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Language whims

Published Mar 17, 2017 02:44am

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