Posts Tagged ‘English’

Language and Society

May 21, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order.

Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again — almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu — kaarner for corner and shaap for shop. Once attuned to the pattern, you will see Bismillah Burger Point, Iqbal’s Beauty and Hair Salon, Butt Tailoring Services, Well Dress Garments, The Knowledge School System for Boys and Girls, etc., etc. Exceptions would be rare.

Shop Sign

The underlying phenomenon is the same in the small city except that names would now be written in both scripts reflecting the presence of a sizeable population familiar with English. Once you get to the posh areas of the metropolis, however, the Urdu script disappears altogether mirroring the clientele that communicates almost entirely in English. It is like being in California surrounded by Coffee Planet, Gloria Jeans and the like. Even Bundu Khan announces itself in English. The only unusual aspect in such environs, especially if you look at the billboards, is a coy use of Urdu written in the English script — slogans like ‘jeet ke jeeo,’ etc.

So, what’s going on? It needs an expert like Dr. Tariq Rahman to fully interpret the phenomenon but to a layperson like me it seems that the vast majority associates English so obviously with superior quality that even a lowly khoka senses the advantage of labelling itself a ‘kold kaarner.’ This is even more the case for services like education or training of any kind — varieties of ‘shaart’ courses are advertised all over in the Urdu script. Only the thin sliver of the population that has arrived because of its facility with English can afford the reverse snobbery of using Urdu words in its messaging.

This inference is strengthened by the observation that such linguistic practices are confined to goods and services for sale. Civic and moral injunctions continue to be written in Urdu as spoken in the language rather than rendered into more impressive English versions. There is no attempt to raise the acceptability of messages like ‘yahan peshaab karna sakht manaa hai’ or ‘namaaz qaim karo.’

(It is quite possible that the phenomenon I have highlighted is peculiar to the rural towns and small cities of Punjab and may differ in comparable localities in other provinces. I have asked a colleague to extend the scope of the observations and produce what could be a very interesting photo essay. Meanwhile, I request readers to email me any amusing signs they come across in their travels.)

Once alerted to these linguistic anomalies, you will begin to notice other things as well. When I say ‘shukria’ or ‘meherbani’ after getting the receipt at a toll booth the reply received more often than not is ‘welcome.’ I have often wondered how the power inequality in Pakistan stemming from differential access to English can be overcome. Many educational policies are framed on the premise that the mastery of the many can be raised to the level of the privileged few by making English the universal medium of instruction right from the very beginning. Alas, this is impossible given the quality of English language teaching in public and most private schools for the majority. (Pedagogical Alert: The policy is also ruinous for the cognitive development of young children — ask any expert in early childhood education.)

The realization of this impossibility may well be the reason for the radical choice of software used to provide road directions and to manage queues in offices. Both the language and the accent is American English in an environment where the majority of users are unfamiliar with either. I have become used to Multen, Mo-zang and Kasher (Kasur) roads but was completely floored recently by the instruction to turn left on Gallamandi road. For a moment I fantasized being in Italy till the illusion was shattered by a sign in Urdu pointing to Ghalla Mandi.

Our linguistic confusions are compounded by the fact that Urdu, unlike say Hindi, is very carefree with its pronunciation and use of diacritical signs. At a toll plaza in a Daewoo bus, one is always inundated with phone calls from passengers informing families that they have arrived at the ‘tool’ plaza. In this vein, many English signs written in Urdu can be a source of great amusement. I always have a silent laugh at a ‘Police Check Post’ thinking of their cheeks, silent because laughing at the police and the like is most likely a punishable offence in Pakistan.

A striking occurrence of this nature was witnessed at the time of the last elections when, looking up, I spotted an electoral symbol in Urdu written simply as BLA (Bay-Laam-Alif). For a while, one couldn’t figure out if it was really bla (as in the Shah of Blah) or balaa or bilaa or bulaa or balla or billa or bulla. Reverting as one does to one’s own language in dire circumstances, I could only worry about the cost of such sloppiness and mutter, again under my breath, jal tu jalaal tu, aaii balaa ko taal tu.

Many things are changing in Pakistan as is to be expected. Is it possible that linguistic changes of the type highlighted above are signalling a certain direction for the evolution of our society or are they just harmless epiphenomena that can be enjoyed without wasting a worry?    

This opinion was published in Dawn on May 19, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Language, Learning and Logic

July 11, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning.

The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity.

So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full:

There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one has to choose from an early age which language one’s children should excel in — in a local language which does not have any worth in the job market or the one that can serve as a vehicle for the development of their careers.

This belief does not reflect just the opinion of the author. It effectively represents Pakistan’s language policy and the understanding of parents making it necessary to show why it is misleading. A minor problem is that it undermines the author’s objective. Only living languages are sustained attempts to preserve languages as museum pieces inevitably fail. Languages shunned as worthless for employment are doomed to slow death.

The major problem is the argument’s negation of evidence on linguistics and learning. First, the critical early-age decision is not choosing the language a child should excel in with a career in mind. It is choosing the language of instruction that maximizes the child’s ability to learn effectively. There is ample evidence to suggest that children learn best in their first language they pick up subjects like arithmetic better if taught in a familiar  language.

Second, it is false that children can only learn one language well because it becomes harder to learn a language with age. In fact, evidence suggests that children who begin learning in a familiar language are better at acquiring a second unfamiliar language later compared to those who start directly with the unfamiliar language. After much research the European Union has adopted the ‘mother-tongue plus two’ formula whereby children begin school in their mother-tongue and acquire two more languages before completing high school.  

Third, the belief that excelling in a language requires learning it from day one is incorrect and results from misunderstanding the learning process. Children acquire their first language effortlessly because they are immersed in it and have to survive by communicating their needs in it. This need-driven acquisition is not transferrable to alien languages. For example, in a Seraiki neighborhood if Chinese is made the medium of instruction children will not acquire it as fluently as Seraiki. Rather, they will retard their cognitive abilities struggling with an unfamiliar learning vehicle.

Fourth, adults learn foreign languages quite easily. They may lack the accents of native speakers but can be highly proficient otherwise. Observe the number of non-native scholars of Urdu in Western universities doing world-class work Annemarie Schimmel did not learn four oriental languages as a child. Adult Pakistani students in France and Germany do so likewise.    

Fifth, career decisions are not made in kindergarten. They are based on aptitude which matures later and is itself an outcome of a good education. Dr. Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education nor did they start it in English. Had they done so they might have ended as babus in a British office.

The importance of language in early education has long been recognized. Macaulay introduced English as the medium of instruction for the Indian elite in 1835 triggering a wider demand because of its association with employment. However, a review of the policy in 1904 by the British themselves came to the following conclusion:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction… This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

Over a 100 years later, a British Council study in Pakistan noted “various adverse outcomes arising from negative attitudes towards indigenous languages and for using Urdu and English as languages of instruction. These included high dropout rates, poor educational achievements, ethnic marginalization and, longer term, a risk of language death.” The study concluded that “there was an urgent need for awareness-raising about the importance of the mother tongue in the early years of education.”

Parents most in need of this message, with children shortchanged by early education in poor English, do not read such studies. It is for educationists to both raise awareness and convince the authorities to respect available evidence. Note that the Chinese have made remarkable progress without using English as the medium for early education while we who have done so are left far behind. All Chinese who need to learn English to advance their careers manage to do so.

The simple message to convey is that to acquire English it is not necessary to have it as the language of instruction in early education and doing so is bad for learning. It is understandable if parents confuse the issue; for decision-makers to do so just proves that knowing English does not necessarily correlate with intelligence.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on July 10, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Language and its Functions

March 14, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country.

This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world.

Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province in Pakistan, is also the least developed?

A great deal of similar confusion on language stems from not realizing that it has very distinct functions in society. Take only three that are extremely important in Pakistan today – language as a glue to cement nationhood, as a necessity for participatory development, and as a medium of instruction in education.

Consider nationhood. While it is true that no nation can become stronger just by having a ‘correct’ official language, it does not follow that nationhood cannot be weakened by having an ‘incorrect’ one. For proof, recall the contribution of imposing an ‘incorrect’ language on East Pakistan which not only weakened the nation but split it asunder.

The choice of language to build nationhood needed a lot more thought and discussion in 1947 than it was given. The situation was particularly complex but, as the example of India shows, more intelligent alternatives were available. In any case, this remains an issue best addressed through the democratic process. Citizens can decide whether they agree on a common official language for present-day Pakistan. If not, some other formula needs to be found.

Regarding development, it is hard to imagine socially meaningful progress occurring in a country without an inclusive dialogue. How can there be a shared vision if the state continues to conduct its business in a language that so few understand? Take, for example, the campaign for the Millennium Development Goals that consumed enormous sums in five-star talk-a-thons. How can citizens participate when there is not even a semi-comprehensible translation of the title in any local language? When officials speak in important forums do we want citizens to follow what they are saying? It is this concern that motivated the Supreme Court to mandate Urdu for official purposes. Whether it should be Urdu or Urdu and other regional languages is again a choice that needs analysis and democratic resolution.

As an educationist, I believe a critical function of language is as the medium of instruction which bears on the cognitive ability of successive generations and thereby on the future of the country. The fact that this is yet to be addressed seriously in Pakistan borders on criminality as it has impaired the ability of millions whose parents set aside scarce resources hoping to educate their children.

Here the evidence is overwhelming – early learning, which provides the foundation on which later learning is acquired, takes place best in the language spoken in the home. This does not imply a binary choice between one language and another that has become the staple of partisan polemic in Pakistan. The emphasis is on early education which is followed by appropriate changes in the medium of instruction over the years depending on the needs of students.

There is lot to go on for those seeking a rational approach to the issue. Many multi-national countries have evolved bilingual and trilingual sequences for sound school education. In such countries people still manage to acquire good English despite early education in a different language. This should discredit the rhetoric that education in any language other than English would close the door to the modern world. Had this been even remotely true, South Asian countries would have advanced much faster than East Asian ones.

It is important to realize that education in Pakistan, like in many developing countries, is a highly contentious ideological and political issue. Its problems, largely of content and pedagogy, are not amenable to technocratic remedies but confusion on the importance of the medium of instruction does little to help.

We need vigorous, open, inclusive, and participatory discussion on the issue of language followed by democratic decision-making. It would help towards this end to separate the various functions of language and be open to the possibility that each might call for a different formula and compromise.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 13, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Which Language Should We Choose?

March 12, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points.

Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart.

Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be improved by flipping from English to Urdu or vice versa. Change can happen only when education is seen as a means for opening minds rather than an instrument of ideological control.” No one will dispute the claim that opening minds is critical but that has more to do with the content of education and pedagogy than language. Even so, the question of which language would be more effective in opening minds in Pakistan, provided the intent is there, does not become irrelevant.

In this connection, the author himself states that “Using different mixes of bilingualism and even trilingualism… has enabled some [former colonies] to develop a better education for their young. Pakistan has not.” Clearly, if Pakistan were to emulate these countries, it would have to decide what mix of languages it would need.

Some of these contradictions have arisen because the author has not addressed separately the three quite different functions of language – as a means to cement nationhood, as a mode of communication between the rulers and the ruled, and as a medium of instruction in education.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is quite right that “nation-building needs more than a common language” but at the same time one cannot dismiss the functional need for an acceptable common language in a nation. It was indeed impossible to find one in 1947 but today, as the author points out, Urdu is Pakistan’s lingua franca. This remains an issue best addressed through the democratic process – citizens can decide whether Urdu can serve as the common language of Pakistan. If not, some other formula would need to be found.

Regarding communication, it is hard to imagine that real development can occur without being inclusive. How would we progress to a shared dialogue and vision for the country if the state continues to conduct its business in a language that “fewer and fewer people speak and understand”? It is this concern that motivated the Supreme Court to mandate Urdu for “official and other purposes.” The fact that “English stayed” is to be taken seriously as a failure to include citizens as full partners in the business of the country.

The most critical aspect of language is its function as the medium of instruction because it bears on the cognitive ability of new generations and thereby on the future of the country. The fact that it is yet to be addressed in Pakistan does not lessen its importance. Here, the author himself states that “Early learning happens fastest in the mother tongue, and only the tiniest fraction of Pakistanis speaks English at home.” How then can one be indifferent to the importance of having a ‘correct’ language policy for purposes of education?

It is a bit odd when the author goes on the state: “So go ahead and change the language to the ‘right’ one. You might get a 10 pc improvement at most.” The author does not clarify what the improvement would be in but whatever it may be, in a country of close to 200 million people a 10 pc improvement is not something that can be discounted so readily.

I am fully aware that Pervez Hoodbhoy, like many others, is frustrated by what is being taught in schools and the manner in which it is being taught. This is a contentious political and ideological struggle which does not make the choice of language irrelevant. In fact, even if nothing else changes, the use of languages more easily understood by those being educated would be a step in the positive direction.

In this context, one can subvert the author’s claim that “A parrot singing in Urdu or Sindhi understands no more than one who sings in English.” True enough, but for listeners it would be much easier to distinguish sense from nonsense if the parrot were singing in Urdu or Sindhi rather than in English.

This opinion appeared in The News on March 11, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Farsi: A Whole Lot of Learning

December 5, 2015

I deserve to be congratulated because I have now passed Farsi Level 1 (Beginner) and graduated to Level 2 (Intermediate). Although nowhere near the accomplishment of Jhumpa Lahiri whose next book will be coming out in Italian (see Teach Yourself Italian for an inspiring story), I am greatly encouraged by the progress I have made.

Some readers might recall my struggles with Farsi narrated here some time back (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond). Very briefly, as an Urdu speaker, I had assumed I would pick up Farsi quickly given the common script and overlapping vocabulary. That did not turn out to be the case leaving me exceedingly frustrated after almost a year of struggle.

I finally discovered the right mix of teaching methods and tools – interacting with an instructor in a small class and learning the grammar by reading and writing short texts. That, however, was the straightforward aspect of this exercise in learning. As always, what I discovered along the way about myself and my world was much the more surprising part of the journey.

I finally figured out why I had been having so much difficulty with Farsi and it was a deeply disconcerting experience. Before I elaborate on that there is need to negotiate a few basics. The structure of the Persian sentence is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) unlike that of English which is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). For example, in English we would say ‘The boy eats an apple.’ The same sentence in Farsi would be ‘The boy an apple eats’ (pisar seeb mi khorad), where mi khorad is the third person singular conjugation of the verb khordan – to eat – in the present tense. Quite apart from the conjugation of the verbs, tenses, active and passive forms, subjunctives, positive and negative conditionals, it is this structural difference in which the verb is always at the end of the sentence that offers the primary cognitive challenge for an English speaker learning the Farsi language.

I was stumbling over this in spades. When asked to submit a short essay, I would write it out first in English and then translate it into Farsi. In fixing the sentence structure I would forget, for example, whether to apply the rules for the present continuous or the present perfect tense.

My fellow students, whose first language was English, were having the same difficulties which was reassuring till it struck me that English was not my first language. My first language was Urdu which shares the SOV sentence structure with Farsi. In theory, I should not have been having the difficulty I had been experiencing. Had I been writing my essay in Urdu instead of in English, I would have greatly simplified the translation into Farsi.

This for me was not an ordinary discovery. What it was telling me was that although I believed my first language to be Urdu, in which I can speak, read, and write fluently, my mind was actually hardwired in English. Thoughts and ideas occur to me in English and are then translated into another language, including Urdu – to all intents and purposes, my first language is English.

In hindsight, I can understand this phenomenon because I not only began learning English in grade one, I learned everything else in English as well at the schools I attended in Pakistan. And although, unlike many of my contemporaries, I did not lose proficiency in Urdu because of my mother’s deep attachment to the language and her tutoring at home, the language that provided the default mode of thinking was English.

I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have come out of this experience with a reasonable grasp of both English and Urdu. While my mother was a student of Urdu literature, my father had a MA in English Literature from Government College, Lahore. Our house was full of books in English and Urdu. While my father made me write a page of English every day from a very early age, my mother read Urdu poetry to me. I went to school in an era when teaching was still taken seriously and was fortunate to come under the tutelage of some outstanding teachers, of whom Brother Keely was in a class of his own in the subjects of English literature and composition.

The absence of any of these accidental advantages would have meant a much poorer grasp of either language, a fate I come across all the time in the students I meet and increasingly so as one moves past the 1970s when school education in Pakistan suffered a very serious deterioration in quality. Imagine a scenario in which the majority of the population is not proficient in any of the languages that are used for official purposes. Ask a mid-level bureaucrat to write a paragraph in either language and ninety-nine times out of hundred one would draw a blank. The reading or writing of literary texts is outside the experience of all but a very tiny minority.

One might be tempted to think that such was always the case in South Asia. The best way to disabuse oneself of this comforting delusion would be to read a few chapters of Rajeev Kinra’s new book (Writing Self, Writing Empire – available free as an e-book) which describes the minimal set of skills required of employees of the Mughal administration with the great emphasis on literary sensibility.

Here is a section of the text discussing a letter from Chandar Bhan, a munshi in the Mughal administration, to his son Tej Bhan:

It becomes quickly evident upon any perusal of Chandar Bhan’s works that in his view merely being literate in the Persian language and mastering a certain set of scribal techniques might get you a job but was not nearly enough to vault one into the ranks of the elite munshīs of the Indo-Persian secretarial world. Perhaps the most explicit formulation of this view on Chandar Bhan’s part comes to us from a letter that he wrote to his son Tej Bhan, which is included in both of his major prose works, Chahār Chaman and Munsha’āt-i Brahman. In it, Chandar Bhan makes clear to Tej Bhan that to be a successful munshī one had to have what we would nowadays call a well-rounded liberal arts education and that to truly excel one had to have, among other kinds of training, the early modern equivalent of graduate degrees in disciplines as various as history, literature, philosophy, and political science. He advises Tej Bhan, for instance, to begin his studies of prose composition by emulating the collected letters (ruq‘āt) of ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami (1414–92), the celebrated poet of Timurid Herat, and by studying Sa‘di’s Gulistān and Būstān, two cornerstones of Persianate literary culture that have been used to teach the art of prose and inculcate moral wisdom in young and old alike for centuries. The well-educated Mughal gentleman should also have a strong background, Chandar Bhan felt, in the canonical treatises on statecraft, civility, and ethics (akhlāq), such as Akhlāq-i Nāṣirī, Akhlāq-i Jalālī, and Akhlāq-i Muḥsinī, as well as histories of earlier eras (tawārīkh-i salaf) such as  abīb al-Siyar, Rauẓat al-Ṣafā’, Rauẓat al-Salāt̤īn, Tārīkh-i Guzīda,Tārīkh-i T̤abarī, and   afar Nāma, all of which he specifically names (CC, 176).

In the same letter, Chandar Bhan also shows his stripes as a professional poet, a vocation that, as we saw in the previous chapter, he saw not just as an entertaining diversion but as a craft that was inextricably tied to his success as a state secretary. To be a great poet, though, one first had to master the canon of literary greats. Thus he provides Tej Bhan with a lengthy syllabus of scores of “some of the great masters [ustādān] whose collections of ghazals and mas̤ nawīs this supplicant [i.e., Chandar Bhan himself] studied as a youth”—both ancients and moderns, some of them well known, and some barely traceable today—whose works Tej Bhan ought to study and emulate until, in time, “his own talent has been honed and he has a grasp of the art of expression” (CC, 176–77).

It is much too late for any of us to aspire to this level of accomplishment but it does give an idea of what to keep in mind if we aim for a reform of our education and hope for an improvement in the quality of decision-making and governance.

As for myself, ever since this discovery, I have now consciously started to write in Urdu before translating into Farsi. My hope is that over time I will first teach myself to think in Urdu and then, hopefully, in Farsi itself. If you read the narrative by Jhumpa Lahiri, you will note that she has taught herself to think in Italian. It is an experience she likens to a metamorphosis, one that transforms a person.

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Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis

October 24, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Our experience with the politics of language has been so traumatic – first with the Urdu-Hindi divide contributing to the partition of India and then with the Urdu-Bengali divide contributing to the partition of Pakistan – that we need to step with the utmost caution in the new quagmire created by the recent Supreme Court decision to replace English with Urdu as the official language of the country.

That said, the decision has to be examined on its own merits without our judgement being prejudiced by the experiences of the past however traumatic they may have been or any politicking aimed at local and parochial gains. To state my conclusion at the outset, I find most of the objections to the decision misplaced and analytically unwarranted but I would like to begin by outlining the primary functions of a language in order to support my contentions.

In the context of this discussion, language can be considered to have two primary functions. First, as a tool to facilitate learning across generations and, second, as a means of communication between people in any given period of time.

The evidence as regards the first function is so overwhelming that those who disregard it can justly be classified as ignorant, the only ambiguity pertaining to whether the ignorance is real or contrived for some unstated purpose. It has been repeatedly proven that the mother tongue is the most effective vehicle for instruction during the early years of education.

While the evidence has become scientifically more rigorous in recent decades, the insight itself is not only quite old but also directly related to our own region. Almost everyone is aware of the infamous 1835 Minute on Education by which Macaulay is said to have favored the use of English as the medium of instruction in British India. Very few know of the evaluation of that policy by George Curzon who became the Viceroy in 1898: “Ever since the cold breath of Macaulay’s rhetoric passed over the field of Indian languages and textbooks, the elementary education of the people in their own tongue has shriveled and pined.”

Note the observation from the 1904 resolution that followed on the education policy in India:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

Over a century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan offered the following major recommendation:

Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.

Given the above, it should be obvious that as far as the learning function of language is concerned all the objections to the Supreme Court’s decision are not only misplaced but irrelevant. The choice is not between Urdu and English but between either and the mother tongue. The real policy question is at what stage in a child’s education a second language should be introduced and whether it should be Urdu or English.

All those harping on the importance of English as the dominant global language of science and technology and thus necessary for development are being dense to put it mildly. First, the choice of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years and Urdu as the second language does not rule out the acquisition of English at a later stage. Second, the evidence regarding development from countries like Japan, South Korea and China that use their national languages as the medium of instruction is so stark that only the deliberately obtuse could overlook it. If facility with English had been the dominant requirement for development, Pakistan and India should have been global leaders and if lack of facility in English had been a genuine hindrance Japan, South Korea and China ought to have been laggards.

The fact is that facility with English in non-English speaking countries is very poorly correlated with any index of development. Pakistan’s elite, responsible for all its policy decisions, is fluent in English and yet what do Pakistan’s rankings reveal: the sixth largest country in the world ranks 146 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, which measures health, standard of living, and education and 136 out of 144 countries in primary education according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Arguing that this abysmal plight would improve if the entire country learns English is the kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking that has plagued our education policies to date. More seriously, it also ignores the evidence that even the acquisition of English depends on sound early education in the mother tongue.

Communication at any given point in time is the other primary function of language and this has two dimensions. First, horizontal communication amongst citizens and second vertical communication between elected representatives and the citizens. Clearly, the existence of a common language greatly facilitates communication across both dimensions as we can observe again from the examples of Japan, South Korea and China.

Of course, this quest is greatly complicated in multi-national countries like Pakistan and India when the choice of a single language becomes politically fraught. This is particularly the case when there are distinct linguistic groups with equally large populations as is the case in India and was the case in Pakistan before 1971. The decision to force one language as the national or official language in such cases is a mindless application of the model of the nation-state borrowed from Europe. Consider this excerpt from Jinnah’s speech in Dhaka in March 1948:

…let me make very clear to you that the State Language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Any one who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one State Language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries.

Both the tragedies mentioned in the beginning of this discussion stemmed from the lack of sensitivity in how to negotiate such linguistic minefields. The choice of any one language in such circumstances would disadvantage a part of the population. While the provinces of West Pakistan did accede to the choice of Urdu in order to counter-balance the political weight of East Pakistan, there was absolutely no lack of understanding that the decision would disproportionately disadvantage the Bengali speaking population. In such a case the choice of a neutral language like English would have been a sensible second-best compromise without, of course, conflating the issue and imposing it as the medium of early education as well. The Mughals, when they arrived in India, were faced with a similar conundrum and chose a neutral language, Persian, as the language of administration even though, and it is very important to recall this, it was not their native language. It was a pragmatic not a chauvinistic compromise. Precisely because Persian was a foreign language, every non-Persian speaker had an equal opportunity to learn it if he/she aspired to positions that required knowledge of the language.

But the Pakistan of today is in a very different situation. If horizontal communication amongst citizens is important it would not be politically possible to do so in any of the sub-national languages. The only choice is between Urdu and English and here the fact that the provinces of West Pakistan had agreed to Urdu as the national language very early has altered the linguistic demographic beyond recognition. Almost everyone now has a working familiarity with Urdu, much more than the familiarity with any other language including English.

Thus the argument that Urdu is the mother tongue of only eight percent of the national population is only a polemical one without any real relevance. If the choice being debated is between two foreign languages then English is not the mother tongue of even a handful of Pakistanis – Urdu wins handily on that count.

Furthermore, it is really an advantage if Urdu is considered a foreign language in Pakistan by virtue of not being the native language of any of its constituent nations. That makes its acceptance much more possible compared to any one of the sub-national languages just as Persian was the neutral choice in Mughal India.

The fact that Urdu is understood to some extent by the majority of the population, that it is akin to a foreign language and not one of the sub-national languages makes the case for its acceptance as the language of horizontal communication very strong, certainly stronger than the case for English. The unstated fear that the choice of Urdu would somehow enable the eight percent native Urdu speakers from conquering all the commanding heights is misplaced, to say the least. One can rest assured that regional elites which did not allow that in the past will certainly not do so in the future, more so since many have already adopted Urdu as their language of communication. Amongst the educated cohorts, the native Urdu speaker today has virtually no advantage over the native speaker of the other sub-national language – all of them communicate equally well or equally poorly in a mangled hybrid of various languages because of the breakdown of primary and secondary education.

The function of language for vertical communication is much more important in some senses and here the situation has deteriorated to a critical pass. Inclusive development calls for a common medium of communication and its absence is stark in countries like Pakistan and India where the ruling elites communicate in English while the majority of citizens is unfamiliar with the language. Ministers and experts pronouncing in English leave virtually the entire population out of the national discourse at great cost.

One illustration would suffice to make the point re lack of inclusion. The entire debate about development centered round the Millennium Development Goals is taking place without any credible translation of the term in Urdu or any other national language. How can the people participate in this debate? Contrast the case of China where every policy decision, sensible or otherwise, is summarized as a slogan in Chinese for popular dissemination – ‘Away With All Pests’ being one example.

This gulf is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s deliberation and decision. We need inclusive development, participatory governance, and a shared discourse. How are we going to get there? That is the real question that we face today.

Is it possible to bring the entire population to the level where it could follow the mangled English of its elite? Do we even have teachers with sufficient grasp of English to teach others? Or is it politically possible to do so in any one of the sub-national languages, even Punjabi that is the language of the numerical majority in the country? Or is Urdu the sole remaining feasible choice that the tragedies and follies of the past have, so ironically, transformed into the commonly understood language of the majority of the population. When a cruel fate throws us some crumbs we should at least have the sense to pick them up.

There is little doubt in my mind that the choice of Urdu as the official language would be the sensible and far-sighted one in the concrete situation that exists in Pakistan today. The debate should really be on how to operationalize the transition. My recommendation, keeping very clear the distinction between learning a language and learning in a language, would be to have the early years of education in the mother tongue, introduce Urdu second, followed by English. This would yield a sound educational foundation, a common language for communication, and a facility with English when the study of science and technology requires its use.

The experience of the European Union where the “mother tongue plus two” mandate is widely accepted, and where there is great emphasis on the acquisition of English, can provide very useful guidance on the stages at which each of the languages is best introduced and the points at which the language of instruction is switched, if warranted. There is little need to reinvent the wheel.

It is an added advantage that this transition does not take away the option of the provinces to conduct their parliamentary procedures in their own language or to make information available to their citizens in the language with which the latter are most comfortable. Indeed, this is what they should be doing in any case just as in the US most material related to citizen-state interaction is made available in Spanish as well as English.

Bibliography:

Alam, Muzaffar. ‘The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics,’ Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, May 1998.
http://muslimmodernities.org/uploads/Alam-Persian%20Lang%20in%20Mughal%20Politics.pdf

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Stupid in English,’ Dawn, December 3, 2010.
https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/on-being-stupid-in-english/

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Macaulay’s Stepchildren,’ Himal Magazine, January 2010.
http://old.himalmag.com/component/content/article/35-macaulays-stepchildren.html

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Millennium Development Follies,’ Dawn, December 24, 2010.
https://thesouthasinidea.wordpress.com/2010/12/25/millennium-development-follies/

Coleman, Hywel. ‘Teaching and Learning in Pakistan: The Role of Language in Education,’ British Council Pakistan, 2010.

Coleman, Hywel and T. Capstick. ‘Language in Education in Pakistan,’ British Council, 2012.
https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/Language%20In%20Education%20in%20Pakistan.pdf

Evans, Stephen. ‘Macaulay’s Minute Revisited: Colonial Language Policy in Nineteenth-Century India,’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2002.
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01434630208666469?journalCode=rmmm20#.VivR1X4rKM8

Haqqani, Hussain. ‘Let Down by Both Carrot and Stick,’ The Hindu, October 23, 2015.
http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/let-down-by-both-carrot-and-stick/article7792987.ece

Jaffrelot, Christophe. The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience, Oxford, 2015.

Macaulay, T.B. ‘Minute on Education,’ February 2, 1835.
http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_1835.html

Supreme Court of Pakistan. Order on Urdu as the official language of Pakistan, August 26, 2015.
http://www.supremecourt.gov.pk/web/user_files/File/Const.P._56_2003_E_dt_3-9-15.pdf

Wright, Wayne E., Sovicheth Boun and Ofelia Garcia, Eds. The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education, Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
https://books.google.com.pk/books?id=KG_-CAAAQBAJ&pg=PR3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false

Anjum Altaf is Vice-President and Provost at Habib University, Karachi.

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Time, the World and the Word

March 30, 2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t.

I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding?

Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in a house overflowing with books and magazines in Urdu and English, to all of which I had unhindered access. For a child, everything is new, a revelation, an input into an unformed mind. The stories were windows into the world, the characters lending eyes through which events beyond my own experiences were seen and connected in some inchoate manner to my thoughts – perhaps devices for ordering ideas without being aware of it. For me, the stories I grew up on might have been like the training wheels I used to learn to ride a bicycle.

My predicament falls into place in this perspective. I have retained an abiding interest in making sense of the world, something at an early age I could neither have known nor satisfied for lack of tools to do so. Education at home and school got me to the point where I was able to transition from stories, first to the long essay and then to non-fiction in general.

I must confess I am disappointed at not being the type who can enjoy literature for its own sake, but I am less agonised now that I know myself better.  It is just that all fiction does not attract me equally; I still engage with a story if it promises to challenge my world view, and there remain works of fiction I am drawn to repeatedly because they yield something new with each reading. But this set, of necessity, is smaller than the set of all fiction, and it continues to shrink as the blank slate of the mind gets written over with time.

This could explain as well my reading preferences and the way they have changed over time. I believe I was attracted early to literature about South Asia because it connected me most directly to the world I wanted to know. South Asian writing in English is now most completely displaced from my reading because, barring exceptions, it fails to sustain my interest – the windows are different but the landscape remains familiar. I continue to seek fiction in Urdu more, probably because it references dimensions of life my education has failed to connect me with, but new fiction in Urdu is limited and of uneven quality.

I wonder if an appetite for fiction could be revived by learning a new language to enter an unfamiliar world. Reading translations has not helped; people think differently in different languages, and while one can convey the gist of a story, too many of the social and cultural intricacies that shape ideas and drive actions elude capture. I sense this from reading South Asian fiction in English, much of which comes across now as translation from another language, the very edges one seeks as a mature reader flattened.  Perhaps, the picture being painted is for eyes other than mine.

What might lend the freshness of new vistas to South Asian writing in English could be the democratisation of reading. The storehouses of books in a few homes if matched by even richer ones in school libraries might bring forth writers with quite different lives to share.

Every journey is unique, but they do have aspects in common. In this case, it is that stories provide windows into the world, giving it form. That world, peculiar to every individual, needs to be negotiated and understood and enjoyed, and people do so in myriad different ways. For every path that is taken many others are given up. That much I understand. What remains less clear is the difference made by the variety of stories we encounter and the set of people we share them with. To what extent are we the stories that we read or did not read together?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This essay was published in the April 5, 2014, issue of Economic and Political Weekly and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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Education: The Myth of the Market

December 18, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

 

Some years back I had written an article the main message of which was the following: The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it. I wish to resurrect some of the arguments in the context of the recent discussion on the appropriate medium of instruction for early education in South Asia (On Being Stupid in English).

I found it ironical that a case was made for early education in English because in India untold millions are clamoring for English. In the post I had referred to an earlier article (Macaulay’s Stepchildren) to record that Lord Macaulay had used exactly the same argument in 1835 to support the use of English as the medium of instruction in India – in his view the superiority of English was evidenced by a strong desire for English-language education in the Indian population. (more…)

On Being Stupid in English

December 5, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high social cost.

I thought of this once again on coming across a news item that the Punjab Government School Education Department had converted thousands of its schools into English medium all over the province from April 2010. The motivation for the move is stated to be “a bid to bring the quality of education in government-run schools on a par with private English medium schools.”

The issue of the language of instruction, like many other issues in Pakistan, has been hanging fire since the creation of the country, switching back and forth at the whim of individuals seemingly without recourse to any scientific evidence or critical thinking. No one has computed the costs imposed on society by the absence of a coherent policy over the course of half a century.

Not that this is a new topic. Much evidence is available from our own experience if one wishes to look for it. It was in 1835 that Lord Macaulay mandated the adoption of English as the medium of instruction in British India from the sixth standard onwards. Even at the time this ruling was questioned on theoretical grounds by Prinsep, a fellow member of the Supreme Council of India, who asked how the English would have fared if they had been educated in Arabic rather than in Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe.

Prinsep was over-ruled but, to their credit, the British themselves picked up the downside of the policy in their review of its implementation. The 1904 resolution on education policy was quite explicit in its conclusion:

“It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.”

Over a century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan reaffirms the conclusion and offers this major recommendation: “Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.”

We can indulge in our favorite pastime of looking for conspiracies. When the English told us in 1835 to learn in English, it was conspiracy to cripple our intellects and when the English tell us in 2010 not to learn in English, it is, of course, a conspiracy to cripple our intellects. This is a reflection of nothing more than our actually crippled intellects and our inability to consider any proposition on its theoretical merits or to be able to assess it against empirical evidence.

Take first the theoretical arguments. The primary objective in the early years is learning how to think and grasp abstract concepts. At that stage even addition and multiplication are abstract concepts and 7 minus 10 is an exceedingly abstract one. At this point, the most significant function of language is as a tool to facilitate learning. It stands to reason that the most effective tool would be the one with which the learner is most comfortable and in which he or she thinks about everything else in his or her world including discussing lessons with peers and parents.

Mandating the use of an unfamiliar tool is counterproductive because it unnecessarily adds an intervening layer of translation in the learning process. An assignment to subtract 7 marbles from 10 marbles requires both a translation of the commodity marble as well as an explanation of the term subtract or minus. Neither would need to be explained if the assignment were in the mother-tongue. (I am reminded of the equally ridiculous Pakistani college statistics texts that base their teaching on examples from baseball and poker.)

Even this very simple example illustrates the extra burden that can be imposed on a learner. Add to this the fact that the majority of the teachers teaching in English are scarcely more comfortable with the language than the students being taught and one can imagine the distortions that would be occurring in the learning process at the Government Boys English Medium Primary School, Jadeed No 1 Thatti Gharbi, Chiniot, which, according the news item mentioned earlier, the Punjab government has switched to teaching in English. The parents who are taking pride in sending their children to an English-medium school are in fact inflicting immense damage on their learning ability – they are making them stupid in English.

This is not to argue against the acquisition of a foreign language but to reiterate the point made at the very beginning of this article: Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high cost.

For those who are not at ease with cognitive theory, there is a lot of empirical evidence to consider. Look at the countries that have shown the most remarkable progress since the Second World War. Take Japan, South Korea, and now China as examples. None of them used English as the medium of instruction at the primary level; all of them used their native languages instead. This puts paid to the mindless argument that the learning in English is absolutely necessary to progress in the present times. If that had indeed been the case, South Asians would have been way ahead of East Asians because of their much greater fluency in the English language.

The reality is not only that South Asians are way behind in general development, they are much less innovative in science and technology than East Asians using any relevant indicator like the number of patents filed per capita. And this is because South Asians have lost creativity by learning in English, turning, by and large, into babus spouting Shakespeare rather than into innovative and critical thinkers.

The point is that while learning English is indeed important in our times, learning in English is not the way to go about acquiring the skill. Almost all the leading scientists from East Asian countries have learnt as much English as they need at a much later stage in life. And this reiterates the general point that a tool is most useful when it is acquired at the appropriate time. Giving a loaded gun to a child is not likely to yield a great shot.

Yet another way to look at this issue is to think of individuals we consider exceptional in recent South Asian history, say, Tagore, Iqbal, Gandhi, Faiz, Salam, Patras Bokhari, Nazrul Islam. We think highly of them because of their intellectual brilliance and their conceptual clarity. Yet, how many of them started their education in English-medium schools? All of them probably learnt English later in their lives which should provide comfort that such late acquisition is not a barrier to success. On the contrary, it is quite possible that had they started in English-medium schools they would have ended up amongst the hundreds of pompous District Commissioners that no one recalls any more.

The issue of the primary language of instruction is not one that should be treated with the casualness that has been demonstrated thus far. There is a very high cost to society in the general loss of creativity and clear thinking and through the creation of an artificial barrier to entry for many creative individuals not superficially fluent in English. Very soon this decision might not be left to the muddle-headed few who have risen to the top only by virtue of having been to English-medium schools and who have subsequently grossly mismanaged the country.

A shorter version of this post appeared as an op-ed in Dawn, Karachi, on December 3, 2010. For more on the implications of Lord Macaulay’s 1835 decision see the author’s article, Macaulay’s Stepchildren, in the January 2010 issue of Himal Southasian magazine.

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On Language and Communication

June 14, 2009

In the context of the Cairo speech, I had asked the question whether President Obama ‘got’ his audience right. The question was prompted by a conviction that speakers of different languages had subtle differences in how they saw and understood the world.

It is quite a coincidence that just a week later I found a fascinating study that has empirically tested this hypothesis.

Here are some (unconnected) excerpts from the article describing the study:

Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives? Do people who speak different languages think differently simply because they speak different languages? (more…)