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Teaching English in Pakistan

Tariq Rahman wrote an insightful piece in the Express Tribune on Monday about the current dilemmas surrounding the language of instruction in Pakistan’s schools. Here’s an excerpt:

My concern was injustice, inequality and the continuation of privilege for the elite. More precisely, I was appalled by educational practices from the dim past in the subcontinent. The Brahmin elite functioned in Sanskrit while the common people spoke Prakrits and were left to wallow in their ignorance. Then Muslim rule established Persian as the language of the elite while common people were excluded from it. Finally came the British who displaced Persian by English but did educate some of the have-nots in the vernacular languages, which happened to be Urdu in UP and the Punjab areas. It was this policy which India and Pakistan inherited and, precisely because it put the have-nots to disadvantage, I was against it.

Rahman goes on to explain that Urdu also was supplanted by English as the language of the elite. Pakistan’s leaders, including Benazir Bhutto, spoke English as a first language. This highlights the complicated relationship that Pakistan’s elite has had with the English-speaking world, including its former colonial masters. It’s a relationship that encompasses  both attraction and revulsion. Yet it also illustrates a more basic problem in Pakistani society: Basic education for the masses is weak regardless of the primary language used. Pakistan’s poor education system is one of its most critical failures, exacting immense economic and social costs.

In addition, globalization has helped create a two-tier society. In one tier, a privileged minority has access to the linguistic skills that facilitate success and engagement in the global economy and society; the vast majority of Pakistanis in the other tier are effectively shut out of this world. This has created serious social tension within Pakistan.

While we imagine Pakistan would have serious problems with an army of Peace Corps volunteers coming to teach in Pakistani schools, improving access to effective English language instruction is an important goal for US foreign assistance and development aid. And this is true not just for Pakistan but for many other developing countries as well.

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  • Anthony

    Institutional arrangements (inclusive/exclusive) and historical legacies matter WRM – why nations fail. And above Quick Take gives life to its current relevance.

    • Andrew Allison

      Ah, ha! So that’s why California teaches its Hispanic students in Spanish! Not speaking the language of the economically advantaged is an almost insurmountable barrier to upward mobility. But even in countries with a common language, societal stratification appears inevitable.

  • Vadim Pashkov

    Take up the White Man’s burden –

    The savage wars of peace –

    Fill full the mouth of famine

    And bid the sickness cease;

    And when your goal is nearest

    The end for others sought,

    Watch Sloth and heathen Folly

    Bring all your hopes to nought.

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