Islamabad: Urdu being the dominant language in the multi-ethnic Pakistani society through the school system is a choice of necessity but has frequently been a source of grievances linked to wider issues of social and cultural inequality, Unesco said on Sunday.
A policy paper issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to coincide with the ‘Mother Language Day’ in Pakistan referred to the multi-ethnic societies in Turkey, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as Guatemala and recommended ensuring that “children are taught in a language they understand”, Dawn online reported.
In Pakistan, the continued use of Urdu as the language of instruction in government schools, even though it is spoken at home by less than eight percent population, has also contributed to political tensions, it said.
The paper said the post-independence government in the country adopted Urdu as the national language and the language of instruction in schools. This became a source of alienation in a country that was home to six major linguistic groups and 58 minor ones.
The failure to recognise Bengali, spoken by vast majority of population in the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), was one of the major sources of conflict in post-independence Pakistan, leading to student riots in 1952.
The riots gave birth to the Bengali Language Movement, a precursor to the movement for the secession of East Pakistan and formation of Bangladesh.
The policy paper argued that being taught in a language other than their own can negatively impact children’s learning, it said.
Language can serve as a double sword, “while it strengthens an ethnic group’s social ties and sense of belonging, it can also become a basis for their marginalisation.”
“Education policy must ensure that all learners, including minorities’ language speakers, access school in a language they know,” Director of Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring Report, Aaron Benavot, said.
The paper said that at least six years of instruction in the mother tongue was needed so that gains from teaching in the early years were sustained.
In many countries, large numbers of children are taught and take tests in languages that they do not speak at home, hindering the early acquisition of critically important reading and writing skills.
Their parents may lack literacy skills or familiarity with official languages used in school, which can then reinforce gaps in learning opportunities between minority and majority language groups.
The Unesco recommended that curricula need to address issues of inclusion to enhance the chances of students from marginalised backgrounds to learn effectively.