Why Language is important in Education

By Zubeida Mustafa

I shall begin this paper by listing five myths which have dominated our collective thinking on language in education in Pakistan. This thinking also shapes the narrative on education in many other countries that were decolonised  less than a century ago.

Myth # 1

Language has no bearing on a child’s education, Irrespective of which language is used in the classroom, it is the quality of teaching that determines the quality of education.

Myth # 2

It must be  ensured that every child is fluent in English, Since English is  now the leading international language and without which communication with the outside world is not possible, good education must give a child proficiency in English.

Myth # 3

The education of a child begins when she enters elementary school. No time should be lost and she should start to learn English right away. 

Myth # 4

Some languages are superior to others and therefore education in them is also superior. They are more developed and have the vocabulary and the literature to express diverse ideas, especially the terminology of science and technology. English is in that respect the best. If English poses a problem, we have Urdu which is the national language  and so it also has a standing.

Myth # 5

In a country like Pakistan which is inhabited by a diversity of ethnic groups speaking multiple languages and with a variety of cultures, a measure of uniformity is needed  to  hold people together. What could be more effective than adopting one language  for the education system of the entire country as a unifying force.  

The myths exploded

However scholars, surveys, studies  and empirical observation have  quite conclusively proved that these myths are just that, That is they are not true and are quite misleading.

Myth #1 Exploded

Language has a direct bearing on education. It is not simply the tool of communication as is widely believed. It is linked to a child’s emotional and identity  expression, social interaction, and is instrumental in thought formation. It has been observed that children who are familiar with the language they study in, especially in the early years, learn better and absorb knowledge more easily. Which language are they more familiar with than their mother tongue? It certainly gives them a sense of security and facilitates clear thinking. This in turn helps them in the acquisition of knowledge. Scholars of linguistics and educational psychologists strongly insist that a child’s formal education, at least up to the primary level, should be in her mother tongue. When this doesn’t happen, the child may not learn another language well enough to express her ideas in it. She may also forget her own language.

Myth #2 Exploded

In today’s world, it is not denied that English has a very important role to play in international communications. But that is no reason for us to be in a hurry to thrust this language on all children. We do not even have teachers trained in English. How do we hope to teach good English to the children? Look at China. It has moved ahead in the last 40 years without relying on English, a language most Chinese do not know. They progressed without feeling obsessed about  teaching every child English. Even today they have not adopted English as the medium of instruction. 

Myth #3 Exploded

It is important that we take it easy in introducing English in school. Besides children should learn English or any language additively and not subtractively. By that I mean that the child should learn English without losing her mother tongue skills. If a language learning is additive, the child will add to her repertoire of languages and will enrich her language learning capacity. That is why Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education is considered to be ideal for multilingual societies like ours.  

Myth #4 Exploded

The myth that some languages are superior — English being at the top of the list — and then Urdu in Pakistan, is the most dangerous and damaging of all myths. It has led to the death of many languages considered to be inferior. It also demeans the people speaking the language regarded as  being inferior. It pushes people who cannot speak the superior language — in our case English — to the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder and puts them at a disadvantage. This attitude does not inculcate respect for all languages. People are carried away by this myth to such a great extent that they fail to understand that this is all a game of power politics. The fact is that the language of a country that is powerful and exercises great influence in global politics is considered to be the best one for communication. It was Britain followed by the US that held this position. Hence the overwhelming prevalence of English.  Now China is expected to emerge as the next superpower and unsurprisingly Chinese is acquiring popularity. Wasn’t French the lingua franca at one time?

This myth has been responsible for the impending death of a third of the world’s languages that  have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, About 50 to 90 percent of languages are predicted to disappear by the next century. According to Unesco between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages became extinct.

Myth # 5 Exploded

Unity cannot be promoted by imposing linguistic uniformity in the education system in Pakistan by using the national language or English. Language is an integral part of a person’s personality, identity  and consciousness both individually and collectively. It also connects people with their community and also has cultural dimensions. Linguistic diversity enriches a society and denying language rights to people alienates them and can lead to anger, resentment and divisiveness. We already have the example of Bengali and Urdu in the early years of Pakistan. A futile attempt was made to make “Urdu, and Urdu alone” the national language of Pakistan in 1948 when it was the mother tongue of barely three per cent of the population of Pakistan. Bengali was the mother tongue of nearly 50 per cent. It was the mother tongue of nearly all the people of what was then East Pakistan. This move gave rise to the language movement. In less than 25 years Pakistan had split into two states on linguistic lines.

Two Roles of Language in Education

It should be made clear here that there is great confusion in people’s minds when we speak of language in education. When I speak of the mother tongue being used in the early years of a child’s education, a common reaction I encounter is that I am opposed to teaching English to students in school. Others dub me a nationalist and say I want to promote Urdu because I am an Urdu speaker myself.  But this is not a fact. I am not opposed to English or to Urdu. What I challenge is the practice of not using the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years of schooling, I stand for a child’s right to  be educated in her mother tongue. If I have to be labelled, please call me PRO-CHILD.

A language has two roles in education. First, it is the medium of instruction and is used in the teaching of all subjects such as Math, Science, History and so on. The second role is that of a language being  taught as a subject — mainly as a second language. In fact when children are learning a second language they may learn a number of languages. In days of yore our forefathers also learnt Persian and Arabic followed by English. The language they acquired after birth was either  Urdu or one of the other indigenous languages, that is their mother tongue.

Why did this pattern change?

 As the British domination grew, English displaced the local languages especially for employment in the administration. Macaulay’s Minute (1835) also promoted English when it spoke of creating a class which served as interpreters between the British and the millions they ruled. This class was to be Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, opinions, morals and intellect. This Anglicisation process continued even when the British had departed.

In the post-1947 period it assumed a momentum of its own without the ground being prepared for it. This came at a time when education was expanding. It became a challenge to combine quantity with quality.

Corners were cut and what I call the “so-called English medium schools” were born. They claimed to be teaching in English but were using a mix of English, Urdu and a local language. Thus the teachers spoke in Urdu or an indigenous language  but the textbooks were in English. Since the teachers were not fluent in English they read out the text in English but explained it in Urdu or a local language. They then wrote out the questions and their answers in  English which the children duly memorised. As a result they could neither learn correct English nor correct Urdu nor an indigenous language,

In two studies conducted by SAHE in schools in Sindh and Punjab by taping the classroom studies of Class 8 in 2014, SAHE reported: “The discussions carried out in class also comprised close-ended questions. There was also a high incidence of code switching where the teachers switched to the mother tongue to explain topics or to give instructions because they themselves felt comfortable using that language. The students, too, could not easily converse in English and felt more comfortable reading in English from a textbook.” About  30 per cent of the words used in the classroom were English and those, too, were mostly read out from textbooks.

Why does this Approach Actually Harm Children’s Mental Development

Here we need to look into some bare facts about language acquisition to understand why it is important to teach our children in their mother tongue in the early years of their life. It is  

 the natural biological factor.

This is what I want to elucidate here to show that introducing a language other than the mother tongue in a child’s early education goes against the grain of nature. Anything that defies Nature is bound to hurt. Here I draw heavily from Dr Maria Montessori’s philosophy  which in my opinion has proved to be the most successful approach to elementary education. Montessori, an Italian physician, psychologist  and educator,  based her approach to early childhood education on her medical knowledge and her experience of teaching very young children. She was assigned a school (Casa dei Bambini) in the working class neighbourhood of San Lorenzo in Rome in 1907. Her system transformed her students.

She used her knowledge and observation to devise a system that has received wide recognition as one of the best and effective.  The biggest advantage that Montessori offered was that she documented all her theories and practices. All her books are still available and are used by teachers trained in the Montessori method.

In the following passages I will summarise her ideas on the development of language in a child.

This is a very gradual and slow process comprising sensation, perception and concept formation. In other words a child’s language development which begins at birth is rooted in the sensations she has which later develop into how she perceives her experience. That is why Montessori believed that a child’s language skills are firmly embedded in her sensorial experience — that means what the child sees and touches. As the brain grows and the mind develops  concepts are formed. All these processes are closely related and linked to the child’s experience.

Language development is an integrated process as language serves several purposes — it is a tool of communication, emotional expression, social interaction, identity expression and is instrumental in thought formation.

Every child is born with a language organ that comprises the organs related to her hearing  (ear, auditory nerves and the hearing centre in the brain), the organs to produce sound and speech (larynx, pharynx, throat, tongue, etc) and the centre in the brain (Broca region) where the cognitive skills rest that enables the child to understand speech.

Each of these has to be anatomically and physiologically properly developed to enable language to develop over a period of time.  The development is very slow and gradual. What is important is that it takes place at a time Montessori calls the “sensitive period” for language. According to her this begins in the first few months of life and lasts till the age of six/seven years. At the age of 30 months the child begins to recognise the structure of the language spoken to her and has a vocabulary of about 200 words. By age five she is speaking correctly and with a vocabulary of 450 words and is fluent enough to communicate and even argue her case. Montessori emphasises the need to speak clearly and correctly to the child so that she learns to speak clearly and correctly herself. This is important as the written language is an extension of the spoken language. Simultaneously the child’s cognition has also grown and she can comprehend what she speaks. What is significant is that her concept formation has developed sufficiently to enable her not only to understand what she hears but also to express her own ideas. Her language development helps her cognitive growth, just as the cognitive development promotes her language skills.

Generally these processes are not recognised by our educaionists. They do not realise the simple fact that even after the introduction of elementary education in the public sector in  Pakistan children are joining school around the age of four or five. That is nearing the end of the sensitive period for language.  This is the time to allow the natural processes to consolidate and mature naturally for another few years. In other words let the child continue to  acquire her mother tongue.

Instead the language process is being  interrupted and a new language is introduced. This is upsetting for the child and obviously school is not a fun place in the true sense of the word.  Hywel Coleman, an eminent linguist, even attributes the high drop-out rates in primary schools in Third World countries to a foreign language being imposed on a child at an early age.

That is why many of us suggest that let the child continue to learn in her mother tongue for a few years in school.

Other languages can then be introduced. Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics and director of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh, speaks of what is known as ‘explicit learning’: studying a language in a classroomroom setting  with a teacher explaining the rules. “Young children are very bad at explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control and the attention and memory capabilities,” Sorace says. “Adults are much better at that. So that can be something that improves with age.” And we are using ‘explicit learning’ methods to teach young children English.


It has been an uphill battle for the use of mother tongue in education in Pakistan, even though it has been obvious that the growing prevalence of English is really not working. Partly the five myths I listed at the start of this paper are not understood and the myths persist. Even those sincerely seeking to reform the system fail to look into the language factor. They insist on teachers’ training but fail to understand that teachers cannot learn enough English in a few weeks  to be able to teach children well in that language. They themselves are the products of a system that broke down several decades ago.

If we have failed to shed our obsession with English it is because of social factors. English is considered to be a status symbol and everyone from the upper and privileged class is fluent in it. This class by its very nature seeks exclusivity and elitism. English language provides it this distinction.  

Since English is not so easy to learn and the bar is raised higher and higher, the commoner is kept out of this magic circle.

A demeaning attitude vis-à-vis the non-English languages and their speakers, especially the indigenous languages contributes to a scenario of a small elite who by virtue of their language skills in English keep the masses out of the employment market. This typifies the belief that English medium is good and Urdu medium is bad.  

The impact of this attitude is reflected in the economic sector as well. A  report commissioned by the British Council to assess the benefits of the English language for individuals and societies in five Afro-Asian countries (Euromonitor, 2011) was very revealing. This report found that hiring practices and salary structures in the multinational companies in Pakistan were, to a considerable extent, influenced by the candidates’ knowledge of English. According to its findings, the salary gap between an employee who spoke English and one who could not ranged from 10% to 15%. It also found that 65% of these companies’ salaried employees were English speakers. In a way, this indicates how skewed the employment market is and how English has emerged as a dominant element in the economy of Third World countries −much to the disadvantage of the poor.

At times, inaccurate data may be used to promote a point of view. The Euromonitor report said that   49% of the total population of Pakistan spoke English to intermediate level in 2009. This would give the impression that English did not create hurdles for most people. But this is so obviously an inaccuracy, as according to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2009-10 only 55% of the population was officially said to be literate at that time, of which only a fraction would have been educated up to the intermediate level to speak a foreign language. Such an approach excludes the majority of the labour force from coveted jobs in multinationals that demand proficiency in English as a precondition for recruitment and justifies this by declaring English to be important for company growth. What we have is, in Euromonitor’s words, ‘a direct correlation between English as a language and economic prosperity’.

The ruling class keeps a firm grip on power by using English as the language of government, the language of the courts and the language of legislation. Thus the non-English speakers are kept out of the charmed circle of the power-wielders.

This is the real challenge that  education faces in Pakistan today. It is time we recognised this.

 I would like to end with a quote from Rabindranath Tagore  from his biography:

“We began to learn English after we had made considerable rogress in our education through Bengali. (p. 41)

It was because we were taught in our own language that our minds quickened. Learning should as far as possible follow the process of eating. When the taste begins from the first bite, the stomach is awakened to its function before it is loaded, so that its digestive juices get full play. Nothing like this happens when the Bengali boy is taught in English, however. The first bite bids fair to wrench loose both rows of teeth – like an earthquake in the mouth! And by the time he discovers that the morsel is not of the genus stone, but a digestible bonbon, half his allotted span is over. While one is choking and spluttering over the spelling and grammar, the inside remains starved; and when at length the taste comes through, the appetite has vanished. If the whole mind is not functioning from the beginning its full powers remain undeveloped to the end. While all around was heard the cry for English teaching, my third brother was brave enough to keep us to our Bengali course. To him in heaven my reverential thanks. (p. 53)


UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger

Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Maria Montessori, The Secrets of Childhood

SAHE, Teaching and Learning English in Sindh Schools (http://www.sahe.org.pk/teaching-and-learning-english-in-sindh-schools/) Accessed on 25 January 2019

Pauline Bunce, Robert Phillipson,Vaughan Rapatahana and Ruanni Tupas (Editors), Why English? Confronting the Hydra, Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2016

 Rabindranath Tagore and Uma Das Gupta, My Life in my Words, (2008)

The BBC, 28 October 2018

ePresentation at Lahore Language Conference at LUMS: 24 February 2019

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