Education, Development, and Change
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Saturday, September 3, 2011

On Linguistic Capital

Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Published in Pakistan Today on 4 September, 2011
One of the most serious challenges faced by educational system in Pakistan is educational apartheid. The spirit of the neo-liberal model has seeped into the educational system of Pakistan in the last three decades and now there are clear faultiness between the schools of the elite and non-elite. It is ironical that education which is considered to be a liberating force has instead further widened the gulf between the rich and the poor. The worst thing that has happened during is the fast decline of public sector educational institutions for which the state can be held responsible. As a result, the public sector schools have turned into deserted places and parents, with sufficient resources, prefer to send their children to private English-medium schools. Apart from other stated reasons it is the ‘Englishness’ of these schools that attracts the parents.

Why is Englishness perceived as an important factor by the parents? Why are Urdu-medium public schools not viewed as quality schools? It is not very difficult to answer these questions. No language itself is essentially inferior or superior; it’s the social status of the speakers of that language that decides the status of the language. English, due to its pragmatic value, has emerged in the recent times as a powerful language that is required for good jobs and higher education. It is interesting to notice that the employers in Pakistan mention two main requirements in the job ads of multinational companies, i.e., communication skills and interpersonal skills. The competence in English language becomes further sellable if the candidates have an ‘accent’.

Basil Bernstein refers to the unequal distribution of linguistic capital. In his seminal paper, Elaborated and restricted codes, he observes that how children of working class are disadvantaged as their language is deficient in relation to the academic tasks, and assignments in schools. The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, considers language as not only an instrument of communication or even of knowledge but also an instrument of power. According to him, a person speaks not only to be understood but also to be believed, obeyed, respected, and distinguished. This status of language is legitimised by the schools as they are the instruments of reproduction in a society.

The private English-medium schools attract parents as they claim to prepare students in an environment where extra emphasis is laid on developing English language speaking skills. The linguistic capital acquired by the children at home plays a vital role in the performance of children in schools. The children with higher socio-economic background are more likely to be exposed to the English language through newspapers, books, movies, home environment and social circles. On the other hand, children coming from lower socio-economic background have less chance to have such facilities and social network.

This linguistic exposure becomes important when these children go to schools. The children with higher socio-economic background land up in expensive private English medium schools where the curriculum, textbooks, quality of teachers, teaching methodology, and examination system further enrich their English language skills. On the other hand, children with low socio-economic background are destined to go to public sector schools. Majority of the teachers in these schools are not very comfortable with English language, especially English speaking skills. The ultimate result is that the children with high socio-economic background who already have greater exposure to English get richer input in school and children from low socio-economic background get lower quality input. Thus the divide between the rich and the poor is further deepened.  The differential in linguistic capital plays a crucial role when these students go to job market. Students with better linguistic capital are more likely to get lucrative jobs in a market where communicating skills is bound to play its role.

The perpetuation of educational inequality is made possible with the social institution of schools and the language factor plays an important part in this process. If we look at the history of educational policies in Pakistan, we do not find a comprehensive language policy. We may, however, find some claims and hastily made decisions. If we are serious in tackling the problem of educational inequality in Pakistan we need to rejuvenate the public sector schools. The agenda of educational improvement cannot be complete unless we come up with a comprehensive language policy with a detailed action plan and clear deliverables.

The writer is Professor & Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan. He may be contacted at

1 comment:

  1. I fully agree to your views and let me have the opportunity and privilege to attest your insight...