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It wasn’t English

December 08, 2017

AT the inaugural session of its 70th anniversary conference, the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, Karachi, did us proud when the proceedings were conducted in Urdu. It was a pleasure to hear chaste Urdu perfectly articulated at an occasion not dominated by our Urdu litterateurs.

I was told that this was at the suggestion of President Mamnoon Hussain who was the chief guest. Masuma Hasan, the chairperson of the institute, confirmed it, adding that it was her idea as well. Urdu is Pakistan’s national language, so no one should challenge Masuma’s decision. However, the smooth sailing at the PIIA function made me wonder why the demand for other provincial languages being given the same constitutional status cannot be considered favourably.

To my surprise, a retired Urdu-speaking ambassador expressed his disapproval at the use of Urdu on this occasion. His argument was that today English is the language of international diplomacy and it ill behoves an institution of national standing to use Urdu in a formal gathering with foreigners present.

“I could see the bored looks on their faces,” he remarked. That further amazed me because arrangements had been made for simultaneous interpretation, and headphones were being passed around for those who needed them.

English is destroying our education system.

To argue about the language in which the proceedings were conducted is meaningless in this context. True, English is more useful in bilateral negotiations when both sides understand its nuances and idioms. But on an occasion like the inaugural session of the PIIA’s conference, no such exchange of views is involved. So our own language is best suited. What was there to be ashamed of in having interpreters convey the symbolic message for the benefit of those who were not familiar with the Urdu language?

The fact is that we are obsessed with English to an irrational extent. A fortnight earlier, at a language conference at Sindh University, Hyderabad, it was reported in this paper that “scholars had urged the youth to learn English to survive and progress in a competitive, fast-paced and challenging world”.

One would not argue with the suggestion that English facilitates the youth to get ahead in a globalised world. But we must recognise that we also have people who can contribute to society and the economy without being fluent in it. I know many young men whose expertise in computer programming and internet technology is excellent though their competence in English is perfunctory — just enough to comprehend technical literature on the subject (which I can’t).

Should they be penalised for their incompetence in English? Yet English has been made the ‘gatekeeper’ in our education system — to use the term used by Maleeha Sattar, a lecturer at Iqra University, Islamabad — when we cannot even teach the language properly to all our students.

As a result, English is not only destroying our indigenous languages which stand in danger of becoming extinct, it is also undermining our education system and intensifying the class divide in our society.

In the course of her MPhil research, Maleeha Sattar found that by making English a compulsory subject that must be cleared in school-leaving examinations across the country, the authorities marginalise a large number of students. Mainly from the underprivileged classes, they fail the compulsory English exam. According to her data obtained from the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, Rawalpindi, for the last five years, nearly a third of students on average failed compulsory English every year. They cannot proceed further in their education which affects their future prospects.

A speaker at the Hyderabad conference, Dr Asantha Attanayake, a professor of English at Colombo University, identified another problem that English poses. The unrealistic expectations set by the ‘brown sahibs’ for students in terms of accent, elocutionary standards and usage can push many behind.

But Sri Lanka has made adjustments to prevent students from being disadvantaged on account of English. Asantha told me that it is mandatory for all students to appear for the English paper in their General Certificate Examination (Advanced Level). But they are not required to pass it to qualify as GCE (A/L) and can join diploma/certificate programmes. However, they must pass their English paper for admission to a university. Sri Lanka is also more sympathetic to the idea of young children starting their education in their home language which might be Sinhalese or Tamil. Some schools introduce English at the secondary level and that too “incrementally” (ie only for a few subjects).

The point to be noted is that in Pakistan many talented young people are losing out because they never got the opportunity to learn good English, that has been made the be all and end all of success in life. As for our perfect-English-speaking diplomats, one can ask them where have our foreign policy ‘successes’ taken Pakistan?

www.zubeidamustafa.com

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2017