it between 2003 and 2012 with maths and science only, poured money – but not expertise – into the attempt and gave up because of the (predictably) damaging effect on national subject standards.

    It is sad to see yet another education service in a developing country adopting a form of education which is likely to reduce standards rather than raise them.

  4. In Pashtunkhwa where more than 80 % are Pashtun and Pashto speaking the best education is mothertongue education. No forced Urdu or forced English as medium of instruction as it lowers the standard of education. I have seen both in Malaysia and South Africa that education in Malay and Afrikaans medium is of higher standard as the students have no problem with adjusting to second language which is foreign. In South Africa ,English is well understood and spoken yet students matriculating in schools where Afrikaans in medium of instruction fare much better. Pashto is a rich language and an old Aryan language with rich lexicon it has been systematically sidelined by English under the Raj and the succesive Punjabi majority establishment of Pakistan. Pashto is the identity marker of Pashtun and their rich history,while English can be a studied subject the language of instruction in all subjects need to be Pashto. Germany did not become a more advanced country by studying English neither Japan or Italy. Importance of English is exaggerated. Pashto is the binding factor of Pashtun of both Afghanistan and Pakistan and spoken by nearly 70 million people. I suggest Pashto from grade A to Masters level after that research can occur in any language deemed fit for the occassion and research purpose. No to English imperialism as Dr Cavanagh seems to promote. Most Anglo- speaking academics are self interested by promoting English to the exclusion of other equally valid regional languages.Pashto is spoken by 45 million Pashtun in Pashtunkhwa, Tribal areas of Central Pashtunkhwa and southern Pashtunkhwa or what Pakistan calls Baluchistan. Let the English first teach Arabic or Japanese in their schools to their kids before we take them or their academic serious.

  5. no doubt the cognitive ability of the children improve by using native tongue.many of the students in our country with so many hidden abilities remain behind in education due to language barrier.they can acheive their goals and make their names ,if they get education in their native tongue.

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