ISLAMABAD: Warning that language can serve as a “double-edged sword”, the UNESCO said the continued use of Urdu in Pakistani schools has led to political tensions in the multi-ethnic country and recommended that children be taught in a language they understand.
A policy paper issued by the UNESCO coinciding with the ‘Mother Language Day’ on Sunday referred the multi-ethnic societies in Turkey, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Guatemala and recommended ensuring that “children are taught in a language they understand”.
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 per cent of the population, has also contributed to political tensions, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) said in a report released on Friday.
The post-independence government in Pakistan 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 smaller ones, it said.
The failure to recognize Bengali, spoken by the vast majority of the population in the erstwhile East Pakistan, was one of the major sources of conflict within the new country, 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 UNESCO said that being taught in a language other than their own can negatively impact children’s learning. Language can serve as a double-edged 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.
It 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.
Education policies should recognise the importance of mother tongue learning. Teachers need to be trained to teach in two languages and to understand the needs of second- language learners.
In many countries, large number 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.
Textbooks should be provided in a language children understand. Classroom-based assessment tools can help teachers identify, monitor and support learners at risk of low achievement.