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Language whims

Published Mar 17, 2017 02:44am


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MY last column on language-in-education evoked interesting comments from readers. Some raised valid concerns. Others betrayed unfounded fears about language — and also education. Quite a few of the comments were more an outpouring of emotional biases and not based on rational thinking.

First of all what needs to be clarified is that there is a world of difference between using a language as a medium of instruction (MOI) and teaching it as a subject. Whenever there is a discourse on the language-in-education issue we seem to get carried away by our passion for English. It needs to be understood clearly that a child learning history, geography or even science in an indigenous language can still learn English as a second language just like any German or Korean child does. If English is taught by competent teachers using the correct methodology the child will learn it well and quickly.

It is a dangerous myth promoted by the champions of English that students learn English better when it is used as the MOI. The fact is that in this case the students learn neither the subject nor the language.

Our approach towards different languages is damaging.

What is very damaging is our attitude towards different languages. We regard some languages as superior and are in awe of them while we treat others — and their speakers — with contempt. This perception is relative. English is superior to Urdu, but Urdu is better than Punjabi, yet Punjabi is a grade higher than Seraiki and so on. This is something unacceptable. The government must play a role in promoting all languages equally and society must inculcate respect for them.

This can best be done by using mother tongues as the MOI in pre-school and primary classes. Since this is the natural and universally recognised correct approach to education it must be strictly enforced. We have many examples of people having studied in their mother tongue in school and then going on to use English in higher education. Prof Abdus Salam, our Nobel Prize winner, is a perfect example.

A lot depends on the teachers. If the government gets serious about educating our children well, it will have to introduce short in-service courses for teachers. Anyone with common sense can see it is easier to train the teachers in their own home language, which will generally be the language of the students as well in various regions. A smaller ratio of teachers can be trained intensively as English-language teachers.

Some comments from the readers on my last column are quite ill-informed. One suggests that it should be left to the parents to teach their children their mother tongue at home. According to the ASER survey over 70-80 per cent of parents in rural areas are illiterate. How will they teach their own children to read and write in any language?

A major issue that emerges is Urdu’s controversial role in the country. A reader from Peshawar, Nasser Yousaf, wrote to me, “With Pashto being my mother tongue, I am afraid, and have experienced it, that even if I do a doctorate in Urdu, my accent will always be the subject of jokes, if not outright ridicule. ... I also believe, and not without genuine concern, that Islamists also tend to equate Urdu speaking with religion, and we need to be careful of that”.

I feel Nasser is justified in his concerns and we, whose mother tongue is Urdu and who constitute barely 7pc of the population, are squarely responsible for the impression he complains about. We exude an air of linguistic superiority and recognise only chaste Urdu as the language to be spoken. It is time we shed this complex and feel humbled by the ability of a huge majority of Pakistanis to speak Urdu — not their mother tongue — which for this reason serves as the language of communication.

Its prevalence entitles Urdu to be the official language of administration. But why should not all major languages be recognised as the national languages of Pakistan as has been demanded?

There are some myths about Urdu that also need to be shed. One reader commented that Urdu is as foreign as English in Pakistan. This is untrue. Urdu is widely understood in the country and shares its etymology and vocabulary with other languages in the region. Besides, being the language of the bazaar in many big cities Urdu is more familiar than English and easier to learn. Hence its utility as a language of wider communication.

The most dangerous myth, which Nasser also identifies, is that Urdu is equated with religion. This belief has been promoted by the Islamists (including military despot Gen Zia). The fact is that a religion recognises the language of the people who embrace it.

Tailpiece: “English promotes thinking ability” wrote a reader. Were all the world’s greatest philosophers English speakers?

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2017


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (36) Closed

Syed F. Hussaini Mar 17, 2017 03:45am

To compete with the privileged, the students being denied quality education at government schools must buy used or new O-Level and A-Level books and read.

The privileged can donate the used school books of their children to the kids of their domestic servants.

Books teach.

We have to fend for ourselves and learn.

JA-Australia Mar 17, 2017 04:25am

Good article. I would make a few comments:

  1. Urdu forms a glue unifying the country and should be the only medium of instruction. Children should be able to move from Gilgit to Quetta to Peshawar to Lahore to Karachi without a language barrier hampering their development.

  2. Mother tongue can be taught at home or as a secondary, optional language. English can/should be a compulsory secondary subject.

  3. Important texts should be translated into Urdu. The only time English is absolutely needed is to follow cutting edge research.

  4. Making fun of accents is childish but, unfortunately, human nature. It happens in every country with every language. The trick is to inculcate pride in diversity, so the accents are seen not as a handicap, but as a proud affirmation of Pakistan's ethnic diversity.

Alba Mar 17, 2017 04:39am

In 1957, 600 different languages were still spoken in India and Pakistan. In China people used multiple languages but written Chinese is the same in all of them. When Mao Ze-dong took over China he declared Mandarin Chinese to be China's official language. Mandarin was the language he spoke. He would now be known as Mao Ze-dong and not Mao Tse-tung. The differences in spelling reflect the differences in pronunciation. There were 400 different sounds to Western ears, as Western scholars developed a romanized pronunciation of Cantonese. Mao mean to unify China and only one language would be taught in school. There was no argument. He was the boss.

Rana haseeb Mar 17, 2017 05:11am

How beautifully you described your inner voice . I appreciate your quality of wisdom , and it is a food for thought .!!!

R S Chakravarti Mar 17, 2017 08:28am

There are different Urdus. Urdu as spoken in southern India, say Hyderabad, Bangalore or Chennai (mainly by Muslims), might sound funny to Pakistanis.

Fida Mar 17, 2017 08:33am

Prof. Salaam did not study in his mother tongue in school and college as you claim in this article. Three stages should be recognized in learning languages in Pakistan: 1. Mother tongue, Urdu, and English up to grade 5th 2. Urdu and English up to Grade 10th 3. Only English from 11th onward English teaching should be functional English: no literature as is the case today. If Urdu is deleted from intermediate level as suggested above, it will make room for teaching Math to Pre-medical students ( on which they are missing out now) and Biology to Pre-engineering students ( on which they are missing out now ).

m. Irfan Abbasi Mar 17, 2017 10:17am

No language is superior in the world, except which one is easier for the whole mankind like Arabic. Recognizing local languages as national language is a good suggestion, nevertheless we need a language to be spoken and understood all over the country and Urdu indeed is best option for it. Extensively training few teachers for teaching English would not serve the purpose, we need to create conversational environments in educational institutions for English. A human learns more from the environment than any other medium.

Sakina fatima Mar 17, 2017 10:20am

Quite an enlightening article! In my opinion a national language represents an entire country's identity. If we see among the world countries we would find that solely one language is considered as the national language in the majority of countries. Like Germany declared German as national language, China has Chinese, UK and America has English and so on. There are many other language spoken in these states as well however, the official language is given the preference. All the languages being spoken in Pakistan are equally important and crucial, though only Urdu should remain an official language of out country as it reflects US. Why are we reckoning India's policy to make all the languages official in the country? If we ponder inside the people of India, they exhibit open animosity and discrimination among the speakers of other languages other than their own language. What is the use then, to pseudo-officialize all the languages in the state? Its in the mind of human, how much he/she regards other language or discriminate people on the basis of language. Its the thinking and the notion that we have to change not the constitution. Its our perception, attitude and myth that actually count otherwise language disputes in the world will never resolved.

m. Irfan Abbasi Mar 17, 2017 10:21am

We need to create environments in education institutions for conversational English, in order to make it easier for our students. Extensive training of teacher would only serve when we have such environment. Recognizing local languages as national languages is a good suggestion, nevertheless, we always would need Urdu as a common language of communication in all over Pakistan.

Furqan Yousafzai Mar 17, 2017 10:37am

Problem here is the feasibility of implementing Urdu as a MOI and as learning language in general. Do we have the capacity to invest a big chunk of money in promoting Urdu as the language of sciences. We are literally short of words for scientific terms. Computer programming, software development etc, how can we coup it specifically with an education in Urdu. Majority of new research or books are published in English or readily translated to English from other languages. How will we develop such a capacity in short terms? Abdul Salam may be an exception but students with background education in urdu face real difficulties in competing on higher level. Calculus, quantum physics nanotechnology etc ,how can we accommodate them all in Urdu right now? German and Korean have invested in their languages long ago. How can we manage it now, developing urdu as medium, growing its capacity to accommodate all sciences and yet keeping pace with the technology and sciences leaps in modern times.

shayan khan Mar 17, 2017 10:49am

I agree 100 Percent with the writer. it think that the deteriorated quality of our education is solely due to the reason that students simply don't understand what they are being taught. this perception can be easily justified by testing the English understanding of our FA or FSC students. After schooling for more than 12 years they still strive for for English and not for knowledge to be gained from that particular subject. whether it be the biology, chemistry or physics or even compulsory English subjects or any of their subject in English language, you would find that the students cannot express their ideas but deliver a copycat response memorized from the book. Urdu must be promoted equally in Pakistan from the Arabian Sea to the Northern most part in order to inculcate in our future generation, the knowledge and not the English. English can be easily learned from other sources and communication courses if the people having some passion for it.

Zubair CHANDIO Mar 17, 2017 11:52am

According 2015 study by the OECD's PISA ranked the primary & secondary Educational Systems of more than 50 countries in the world. None of the top 50 countries has a foreign language as Medium of Instruction in primary and secondary schools. All of them use their own mother tongues as MOI. South Korea, Finland and Japan are top three and all of their education is imparted in their mother tongues. None of the countries in the history has developed & progressed using a foreign language as a medium of instruction. Examples of development; china, japan, korea, malaysia, italy, france, germany, finland, denmark, sweden, nethlnd etc. English is an easy language, if taught properly, can be mastered with no difficulty. The problem in Pakistan is not the language but very low standards of education, education system is outdated. Address the root cause not the symptoms. Spend more on education, improve schools, train teachers, modernize syllabus, learn how finland and south korea have topped.

M Hanif Khan Mar 17, 2017 11:57am

Let me add to what you have written.For medium of instruction, language of communication should be used. Alan Baker writes that communication is the process of creating shared understanding. Such a situation can be created only when the language is easy or the language of child's communication.A teacher can not share understanding if she/he uses English.

M Hanif Khan Mar 17, 2017 12:11pm

Let me add to what you have written.For medium of instruction language of communication should be used. Alan Baker writes that communication is the process of creating shared understanding. Such a situation can be created only when a teacher uses a child's language of communication. A teacher can not share understanding if he/she uses English.

M,Hanif Khan

M Hanif Khan Mar 17, 2017 12:33pm

@Zubair CHANDIO You have proved your point referring to latest data. West translated all the knowledge they gathered about Greeks from universities in the Arab world into their own languages. Very well said.

Mushtaq Ahmed Mar 17, 2017 12:48pm

I take pity on Pakistani students , specially enrolled currently in Peela Schools or their equivalent private schools, because they are forced to study all the subjects in a language very foreign to them: English. How on earth, a primary class student understand the 'Nizaam e Tanaffas' taught in science class in a language in which he / she even can not write a simple paragraph on 'My best Friend'. I , myself, studied from a Peela school in 90's due to financial constraints, at that time only Urdu was the MOI. And I cherish my vivid memory of reading all the science material in Urdu. Although I had to make great effort in learning English Language after schooling ended, I was able to translate my existing knowledge into English Language, before studying my Engineering and MBA.
I believe there is dire need to get rid of inferiority complex of using Urdu in education and teach high quality subject materials instead of making students inept English Language Learner throughout life.

Maleeha Sattar Mar 17, 2017 01:16pm

Your commitmnet to the issue is inspiring. It is sad that many students are excluded or marginalized in our education system due to their lack of proficiency in English lanaguge. They niether have facilities/resources to learn the language nor do they have the linguistic environmnet that is needed to facilitate the acquistion of language. In this context, it is unfair that students are expected to be proficient in English langauge. you have rightly asked if "all the the world’s greatest philosophers English speakers?". We do read their works in English but the works were produced in the langauges that they spoke. Marx, Neitzche Foucault, Sartre, Simone de Beauvore to name a few. They all complied their insightful works in their own languages.

TZaman Mar 17, 2017 01:18pm

If you know the complexities faced by lower income people with heritage of illiteracy, for them English is a liberating factor. Urdu is not indigenous language of the territory of Pakistan. It has been imported. Also it is deficienct in modern knowledge. Does Pakistan has capacity like Germany and Korea to bring at par Urdu with English. Germany and Korea started their literacy campaign long ago when we were dealing with silliness of politicians and elites of society.

skumar Mar 17, 2017 01:24pm

@Sakina fatima "If we see among the world countries we would find that solely one language is considered as the national language in the majority of countries" . Because most of the countries were founded on the basis of one language only ! Thats why we have 190 countries. .This cannot happen in multilingual democratic countries , which in essence are political unions ...

KATHIRAVAN Mar 17, 2017 01:43pm

Many people believe, Hindi is National language of India. But its not true, As per Indian constitution, India dont have any specific national language. Instead we have have 18 officail languages including Hindi. It may sounds crazy. But nation builders gave equal importance to all languages thats why regional langauges in India is not facing ao much existence threat.

Sanjay david Mar 17, 2017 03:30pm

When the Indian constitution was first formed, Hindi was adopted as the official language of India with English continuing as an associate official language for a period of fifteen years, after which Hindi would become the sole official language.

The Tamil people from Madras Presidency, later Tamil Nadu did not accept this and wanted only English and Tamil. There were extensive riots and agitations and the army was also sent in to quell the problem. Tamil Nadu then actually wanted to secede from the Union of India because of this Hindi imposition. The Indian Government quickly took note of this and amended the Indian Languages Act to accommodate all regional languages as official languages. Thus, today 22 regional languages including Tamil and Hindi are official languages of India without any of them being a National language. A classic example of "Unity in Diversity"

Sanjay david Mar 17, 2017 04:11pm

@JA-Australia : Sorry, I beg to differ from your views on Urdu. Problems will surely arise by adopting only one language when multiple ethnic groups exist. Please read my previous post on how Tamil Nadu and many other states later on wanted to secede from the union of India because of Hindi. The Indian Govt prevented this secession by giving regional languages official status. It happened to East Pakistan when Bengali was set aside for Urdu. It was the start of civil war in Sri Lanka when Sinhala was declared the only official language. Single language formula only worked to form countries in Europe like Germany, France, Italy etc. It will not and will never work in a multi ethnic environment. A lot of problems in Pakistan too because languages like Sindhi, Punjabi, Baloch, Pastu etc have been put aside without official status in preference of Urdu.

AHS Mar 17, 2017 04:41pm

The modern nationstate works to annahilate difference. The polyglot societies of yesteryear must be transformed into the 'pure' national society of our present colonial age. This is the root of the language problem, it's solution is to think outside of the framework of national politics and stop equating all things modern with what is good. There is a reason that rulers in the subcontinent never used Urdu, it was never a 'stable' tongue. In my opinion primary education should be carried out in local dialects, focusing on reading and writing skills. Students should learn Persian to fluency later on, aswell as Ilm-i-Arooz, and this should remain the MOI in further education. I say Farsi because it can please many, it can connect to religious identity, to a long Indo-Persian tradition and is an effective mode of communication established in higher education without the colonial baggage of english. A solution requires us to think critically about education and how it should be structured.

Alam Mar 17, 2017 05:12pm

Instruction mode up to intermediate should be in mother tongue. If a language dies due to ill behaviour of our policy makers , we will loose a culture, and to protect thousands of years old culture, different words for love and poetry all languages must be protected.

Frank Mar 17, 2017 05:31pm

It's hard to see how the author can argue that Hindi-Urdu is not foreign to Pakistan. Nowhere in Pakistan is it spoken indigenously. That it is spoken at all is due to the fact that it is forced on Pakistanis by the elite as the 'language of Islam' (even though 90% of its native speakers are not Muslims). Linguistically it belongs to the same Indo-Aryan language group as Sindhi and Punjabi just as Italian and Spanish are both Romance languages, but nobody would dare to impose Italian on Spaniards. Urdu is completely unsuited for science, politics and philosophy. It remains to this day good only for expressing love or existential angst. It's hard to see how Pakistan can move forward without its native languages and English, the global language of business, science, philosophy and politics.

Shahid murtaza Mar 17, 2017 05:49pm

All cultures and languages has their own beauty. We cannot classify one culture or language is superior to other. Mother language is what we listen from our mother, relatives and society right after our birth. But when we start schooling our children has to learn English. This makes our children either to leave the school or poor grades, as English is not pur language. Teaching our students in our own language will make it easy for them to learn more and more.

Abraham haque Mar 17, 2017 10:06pm

@JA-Australia that is why you decided to move

MUHAMMAD Mar 17, 2017 10:46pm

@Frank, Ur point regarding the regional languages & that English should remain as a medium of instruction is valid. However Urdu was not an alien language in present day Pakistan as it was the official Lang of NWFP (KPK), Punjab & Baluchistan during the British era & was optional in Sind so ppl in pak already knew basic Urdu. Second Urdu is the mother tongue of 8% of Pakistanis thus making it as the 5th largest language as per mother tongue so in no ways is it foreign or alien anymore. Ppl in Pakistan are comfortable with Urdu as they know that local languages are only limited to their respective provinces & not spoken or understood by non-native speakers while Urdu is spoken & understood by most. However English should work as official Lang while regional languages should be taught in their respective provinces with an option between local Lang and Urdu literature so that those who want to learn local one can learn that while others can take literature in lieu of the local Lang

inayat ur rehman Mar 17, 2017 11:04pm

It is obligatory that .we have to use Urdu as medium of exchange and official language in our schools and office.Because of the multiple education system (English medium and Urdu medium) it creating a great problem to our society.English medium students are considering them self more superior then Urdu medium...

Omar Mar 17, 2017 11:14pm

Interesting read and here are a few other points:

1) Urdu is 'indianizing' and making Pakistanis more conversant with South Asia and limiting their outlook. Over emphasis of Urdu over native languages has further caused a disconnect for the native Pakistani with each other, their own province and its western/northern neighbours. While a 'bazaar' camp language it is only @350 years old and not native to Pakistan.

2) native languages of panjabi, Pashto, shines, Sindhi and baloch etc... should be taught at least at an elementary level with Urdu being possibly introduced at an intermediary level (middle school)

3) English should be retained officially and it has given Pakistan a competitive edge in the world. English is the dominant global language and having good command of it is necessary and important.

4) Pakistanis are polyglots by nature and can learn multiple languages well and this quality should be enhanced and promoted

aftab tahir Mar 18, 2017 01:26am

@m. Irfan Abbasi how can you say that "no language is superior in the world" ? There WERE, ARE and WILL remain many languages superior to other languages. Pakistanis must educate themseleves but cathch 22. And it is childish of you to say that "Arabic is an easiers" language. pity us as a nation.

Farouq omaro Mar 18, 2017 04:57am

Urdu is the lingua franca of both India and Pakistan, only language where the use extends from southern India to the Himalayas.

Naeem Safi Mar 18, 2017 07:04am

The context is school, while the prevailing schooling systems are designed for slaves (including the curricula, teachers, evaluations, and duration etc)--an outdated and irrelevant model for transfer of concepts, knowledge, a skills.

Each human has the right to have access to her/his ancestral culture, including language. While schools are 'producing' products with cultural amnesia.

Languages are beautiful and ingenious inventions, which also condition how we process information and see the existence around us.

One's love for one's mother tongue is highly commendable, however, before demanding it to be used as a medium of instruction, one may also consider the level of knowledge production in it.

Abdul wahid Mar 18, 2017 10:58am

Tailpiece comment English or so to say any other secondary language learning ability and analytical thinking have a strange correlation!

BAXAR Mar 18, 2017 12:19pm

@Omar " English should be retained officially and it has given Pakistan a competitive edge in the world." The only edge we have due to English, is over our own general population. The elite desperately needs to maintain it's superiority over the competitors from lower middle class. See what happened in cricket, how the elite was washed away by lower classes. The only edge the elite maintains is for captaincy, that our geniuses try hard to link with command of English (Azhar & Misbah compared to Sarfraz). This intransigence is costing our development in every field. All developed nations use a local Lingua Franca. If they don't have it, they invent it, it's only then that they develop. The best case is modern Hebrew.

adil zareef Mar 19, 2017 11:53am

excellent article !

brings into the limelight the distortions in our imaginations and policymaking