Mother Tongue Education and the Health and Survival of the Balochi Language

24 Feb

Summer Institute of Linguistics, High Wycombe, UK


Of the estimated 6,500 languages in the world today it is reckoned that the majority will cease to exist within fifty years or so. In the history of the world, languages have always come and gone, but in the present time there are some factors which have never existed previously, and which threaten many of the world’s languages in a way they have never been threatened before.

The first is that, with the growing world population and with ever increasing mobility, there are getting to be very few people who have had no contact with speakers of other languages, and the vast majority of people have regular contact with speakers of other languages.

The second is that the spread and use of electronic media and communications is growing exponentially. At times it appears that Balochi, spoken largely by semi-nomadic shepherds or rural farmers and fishermen in the huge open expanses of Balochistan would be unaffected by the developments in urban business and leisure communications. But it is salutary to note that among the Baloch in Lyari within a single generation storytelling has been replaced by radio, then by television, then video, then satellite as a means of family entertainment. This has occurred among a community without extensive economic resources. The development and electrification of population centres in Balochistan, such as Gwadar, Turbat, Panjgur etc. means that this process is rapidly extending throughout the Balochi language area.

It is hard to predict the future, but one scenario would be that this explosion of the mass media, coupled with national language education, would relegate Balochi to being spoken only in the sparsely populated rural areas, and in cities and towns only at home by the older members of the family.

Language domains

Kathryn Woolard observes that studies of minority languages have shown that bilingual speakers where topic/domain determines which language they talk in, the minority language is showing signs of weakness and decline, but where the language to speak in on a particular occasion is chosen according to the participants in the exchange to minority language is not showing sings of shift to the other languages.

So, for example, if a Baloch feels compelled to write letters in Urdu to other Baloch, this is a sign of retrenchment of Balochi. But if a Baloch writes letters in Urdu to non-Baloch, but in Balochi to Baloch, this type of bilingual performance is not a sign of language weakening. Contact and second language use per se are not a threat to a minority language.

This presents a challenge to the Baloch community, since trade, television, newspapers, and education will increasingly be a factor in the lives of more and more Baloch, bringing ever more domains in which they function in languages other than Balochi. The way to meet this challenge is clearly to extend the use of Balochi to as many of these domains as possible, and perhaps the single most powerful instrument in achieving this in mother tongue education, since mother tongue education would be a means of extending Balochi usage of many academic domains. Even if mother tongue education did not extend through the entire school curriculum, the effect of literacy and use of the mother tongue in formal situations would be to greatly increase its domains of use.

Mother tongue education has traditionally been seen as the great hope for reversing language shift, so much that Joshua Fishman has warned against seeing it as a way of reviving a language unless active home use of the language is not also established. So, for example, in Ireland Gaelic is taught at school and used in many government contexts, but it is still not widely used in the home or community. Fishman thus points out that mother tongue education cannot be expected to revive the language on its own. But Balochi is widely spoken in the home and community. What is needed for Balochi is not so much increased use in the home, but increased use outside of the home, especially in formal situations. Thus it is hoped that with mother tongue education and literacy Baloch will increasingly write letters, post signs, notices and bulletins, read newspapers and magazines in Balochi, as well as doing business and government administration

Mother Tongue Education

For many years it has been recognised that the mother tongue is the best language for education, especially for the early years. The UNESCO monograph The Use of Vernacular Language in Education says: “On educational grounds we recommend that the use of the mother tongue be extended to as late a stage in education as possible. In particular, pupils should begin their schooling through the medium of the mother tongue.”

Going to school for the first time can be quite a difficult experience for young children, being away from the informal atmosphere of home, and suddenly being in the very structured and disciplined environment of school, being required to perform taxing exercises to order. Learning to read and write, and to cope with the concepts in maths and subjects with their own terminology and paradigms is daunting task. If all of this rakes place in an unfamiliar language it can be a very confusing experience, and if you add the fact that children are often beaten for not saying or doing the requires thing, then it becomes an experience that many children do not wish to continue with.

Thus the UNESCO report says: “We consider that the shock which the young child undergoes in passing from his house to his school life is so great the everything possible should be done to soften it, particularly where modern methods of infant teaching have not yet penetrated to the school.” The upshot of this in the large Baloch community in Lyari, Karachi is that the drop-out rate for the early years of schooling is possibly as high as 50% (not forgetting the fact that not all children even begin schooling), and other children drop out in later years.

In Lyari we find that, because of the limited number of places at school, reception children are required to sit a test in Urdu and maths before being admitted. In practice this means that they are often enrolled in private school or tuition for a year or two before applying for entrance to the state schools. So they often start their schooling a year or two later than other children, which can be a demoralising experience.

Another thing that suffers because of non-mother tongue education is the quality of education. Visiting a rural school near Gwardar, I remember hearing a child read fairly fluently from his Urdu text book, but when he was asked to tell the meaning of what he had read he had no idea. This state of affairs continues with students for many year. Even intelligent and studious pupils may find that they are not really grasping the content of their lessons until way up in secondary school. Where Baloch students are competing for jobs and places in higher education with students whose mother tongue is the language of business and education, they are clearly at a disadvantage. During the bitter inter-ethnic violence in Karachi over recent years the notion of all places and jobs being allocated according to merit rather than quota was often adduced. In itself the notion of merit is a good one, but to have Baloch and other ethnic minorities, struggling with education in a language not their own, competing with those who have done all their education in their mother tongue is not really according to merit either but according to ethno-linguistic bias.

This lack of education in the mother tongue is one of the reasons why education is seen by so many as a matter of rote learning, exams, and merely a means to a better job. The idea that the student should understand and think about the subjects studied is often lacking, as is the idea that learning in an enjoyable life skill that one can continue with for its own sake even after finishing formal education. One of the interesting aspects of the establishment of Balochi language academies and literary publications is that a number of Baloch have developed an interest in learning, reading and writing in the Balochi language without it having been part of a formal education programme. They are interested in the subject for its own sake.

There have been a number of non-government publications designed to promote literacy and children’s education in Balochi. Apart from these a number of academies have published children’s books and easy reading material aimed at new readers. The Balochi Academy in Quetta has published a large number of books for children. Some have also been published by the Kalakot Coaching Centre, the Azat Jamaldini Academy and the Balochi Labzanki Diwan among others.

Of these, as far as I am aware, La’l Bakhsh Rind’s books were used in a formal literacy programme for a while, and the Azat Jamaldini Academy books are at present being used in a literacy programme. Apart from those, the Shal Association’s Buni kitab was used in a small number of schools in Balochistan and Sweden.

At present state education for the Baloch is in Persian in Iran, Urdu in Pakistani Balochistan and central Karachi, largely Sindhi in Sind, and Arabic in the Gulf. The borrowing of lexicon and structural features from these different languages presents a problem of increasing divergence, and thus weakening, for the Balochi language. To these languages which are used in education and official domains can be added Brahui, Pashto and Saraiki, which although not used in education, form part of the picture of areal influence on the language.

In 1991 a state programme for mother tongue education in Pakistani Balochistan was established. Teaching was to be available in Balochi, Brahui and Pashto, as well as Urdu. The programme was to begin in year one and work up the school with the children. For the Balochi programme a committee met to determine the content, style and orthography of the text books. Because it was seen as desirable to have a single course and set of text books for the entire Balochi area, an attempt was made to harmonise both Eastern and Western dialect vocabulary and orthography. This included the creation of five new combined characters to combine phonological usages in both dialect groupings.

One of the possible causes for the failure of the Balochi mother tongue education programme in Pakistani Balochistan is a political one. Without wishing to get involved in the arcane and complex issues of politics, the situation was that in Balochistan province the large influx of Afghan refugees was, and is, threatening to significantly alter the demography of the province. Many of the refugees have settled in Pakistan and have not found it difficult to gain Pakistani identity papers. Most are ethnically Pashtun, and blend in with the already sizeable Pashtun population in the province. The Baloch and Brahui population combined is larger than that of the Pashtuns. The Baloch and Brahui are ethnically one people, but linguistically quite distinct. Thus, while Urdu is the means of instruction in school in Balochistan, their ethnic unity is not questioned, but when there are separate Balochi and Brahui schools established the distinctiveness of the two language groups is more in focus. If the Baloch and Brahuis were seen as two peoples, rather than one, then it was feared that the Pashtuns might claim to be the single largest people in the province. With demography being one of the most powerful forces in politics, it was felt by some that it would be better to carry on with Urdu education in the province so as not to raise the linguistic profile of the Baloch/Brahui people.

Reference: Tim Farrell,“Mother tongue education and the health and survival of the Balochi Language”, in Jahani, C, ed., Language in Society – Eight Sociolinguistic Essays on Balochi


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