The infinite variety of language means that even the choice of mother tongue is not an easy one. Urdu is the mother tongue of only a minority of Pakistani children. In Punjab most families speak Punjabi at home. So why does TCF not teach Punjabi children in Punjabi? Because, says Riaz Kamlani of the charity, “there are a dozen languages in Pakistan, and we don’t have the resources to use them all as a medium.” Urdu is a compromise.
These complexities mean that mothertongue teaching requires careful planning. Ben Piper, who leads a usaid-funded literacy programme in government schools in Kenya, found, to his surprise, that children taught in their mother tongue learnt less maths than those taught in English or Swahili (the mother tongue of only a minority of Kenyans). The problem, he realised, was that teachers are assigned jobs by a central agency, without regard to their mother tongue, so they often do not understand the local language in which they are supposed to teach. In Ghana Elorm Apatey was teaching in an English-medium junior high school in the Volta region. To help his pupils, he also spoke to them in Ewe, his and their mother tongue. But because there are so many dialects of Ewe he had to employ linguistically talented pupils to translate for those who did not understand his Ewe.
The complexity of the linguistic landscape in many countries argues not for abandoning mother-tongue teaching, but for developing layered curriculums that ease children into learning other languages. TCF is doing that for the inhabitants of the Thar desert, in a remote part of Sindh province. Their mother tongue is Dhatki. Sindhi, the provincial language, is quite close to that. Urdu, the lingua franca of Pakistan, is necessary but less familiar. English is hardest of all, but as desirable to the Thari people as to anybody else. So the curriculum will start children off in Dhatki and gradually introduce them to the other languages they will need as citizens of Pakistan, and of the 21st century. English will be a subject, not a medium.
Such linguistically sensitive schooling demands more resources than most governments can afford. Instead, more pupils are likely to be taught in English, despite the drawbacks that entails. Their parents will make sacrifices to buy what they believe to be an advantage for their children. “If our children don’t speak English, they can’t excel in today’s world,” says Rukayat Tanvir, whose husband is a shopkeeper in Lahore, and who sends five children to an English-medium private school. “It gives me pleasure to hear my daughters speaking English even though I can’t understand what they are saying.”