Posts Tagged ‘Learning’

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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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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Cracking Urdu: A Guide for Those Who Know Hindi

June 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I am an Urdu speaker from Pakistan who wrote an account (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond) of an immensely rewarding experience of learning the Devanagari script very quickly. As a result, I have been asked to guide those wishing to cross the divide from the other side. Nothing could be more gratifying and I have decided to devote a separate post to the effort in order to have enough room to indulge myself.

For those who know Hindi, the news is all good. You already know Urdu so there is really nothing to learn. Hindi and Urdu share the same Khari Boli grammar and therefore are the same language from a linguistic perspective. (more…)

The South Asian Idea

December 9, 2007

Objective: Understand, Explain, Predict & Connect South Asia

Audience:  College Students in South Asia

Method:     Conversations on Topics of Interest

Style:         Learning through Questioning

Themes: Development, Governance, Modernity, Religion, Education


The South Asian Idea is an interactive learning resource for self-motivated college students who wish to improve their understanding of the world we live in. It is also a resource for social science or liberal arts college teachers who are looking for additional teaching material.

The premise of The South Asian Idea is that critical thinking is vital for the full development of the human intellect. Critical thinking is learnt in schools and colleges through exposure to the social sciences and the liberal arts where questions do not have a single correct answer. Rather, there are often many plausible answers none of which are entirely right or wrong. However, some answers are more robust than others and arriving at them requires open-minded debate, tolerance for divergent perspectives, and the art of persuasive argumentation.

Unfortunately, in the competitive market for jobs characterizing the information age, students are ignoring the social sciences and the liberal arts considering them a waste of time. At the same time, the spirit of open inquiry has been dampened in educational institutions. Students in South Asia also advance at a relatively early age into professional colleges where there are few rigorous non-technical core course requirements.

As a result, critical thinking and open-mindedness have suffered steep erosion in South Asia. This has been a major contributing factor to the rise of social and religious intolerance in the region. This intolerance is the cancer that has the potential to destroy our society.

The South Asian Idea has been designed to address this issue. It is impossible to reverse the decline in the vast majority of educational institutions using traditional approaches. A web-based, interactive medium has the potential of very wide reach. The use of well-researched but student-friendly contextual material facilitates the inquiry-based learning process through moderated conversations across national borders.

The South Asian Idea is still an experiment  seeking the right mix of content, format, and complexity. The next steps involve transferring the contents to local language websites, identifying a set of teachers in South Asia as partners, equipping them to fully realize the benefits of the technology, and facilitating their interaction to learn from each other.

We would welcome your participation and guidance in this initiative. Your comments would be welcome at

Note: The South Asian Idea is a resource for learning, not a source of expert opinion. The posts on the blog are intended as starting points for classroom discussions and the position at the end of the discussion could be completely at odds with the starting point. Thus the blog simulates a learning process and does not offer a final product. The reader is invited to join the process to help improve our understanding of important contemporary issues.