Language/Meaning / 12.01.2021

By Anjum Altaf I recently visited public high schools in two villages in Mandi Bahauddin district. I was impressed by the insights of their heads on the merits of various languages of instruction. They regretted not being consulted on the matter and I couldn’t agree more with them. I had one incongruous visual impression pertaining to the names of the schools that might seem peripheral to many. In villages with every student a native speaker of Punjabi and Urdu the medium of instruction, the names of schools, written in both Urdu and English, were comprised entirely of English words -- Government, Girls, High, and School.  I wonder if this strikes anyone as odd? It would be fine to refer to a school thus in a report written in English but shouldn’t it have an indigenous name as well? In India, one comes across ‘kendriya vidyalaya’ and in Iran...

Education / 23.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf The 2020 Global Teacher Prize sponsored by the Varkey Foundation and UNESCO worth a million dollars has been awarded to Ranjitsinh Disale, a primary school teacher in a village in Maharashtra where he teaches girls from tribal communities. There were more than 12,000 contenders from over 140 countries.  Two things stand out about the winner. First, Ranjitsinh learnt the local language to translate class textbooks into his pupils' mother tongue. Just this confirms that he is wiser than all our ministers of education and policymakers put together which makes him deserving of the highest recognition. Second, Ranjitsinh belongs to the rare category of those who think beyond themselves. There were ten teachers on the shortlist from which he was declared the winner. Ranjitsinh gave away half the million-dollar prize to the other nine on the list because "Their incredible work is still worthy...

Miscellaneous / 23.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf The real elephant is gone but the one in the room is still there and as invisible as ever. It doesn’t strike anyone as odd that the courts declared Kavaan to be living in an inhuman habitat, “no less than a concentration camp,” there was a years-long global campaign to make his life less miserable, Cher herself came to cheer him up, the President and his spouse serenaded him, special equipment was devised to provide him decent transport, and a chartered plane to took him from elephant-hell to elephant-heaven. What about the millions of human beings living in much more inhuman habitats than Kavaan? There are no similar court decrees to make their lives less miserable, no global campaigns to argue for their rights, no one there to cheer or serenade them, no decent transport, and no escape to a more livable locale. If the park...

Education / 01.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf I sent my last column (Thought experiment, Dawn, November 15, 2020) to Professor Noam Chomsky. Just as Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I had cited in that column, was the leading philosopher of language of the first half of the 20th century, Chomsky is the leading theorist of language acquisition and cognitive development of its second half. I solicited his opinion as a linguist on the choice of language for early childhood education. Here is the relevant part of Professor Chomsky’s reply: “There's no doubt that instruction is more successful in the native language, and there are obviously also important reasons to gain fluency in an international language. Should be possible to balance these needs. Linguistics doesn't tell us much beyond what common sense provides.”  The important message in this response is that there is really no need for any sophisticated theories to address this issue. All...

Language/Meaning / 23.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf On November 14 I participated in an event jointly organized by the Ma Boli Centre of the Institute for Art and Culture and the Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan (THAAP) at the latter’s serene premises in Lahore to discuss various aspects of native languages including their contribution to the creative process as also their future in Pakistan. The event, besides being informative and entertaining, succeeded in its objective by provoking many thoughts and raising many questions. I explore some of them to include those who might be interested in the issues but were unable to join for one reason or another. To start on an incongruous note, I was struck by the fact that in an event aiming to highlight native languages the opening addresses leaned on English with forays into Urdu when emotions welled over. This recalled Khaled Ahmed’s claim that...

Miscellaneous / 18.11.2020

By Sakuntala Narasimhan For Sakuntala Narasimhan’s generation born before Independence, Lahore and Karachi were part of India. With Partition seven decades ago, new geo-political borders were put in place, but there are thousands of families that have close relatives on both sides of the border. The people-to-people equations between Indians and Pakistanis are nothing but friendly, as she discovered on each of her three visits “My aunt lives in India,” says a Pakistani friend, while another friend, living in Karachi, says her mother is from a royal princely family of central India, and she has cousins living in India. And so it goes -- one brother choosing to settle in Pakistan after Partition, while another preferred to stay back in their ancestral village in Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. Examples abound.  The young waiter at the hotel in Islamabad where I stayed, sidled up to me shyly and looking...

Education / 16.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf Sometimes an extreme example is useful to make a point and I am going to rely on one to argue about the language of instruction in early childhood. Imagine a girl in a village in Baltistan where no one speaks any other language than Shina. Now imagine someone deciding that Chinese ought to be the medium of instruction there because it is the language of the future. In order to rule out extraneous considerations, imagine the most competent Chinese instructor deployed there with the best texts in the Chinese language. The girl would receive the best education in Chinese and be tested in it. Reflect on this scenario and decide whether there would be any difference in the girl’s ability to learn about herself and her world based on two different mediums of instruction -- Shina and Chinese.  This stylized scenario is so blatant that everyone,...

Development / 09.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf https://www.facebook.com/IrtiqaInstitute/videos/1008098353025976 The global economy has been brought to a halt by the lockdowns necessitated by the spread of the COVID pandemic. Governments have pledged billions of dollars to reopen and restore their economies. The big question facing progressive activists is whether they wish a return to the economy as it existed before the pandemic. This would be a contradiction because progressives have all along been critiquing the neoliberal economic structure for its many flaws. The pandemic has also laid bare its grievous unjustness and inequalities most dramatically by the plight of the migrant workers in India. Do we wish to return to an economy where workers would be treated exactly as before?  The pandemic provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the economic structure in favour of labour. This could be via changes in the process of production or through enhanced welfare arrangements.  In order to leverage this...

Behavior / 07.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf A book that left a lasting impression on me was Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978) by Thomas Schelling who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 2005. Its central message remains unforgettable -- what is good for an individual can often be bad for the group. Microsense can be macromadness. I recalled this phenomenon because of current debate on the language of instruction in early childhood. I have noticed that no matter how much rigorous evidence is presented in support of the mother tongue, the exact same objections are repeated without fail -- one, we would be left behind in the world without teaching toddlers in English and, two, parents want to educate their toddlers in English. The first objection is negated by so much real-world experience that it can only be characterised as silly -- despite teaching in English, we have been left...

Education / 29.10.2020

By Anjum Altaf As an academic, I welcome the defence of the Single National Curriculum (The SNC as ‘the way forward’, The News, October 15, 2020) offered by Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Shaikh, an assistant advisor in the Ministry of Education. It provides a ‘teaching moment’ illuminating not just the SNC but other more important things besides. Let me deconstruct it piece by piece, and leave it to the readers to derive the lessons. The opening paragraph says a lot: “Facts take a backseat when a handful of people view well-intentioned developmental agendas through lens smeared with suspicion and an urge for professional recognition.”  One sentence reveals so much about how our governments act -- Ignore the argument; attack the character, integrity, and motivation of those asking questions.   Think through the charge that has been leveled: Those who disagree with the SNC are distorting facts in order to obtain professional recognition. Consider...