A Mother Tongue Literacy Programme among the Baloch of Singo Line, Karachi

24 Feb

Eunice Tan,

Summer Institute of Linguistics


 There is at present no official mother tongue education of Balochi in the main areas where it is spoken. Official attempts at mother tongue education have been carried out in Pakistan[1] and in Afghanistan.[2] In Turkmenistan there is an attempt to establish a Cyrillic script for Balochi, put together primers and start mother tongue education.[3] For the moment there is no official mother tongue education in Balochi, either in Iran or in Pakistan. There have, however, been a number of private initiatives taken in the area of Balochi mother tongue education in Pakistan.[4]

     The dismal living conditions in the Baloch quarters in Karachi, especially the main Balochi residential area, Lyari, are well pictured by Richard Slimbach in his article “Ethnic binds and pedagogies of resistance: Baloch nationalism and educational innovation in Karachi”.[5] The fact that the Baloch children meet a foreign language already on their first day in school, of course, put them at a disadvantage from the very beginning. Slimbach quotes the words of a Baloch college student who is remarking on and criticizing the lack of mother tongue education in Balochi. He says: “Go and visit all the schools in Lyari and give a language test to the children. You will find that they cannot speak good Urdu or good English. It is due to their mother tongue. If you get education in your mother tongue, you can understand everything. If you don’t, you cannot understand anything.”[6]

     The aim of the present article is to describe one of the unofficial mother tongue literacy programmes in Balochi underway in Pakistan.  This programme is at present running in one of the suburbs of Karachi. We first started our literacy work among the Baloch in the community of Singo Line in 1993. A leader of the community there had approached us to help them in their literacy work. There was already a functioning anjuman ‘society’ in the community which also functioned as a tuition centre.

     Singo Line is situated near Lyari, south-west of the Karachi city centre, where the bulk of the Baloch people live. There are about 5 000 people in this community, and about 55 % of them are from a Zikri background, the rest being Sunnis. Many of the men in this community are labourers working at the port or in Hub Chowki, which is an industrial centre at the Sind-Balochistan border. Some of the men operate a small private business, while a large majority of the male working force are unemployed or perform odd jobs. Unlike other Baloch communities there is a rather high percentage of young women in this community performing jobs in the city and nearby areas.

     Many of the children of Singo Line are enrolled in school nowadays, but the drop-out rate remains very high. In the early eighties about half of the students dropped out before reaching the fifth grade in school. Still only about two thirds of the girls who enroll in the first grade move on to the second grade and more than half of these girls drop out after the sixth class. Most of the children are enrolled in Urdu medium public schools, while some of the more well-to-do send their children, especially their sons, to English medium schools nearby. About 40-45 % of the male young adults are literate while most of the older men are illiterate. The rate of literacy amongst the women is much lower, with about 25-30 % of the young adults being literate.

     A couple of the well-educated women from the community worked closely with me in the production of the Balochi primer that we were to use in the literacy programme. After a while we felt that it would be advantageous to test the primer in actual literacy classes, and at that point we decided to start our first literacy class.

Our students

Seven women came to our first literacy class, but one of them dropped out halfway through the course due to mental illness. The oldest member of the class was about fifty years old. She was able to read the Quran, but did not know how to read and write Urdu or Balochi and therefore decided to join the class. The rest were either mothers with small babies or single girls. Three of them had never learnt to read or write, and the other two had only gone to school for a very limited number of years and could by no means be considered even semi-literate when they started this class.

     The women had expressed an interest in learning to read and write in order to be able to support their children better in their education by helping them with homework etc. Some were also motivated by the fact that we had promised to teach them embroidery after they had completed the reading course. Some had expressed an interest in seeking a job to help sustaining the family after completing the course, while others felt that they would be more able to cope with the needs of their families, like reading a doctor’s prescription, other instructions and notices etc. if they were literate. Some just came to be with their friends, as our classes were seen as social occasions as well.

     Classes were held only twice a week, and very often we had to postpone classes due to the social obligations of the participants. However, the result was good, and within eight months they were able to read quite fluently in both Balochi and Urdu. One of the aims of the mother tongue literacy programme was namely to be a bridge to learning to read and write Urdu.

     In the beginning I noticed that the students came to class with their books well hidden away, and when I asked about the reason why they did so, they told me that they were shy to let others know that they were learning to read. They were also afraid that they would not succeed in learning to read and write. However, when one of the women’s husband after six months found out that she had learnt to read in such a short time he thought that his wife was very clever and told her so. Even more impressive was the fact that his wife had learnt to read in two languages, Urdu and Balochi. Many people in the community had gone to school for three or four years and they had not been able to read after that. Many people have told me that it was not until after some six or seven years of schooling that they could understand what they were learning in school. Up to that point they had just memorized seemingly meaningless things that they were asked to learn.

     When we decided to start another class it was the students in our first class who invited their friends to come. Another class was started, also this time comprising of seven women. All except one were single women.

     Altogether four classes for women have been run in this community. A total of twenty five students have started attending a class, and fifteen of them have completed the primer and are able to read and write. Four of the students had to leave the class towards the end of the course because of various reasons. Getting married was one such reason. Six students dropped out of the classes earlier. They soon found out that they were too busy or not motivated enough to continue, and some did not have any companion to follow them to classes (see below).

     In the classes students are taught in Balochi for the first three months, and after that Urdu is also introduced. As the transition gap is very minimal, students generally pick up reading in Urdu without difficulty. Some actually read better in Urdu after a while provided they are able to speak the language. One of the reasons for this may well be the greater availability of books in Urdu than in Balochi. The aim is that at the end of the course students should be able to read independently in both Balochi and Urdu.

Problems and possible solutions

One problem that was encountered was to find a suitable place for the classes. Finally we decided to start the classes in the home of my personal Balochi tutor. Her family was highly respected in the community, and for that reason their home was an acceptable place for women to drop in. However, it is always unacceptable for women to visit someone’s home alone unless they are closely related to the person they visit. This is why some of the students had to persuade a friend to accompany them. Some of those who came as company to others were not very motivated, and when they decided not to carry on, the person for whom they acted as company was also forced to drop out. In fact, many women do not even visit another lane unless they are well chaperoned. One frequently hears women talking about their own lane as safe and respectable, whereas they often look down on other neighbourhoods.

     We sought for a more neutral place for the classes, but have not yet been successful in finding a well secluded public place in a neighbourhood that is acceptable for women to visit. In fact, the best solution may be to hold literacy classes in different neighbourhoods. It seems helpful to group family members together and teach them as one group. One could then hold separate classes for the womenfolk of such extended families. In other classes the children could be taught. There is probably no need to split boys and girls if they all belong to the same extended family. Maybe special campaigns to encourage whole families to learn to read and write Balochi would be a good solution.

     One of the classes which did not work out quite well was a mixed class of both children and women. It turned out that the women felt rather shy when they had to learn together with younger children. On the other hand the first and the second class that were started were very successful. One of the reasons for this was probably the fact that most of the students knew each other already before the class was started. They attended the classes for different reasons, some just in order to get an additional opportunity to meet their friends. Some also expressed that they did not want to be left out when their friends were learning to read. It was also found out that those who were already friends encouraged and helped each other to read and write the exercises they were given as homework.

     One of the biggest problems we encountered in our classes was to be able to hold the classes regularly and on time. Sometimes there were weddings and deaths in the community and we had to cancel our classes due to social obligations. Most of our students were indeed busy women who had many social duties to perform, and during the wedding season it was felt appropriate to cancel all our classes since otherwise too many of the students would be absent. We had to be very flexible with the time for the classes and it proved helpful to consult the students about the best time to hold them. Even so, we actually often had to send a young girl along to remind the students about the classes, since many of them did not know how to read the time, or tended just to forget due to all the other work they had to do.

Language attitudes among the students

Almost all the Baloch I have met in Karachi speak Balochi. They are very proud of their language, and the Balochi language is used both in the homes and in the market place of the Baloch residential areas in Karachi. It is also used in announcements and in sermons in the mosque in predominantly Balochi areas. There have also been several efforts to promote Balochi mother tongue education in Karachi, but many of these endeavours have met with numerous obstacles and have eventually fallen through.

     One general misconception about mother tongue literacy is that the students are taught to speak their own language, something which they point out that they already know. In fact, there was a woman whose father was a Baloch and mother a Bihari, and who did not know Balochi even though she considered herself a Baloch, who approached me and asked about literacy in her “mother tongue”. It was evident that she expected to be taught Balochi in the classes.

     Most people are indeed ignorant as to how literacy can be carried out in Balochi and what the benefits to read in their mother tongue are. Parents are generally convinced that it is necessary for their children to learn Urdu and/or English at school in order to be able to advance in Pakistani society, and that they should not waste their time learning to read and write Balochi, which anyway is of no use to them in their future career. However, most of the Baloch would not give up speaking Balochi at home. Still, the women of the older generation hardly know any Urdu, whereas the younger generation of the Baloch in Karachi, especially educated persons, master Urdu well.

     Many Baloch are rather proud of the existence of books and other reading materials in Balochi, but whether they are able to use them is another matter altogether. According to my observations, they somehow think that writing and reading in Balochi are activities only limited to the “elite or scholastic group”. Most of the young adults I have met hardly know how to read Balochi magazines or books, and do not really feel any need to acquire the skill either. Most of those who have heard about Sayyid H®shim¬ respect his works, but generally most people outside the “Balochi literary circle” have little knowledge about and take little interest in these literary issues.

     When it comes to dialect, it has been observed that persons moving to Karachi from other parts of Balochistan generally retain their native dialect, even if they are married into a family that speaks another dialect than their own. This seems to be a totally acceptable thing to do. However, some dialect groups consider their dialect superior to others. This was especially noticed among persons from the Makran coast, who resisted the primer based on the Karachi dialect, complaining that it was not written in their dialect. When modifications were made and more allowance for the dialect of the Makran coast was given, however, the obstacle was removed, since most students accept this dialect as a prestigious one even if their own dialect deviates more or less from it. It is also interesting to note that the students generally read and pronounce the words in accordance with their own dialect.


Educational material and reading theory

Even though there already existed a number of primers in Balochi[7] it was found necessary to construct a primer for the course. This primer was, as already mentioned, compiled in close cooperation with well educated women from the target community. This was necessary in order to make a primer that would be culturally acceptable and contain reading material that was related to the women’s everyday life.

     It was also felt that the best testing of the preliminary version of the primer would be to actually use it in a literacy class. It then appeared that some changes had to be made, especially when it came to the dialect forms used. Karachi-isms had to be avoided in favour of the more prestigious dialect of the Makran coast (see above). Some stories also had to be simplified or changed to be culturally acceptable.

     As for the orthography used in the primer an attempt was made to make transfer to Urdu as easy as possible. That is why the orthography builds on Urdu conventions, and the hamzas[8], for example, which are quite established in the Balochi orthography nowadays but not found in Urdu, were avoided in our primer. There are, however, also some transfer pages to Balochi orthographical conventions at the end of the primer in order for the learners also to become familiar with the Balochi writing system, including the hamzas. The primer is thus meant to serve a double purpose both of transfer into Urdu and into “semi-standard” Balochi.

     In the same way the spelling of loanwords, mainly from Arabic, which are also found in Urdu, is generally kept in the same way as in Urdu. In fact they are also generally spelled the same way in Balochi too. Thus, the whole Arabic-Urdu alphabet is also used for Balochi even if this means overrepresentation of several consonant phonemes.[9] The basic reason for this is to reduce confusion in spelling for the students when they go to school and learn the Urdu spelling of these words and help the transition to the national language.

     After going through the primer it was felt that the students needed more material to read in order to retain their newly learnt skill of reading Balochi. We have therefore continued by producing a number of easy readers using the same Urdu-based orthography as in the primer. These books are e.g. collections of Aesop fables for children and adults, so as to stir their early interest in reading. We have also produced some books on health and simple reading materials on topics based on the customs, food, games and daily events of the Baloch in order to help promote the Balochi culture and to stimulate the new readers to go on reading.

     About half of the students who have been taught in our classes are linear thinkers. This means that they learn to read new passages readily by putting syllables together, and that they remember alphabets and syllables and learn to read by decoding. This group went on to read in Urdu without difficulty and eventually attempted reading story books and new material.

     The other half of the students are global thinkers. They find it easy to read whole words and whole syllables, but find it difficult to build new words from known syllables. They memorise the text and recognise words in the process. Global thinkers read more by guessing than by putting syllables together. They also ask more questions related to the story and memorise the story in a way that the linear thinkers don’t. It was therefore necessary to talk about the story and tell it over and over again in order to make reading meaningful also to the global thinkers.

     In fact, after learning to read the text, the global thinkers generally read it more fluently than the linear thinkers, as these students sometimes had to pause to put syllables together. The process of reading and telling the story several times also encouraged all the students to think the text through in a critical and constructive way.

     The primer was written in order to cater for the needs of both the linear and the global readers. Meaningful stories help the global students, while charts to show syllables help the linear students. At the end of each lesson, the students are also encouraged to write a short text using the words that they have learnt. Sometimes the teacher tells a story using words and syllables they have learn, and the students record it. Sometimes the students write their own stories. Teachers were encouraged to identify the learning style of the different students in the group and to cater for the needs of the group as well as to help individual students in their learning process. For both groups of learners, our primary objective is to teach the students to read for meaning and gather information through reading. Reading is complete only when comprehension is attained.[10]

Reading and writing in Balochi

Most sixth class student who can read in Urdu could easily read the material we produce in Balochi, perhaps with some hesitation here and there. Some students, though, would insist that they are not able to read Balochi, especially before attempting our material. In my opinion this is due to the prejudice that have about reading Balochi. One of the reasons for this prejudice is that most of the present Balochi books and articles in magazines are simply too difficult for many to read. Writing conventions diverge from those used for Urdu and many words used in the texts are difficult and archaic. Even students who have completed their degrees find books and articles written in Balochi difficult to understand. Thus, student have been discouraged from reading and as a result readership in Balochi is very small compared to the number of educated Baloch.

     Another reason is that the students in schools are not encouraged to attempt reading new material on their own, i.e. to be independent readers. On the other hand, one of the main aims of our classes is to teach the students independent reading and to make them cultivate the habit of reading. In our primer and readers the following guidelines have been followed:

* The vocabulary used in the books should be that which is currently used by the majority of the people, written, as far as possible in the way that a ‘good’ speaker of the language speaks. It has been important to assure that the stories that are used are all written by native speakers of the language.[11]

* The dialect basis of the material should, as much as possible, be that of the persons who are going to read it.

* The books should consist of interesting and relevant stories. We use stories that are predictable and we use a lot of repetition to reinforce learning. The use of appropriate predictable materials will enable students to experience the joy of reading which comes only when one is able to move directly from the text to meaning.[12]

* Much of the material in the books is also aimed to preserve and promote the Balochi culture by recording and explaining important cultural features and events.

* The books produced should be of an increasingly difficult degree, with easy readers for early readers and more difficult books for advanced readers.

Most students who knew how to write in Urdu, when asked to write some words in Balochi managed to write them the way they are normally spelled minus the hamzas currently used in writing Balochi by local Baloch writers (see above). As in many languages there are more readers than writers. However, amongst the Balochi people, the gap is even bigger. Because of the current writing conventions which, I feel, only the ‘scholars’ can handle and even they with some difficulties, many of the Baloch readers are discouraged from writing in their own language.[13] Criticism from these ‘scholars’ which persons attempting to write in Balochi for e.g. the magazines generally face also discourage many from writing. Up to the present very little has been written in Balochi. Writing has to start right from the early reading stage, but as things are at this point, there isn’t much encouragement for anyone attempting to write in Balochi.


I would not want to leave an impression that the literacy programme in Singo Line has been highly successful. As a matter of fact, at this point literacy classes among women have stopped since all the women who are eager and determined to learn to read have already attended our programme. There are thus no more women students at present unless we move to another community. For that we would need a formal invitation from the community leaders. However, an indisputable fact is that we have taught at least twenty women to read and at this point we have started classes for children.

     It is my sincere hope that literacy workers and educationists will rise up to meet the needs of mother tongue education among the Baloch and other ethnic groups in Pakistan and other countries. Much can be done, especially if there is an increased motivation and cooperation with community leaders. More has to be done to encourage literacy among Baloch women, since a literate mother is the best person to ensure that her children become literate as well.

[1] See Farrell’s article in the present volume.

[2] See e.g. Jahani, Standardization and Orthography in the Balochi Language, p. 87.

[3] See especially Axenov’s article in the present volume.

[4] See Jahani, Standardization…, p. 90.

[5] See Slimbach, “Ethnic Binds…” pp. 142-148.

[6] Ibid., pp. 147-148.

[7] See Farrell’s article in the present volume.

[8] For a discussion of the use of hamza and other morphophonemic symbols in Balochi orthography, see e.g. Jahani, Standardization…, pp. 153-155.

[9] For a discussion of the spelling of Arabic loanwords in Balochi, see ibid., pp. 150-153.

[10] Dechant, Understanding and Teaching Reading: An Interactive Model, p. 37.

[11] Johnson, “Three Approaches to Native Authored Primer Stories”, pp. 35-46.

[12] Kent, “Predictable Books for Pre-illiterate Peoples”, p. 45.

[13] See Jahani, Standardization…, p.155, where the same observation made by several educated Baloch is discussed.


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