Pakistan has struggled with the issue of medium of instruction for decades. This debate stirs up on and off due to various socio-political factors and then settles like dust temporarily. Although demands for Urdu/mother-tongue to be medium of instruction are supported by empirical evidence, English seems to have taken the lead at all times.
In fact, English-medium instruction has remained the Hobson’s choice for the education system of Pakistan due to linguistic diversity of the masses, linguistic issues throughout its history and blessings of the Elite.
Linguistic diversity in Pakistan
The first and foremost reason for English to be the medium of instruction is the linguistic diversity of the masses. Pakistan is a multilingual country with linguistic diversity of 0.802 on the Greenberg index. The calculation is made on the basis of “population of each language as a proportion of the total population [which] suggests that a large number of people do not share their first language”.
Since around 73 languages and dialects are spoken across the country, choosing a specific one becomes extremely challenging. In this critical situation, regional or provincial languages emerge as potential candidates for medium of instruction. However, it is argued against this notion that even regional or provincial languages require standardization because a language has many dialects. Therefore, English emerges as a solution because of affiliation with the international community and standardization.
Fall of Dhaka
Secondly, language riots at various points of history have tilted the balance towards English medium instruction. Soon after the inception of Pakistan in 1947, the Bengali-Urdu clash started because Urdu was declared the national language disregarding the regional languages spoken by a large number of people. Although, in Shariff Commission (1959), Bengali was also suggested to be a medium of instruction from class six to Matriculation, the linguistic bias was one of the factors leading to the Dhaka Fall. Later, the country witnessed language riots in the 1970s and 1990s.
These riots were substantial evidence that preference to any regional language for medium of instruction will result in social unrest. Thus, the issue of medium of instruction remained untouched during those years and English was tacitly approved as a medium of instruction.
Favour from the corridors of power
Lastly but more importantly, English medium instruction has received favour from the corridors of power. This is evident from the fact that arrangements have always been planned, at least theoretically, for Urdu to replace English ‘for official and other purposes’ in a certain period of time. But neither the recommendations of Shariff Commission (1959) nor the statements of the 1973 constitution have been materialized. Since power and prestige are associated with the English language, political and bureaucratic support has helped English retain its position of medium of instruction in elite and defence institutions.
Given these challenges at the very core of the medium of instruction problem, policy makers need to make prudent steps to resolve the issue. On the one hand, doing away with English is impossible due to domestic repercussions and international needs. On the other hand, resolving issues associated to English medium instruction need urgent and long lasting solutions. After all, the education system of Pakistan cannot afford to produce students with zero comprehension skills and excellent cramming abilities.
Wny not Urdu?
To sum up, Pakistani educationists and policy makers have debated over this issue for decades. Unfortunately, the problem is still unresolved. Despite support for Urdu as a medium of instruction from various social, political and educational circles, English medium instruction has been given preference because of linguistic diversity, linguistic problems and elite favour. Problems with English medium instruction need to be resolved very prudently because abandoning English is not the way out.
Kamran Akhtar Siddiqui is a lecturer in English at Sukkur IBA University. He is currently pursuing his MPhil in Education and doing his research on the topic of Challenges for Students in EMI classrooms. The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.